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The Turn The End The Start The Idea The Spirit The Year

The Year 2000:
The Trajectory of an Idea

by Daniel Bell

Note: This article has a special place in Year 2000 literature, as it was the first major paper written on the Year 2000, way back in 1967. The distinguished author, sociologist Daniel Bell, helped to organize "The Commission on the Year 2000," sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1965. Within two years, there arose a great popular fixation on life in the year 2000, which Bell said had all the characteristics of a hoola hoop craze! As this lead article for the Commission on the Year 2000, Bell explains that they saw its role not so much in "making predictions, but to the more complicated and subtle art of defining alternatives" as U.S. society moved toward the turn of the century.

TIME, said St. Augustine, is a three-fold present: the present as we experience it, the past as a present memory, and the future as a present expectation. By that criterion, the world of the year 2000 has already arrived, for in the decisions we make now, in the way we design our environment and thus sketch the lines of constraints, the future is committed.

Just as the gridiron pattern of city streets in the nineteenth century shaped the linear growth of cities in the twentieth, so the new networks of radial highways, the location of new towns, the reordering of graduate school curricula, the decision to create or not to create a computer utility as a single system, and the like will frame the tectonics of the twenty-first century. The future is not an over arching leap into the distance; it begins in the present.

This is the premise of the Commission on the Year 2000. It is an effort to indicate now the future consequences of present public policy decisions, to anticipate future problems, and to begin the design of alternative solutions so that our society has more options and can make a moral choice, rather than be constrained, as is so often the case when problems descend upon us unnoticed and demand an immediate response.

But what began a few years ago as a serious academic enterprise ... has been seized, predictably, by the mass media and the popular imagination.

The Columbia Broadcasting System has revamped its documentary Program, "The Twentieth Century," into "The Twenty First Century," to depict the marvels of the future. The Wall Street Journal has been running an intermittent series on expected social and technological changes. Time has published a compact essay on "The Futurists: Looking Toward A.D. 2000." The theme of the year 2000 now appears repeatedly on lecture circuits and newspapers....

All of this was probably to be expected. Much of the attention given the year 2000 is due, clearly, to the magic of the millennial number. Men have always been attracted by the mystical lure of the chiloi, the Greek word for a thousand from which we get our religious term chiliasm, the belief in a coming life free from the imperfections of human existence....

A good deal of today's interest in the future arises also from the bewitchment of technology and the way it has transformed the world. Time writes portentously: "A growing number of professionals have made prophecy a serious and highly organized enterprise. They were forced into it by the fact that technology has advanced more rapidly in the past fifty years than in the previous 5000." And most of the images of the future have concentrated on dazzling technological prospects.

The possibility of prediction, the premise of technological wizardry, and the idea of a millennial turning point make an irresistible combination to a jaded press that constantly needs to ingest new sensations and novelties. The year 2000 has all the ingredients for becoming, if it has not already become, a hoola-hoop craze.

All of this has it's good side and its bad. What is bad, to begin with, is that a serious and necessary effort is in danger of being turned into a fad, and any fad trivializes a subject and quickly wears it out. A second evil is that many more expectations are aroused than can be fulfilled. There do not exist today any reliable methods of prediction or forecasting (even in technology), but some spectacular predictions are often encouraged or demanded in order to enhance the game and attract attention....

The serious effort is devoted not to making predictions, but to the more complicated and subtle art of defining alternatives. The third drawback in all this is that our major attention, reflecting an aspect of our culture, becomes concentrated on "gadgets," and breezy claims are made that such gadgets will transform our lives... But the startling claims of yesterday quickly become the prosaic facts of today. Twenty-five years ago the technology magazines were filled with the coming wonders of "fractional horsepower," which would lighten all our burdens and transform our lives. And although small motors with fractions of horsepower have been developed, they have also resulted in such things as electric toothbrushes and carving knives. The simple point is that a complex society is not changed by a flick of the wrist.

Considered from the viewpoint of gadgetry, the United States in the year 2000 will be more like the United States in the year 1967 than different. The basic framework of day-to-day life has been shaped in the last fifty years by the ways the automobile, the airplane, the telephone, and the television have brought people together and increased the networks and interaction among them. It is highly unlikely that in the next thirty-three years (if one takes the year 2000 literally, not symbolically) the impending changes in technology will radically alter this framework.

Supersonic transport will "tighten" the network and bring the world more directly into the domestic frame. The major challenges and problems already confronting our society, howevera livable physical environment, effective urban planning, the expansion of postgraduate education, the pressures of density and the reduction of privacy, the fragility of political institutions beset by many pressure groupswill extend to the end of the century....

This is not to say that substantial changes will not take place as they have been doing in the past thirty-three years. But one has to be clear about the character of such changes. In general, there are four sources of change in society, and they can be charted with differential ease.

The first source of change is technology. Technology opens up many possibilities of mastering nature and transforming resources, time, and space; it also, in many ways, imposes its own constraints and imperatives. In the next thirty-three years we are likely to see great changes growing out of the new bio-medical engineering, the computer, and, possibly, weather modification. Biomedical engineering, particularly its possibilities of organ transplant, genetic modification, and control of disease, promises a substantial increase in human longevity.

