To the Editor:
In “The Future of Prediction” [March], John P. Sisk has seriously misrepresented the content of my book, The Prometheus Project, by characterizing it as an attempt to predict the future. He implies that I have described a Utopia, which he rejects as unfit for human occupation, and goes on to state that in doing so, I am “. . . determined to make the world over in [my] own over-simplified terms, willfully rejecting interests and values incompatible with [my] own assumptions.” Both of these assertions involve a distortion of my purposes so severe as to amount to attributing to me the opposite of what I actually said.
Briefly, the thesis of The Prometheus Project is that technological advances, especially in biology, are on the point of enabling us to change ourselves and our societies much more fundamentally than has ever occurred in recorded history. I do not believe, as Mr. Sisk implies, that these new technological possibilities will necessarily “work for the general welfare in the long run.” It is because I think that they may not do so that I was impelled to write The Prometheus Project. I pointed out in the book that the long-term effects of these new possibilities will depend largely on whether we implement them by conscious planning or by chance actions. If we allow major technological changes to occur at random, without forethought, it is very likely that the outcome will be unsatisfactory. . . . I proposed, therefore, that we try, before making the changes, to choose what we want man and society to be. . . . It is the effort to choose our future through a consensus on the long-range goals of the human race that I called the Prometheus Project. My book is devoted to this thesis rather than to the prediction or advocacy of a utopia.
In one section of the book, I described some possible technological advances, in order to indicate what some of our options might be and what problems they might bring about. These were not presented as predictions, but rather as descriptions of the directions which science is actually taking. Still less were they presented as desirable changes. . . .
Mr. Sisk’s main point seems to be that we should keep in mind that predictions may be wrong. Presumably keeping this in mind, Mr. Sisk, in his analogy of technology to Macbeth, accepts the view of fatalists and other frightened children that our plans are doomed to failure by factors beyond our understanding. . . . In fact, however, we are much more likely to end up badly through a lack of planning than through factors unforeseen in our plans. The criticism that really can be made of most predictions is that they treat the future as something fixed, and not subject to our influence. In this sense Mr. Sisk is right in relating some future predictions to astrology, or to tea-leaf reading. But the alternative to such prediction is not to accept blindly those attitudes of the ancient Greeks or Christians which were suitable to a situation in which human influence over the natural world was minimal. It is, rather, to accept the challenge of determining our own future as well as we are able, in the belief that the use of our minds can do better for us than the blind chance which has been responsible for the world until now.
Finally, I can only wonder whether Mr. Sisk read the inside of my book more carefully than he read the cover, on which my name is correctly spelled.
New York City
To the Editor:
The future is indeed getting to be a sizable business, as John P. Sisk notes. Since his information was collected, the World Future Society has grown to about 5,000 members located in some 50 countries. . . . We have chapters and other local groups in many cities, from Hartford to Los Angeles, and expect to establish our first chapters outside the U.S. this year. . . .
Edward S. Cornish
World Future Society
Mr. Sisk writes:
I must assure Mr. Feinberg that I read his book with more attention than might be suggested by the misspelling of his name, which I regrettably failed to catch in both typescript and galley proof. As to other particulars, Mr. Feinberg is apparently quoting me in the first and second paragraphs of his letter when in actuality he is quoting Lewis Mumford and John McDermott. I quote them both with approval, of course, but it is important to make something clear about Mr. McDermott’s words. The quotation from his well-known New York Review essay refers directly to a scientific and technological elite; I use it with that reference in a paragraph in which I am mainly concerned with elaborating on the modern confidence that, in Daniel Bell’s words, “there are no inherent secrets in the universe, and that all is open.” If this seems by implication to include Mr. Feinberg, he might recall that earlier in my essay I refer to his “commendable suspicion of goal-setting elites.”
My explicit reference to Mr. Feinberg is in that part of the paragraph that follows the quotation from the McDermott essay. There I refer to Mr. Feinberg’s conviction that the gap between the knowable and the known has been reduced to the point where long-range planning is possible for the first time in the history of man and to his confidence that “there will be no technical barriers to the accomplishment of our goals.” Here we are at the heart of the difference between Mr. Feinberg and myself. To me such sentiments (and I conceive them to be central to his book) have a clear utopian ring, despite Mr. Feinberg’s contention that his book is not “prediction or advocacy of a utopia.”
It interests me to note that Mr. Joel A. Snow, a physicist with the National Science Foundation, expresses the same reservations that I do about the possibility of closing the gap between the knowable and the known and overcoming the technical barriers (see his review of The Prometheus Project in Science, April 18, 1969). He writes, for instance: “Most distressing is Feinberg’s assurance that our advancing knowledge of natural science has or soon will have equipped us to carry out the kind of detailed analysis of causes and effects, costs and benefits, that our assessment of long-range goals would require. Our knowledge of human behavior is certainly much less complete, and is in many ways more important, for the setting of the limits of human aspiration.” The fact that I too find such an assurance distressing has a good deal to do with my approving references to ancient Greeks and Christians, to say nothing of Shakespeare, McDermott, Mumford, and Bell.
As to Mr. Cornish: may I congratulate him in these parlous times on being part of a going enterprise.