Previous steps, principally the control of infant mortality, raised the average life expectancy; now the prolongation of life by the control of aging may be at hand. This may accentuate a tendency, already visible. in which the chief concern of a person (particularly in middle age) is not death from disease but staying young, thus strengthening the hedonistic elements in our culture. The impact of the computer will be vast. We will probably see a national information-computer-utility system, with tens of thousands of terminals in homes and offices "hooked" into giant central computers providing library and information services, retail ordering and billing services, and the like....

The second source of change, one of the most powerful engines in American society, represents the diffusion of existing goods and privileges in society, whether they be tangible goods or social claims on the community. This, in effect, is the realization of the promise of equality which underlies the founding of this country and the manifestation of Tocqueville's summation of American democracy; "What the few have today, the many will demand tomorrow."

When diffusion begins to take rapid sway (as has recently been seen in higher education), it changes the size and scale of the servicing institution and, consequently, that institution's character. Dealing with such problems of size and scale and planning for the kind of institution we want become the urgent task of anticipating, not predicting, the future; for example, the university should not become a corporate entity because of the pressure of size.

A third kind of change involves structural developments in society. The centralization of the American political system in the last thirty years has marked an extraordinary transformation of American life. It is the result, in part, of our becoming a national society through the new transportation and the mass media. But it also grew out of the need for central instrumentalities first to mediate the conflicts between large functional groups and later to mobilize the society because of the demands of war.

A different, more subtle structural change has been the transformation of the economy into a "post-industrial" society. The weight of the economy has shifted from the product sector to services; more importantly, the sources of innovation are becoming lodged in the intellectual institutions, principally the universities and research organizations, rather than in the older, industrial corporations. The consequences of such a change are enormous for the modes of access to place and privilege in the society. They make the universities the "gatekeepers" of society. They make more urgent the husbanding of "human capital," rather than financial capital, and they raise crucial sociological questions about the relationship of the new technocratic models of decision-making to the political structures of society.

The fourth source of changeperhaps the most important and certainly the most refractory to predictionis the relationship of the United States to the rest of the world. In the last twenty-five years, our lives have been transformed most drastically by our participation in World War II, by our military and political posture in the cold war, and by our relationship to the extraordinary number of new states that have emerged since 1945.

The problem of detente in a nuclear age, the gap between rich and poor nations, the threatening role of "color" as a divisive political force, the changing balance of forcesboth technological and moralare all questions that reach from the present into the distant future. We have begun to realizeand this is the positive side of the current interest in the year 2000that it is possible to direct some of this change consciously....

Looking ahead, we realize that the rebuilding of American cities, for example, entails a thirty-five-year cycle, and one can rebuild cities only by making long-range commitments. In the process we are also forced to consider the adequacy of our political mechanisms, since Congress neither has a capital budget nor budgets money for long-range commitments. Furthermore, one must question whether a national society can sensibly be structured according to the present crazy-quilt pattern of fifty states and thousands of unwieldy municipalities.

In short, what matter most about the year 2000 are not the gadgets that might, on the serious side, introduce prostheses in the human body or, on the lighter side, use silicones to lift wrinkles, but the kinds of social arrangements that can deal adequately with the problems we shall confront.

More and more we are becoming a "communal society" in which the public sector has a greater importance and in which the goods and services of the societythose affecting cities, education, medical care, and the environment will increasingly have to be purchased jointly. Hence, the problem of social choice and individual valuesthe question of how to reconcile conflicting individual desires through the political mechanism rather than the marketbecomes a potential source of discord.

The relation of the individual to bureaucratic structures will be subject to even greater strain. The increasing centralization of government creates a need for new social forms that will allow the citizenry greater participation in making decisions. The growth of a large, educated professional and technical class, with its desire for greater autonomy in work, will force institutions to reorganize the older bureaucratic patterns of hierarchy and detailed specialization.

The individual will live longer and face the problem of renewed education and new careers. The family as the source of primordial attachment may become less important for the child, in both his early schooling and his emotional reinforcement. This will be a more mobile and more crowded world, raising problems of privacy and stress. The new densities and "communications overload" may increase the potentiality for irrational outbursts in our society.

Finally, there is the growing disjunction between the "culture" and the "social structure." Society becomes more functionally organized, geared to knowledge and the mastery of complex bodies of learning. The culture becomes more hedonistic, permissive, expressive, distrustful of authority and of the purposive, delayedgratification of a bourgeois, achievement-oriented technological world. This tension between the "technocratic" and the "apocalyptic" modes, particularly among the intellectuals, may be one of the great ruptures in moral temper, especially in the universities.

The only prediction about the future that one can make with certainty is that public authorities will face more problems than they have at any previous time in history.

This arises from some simple facts: Social issues are more and more intricately related to one another because the impact of any major change is felt quickly throughout the national and even the international system. Individuals and groups, more conscious of these problems as problems, demand action instead of quietly accepting their fate. Because more and more decisions will be made in the political arena than in the market, there will be more open community conflict. The political arena is an open cockpit where decision points are more visible than they are in the impersonal market; different groups will clash more directly as they contend for advantage or seek to resist change in society.

For all these reasons, the society of the year 2000, so quickly and schematically outlined, will be more fragile, more susceptible to hostilities and to polarization along many different lines. Yet to say this is not to surrender to despair, for the power to deal with these problems is also present.

It resides, first, in the marvelous productive capacity of our system to generate sufficient economic resources for meeting most of the country's social and economic needs. It is latent in the flexibility of the American political system, its adaptability to change, and its ability to create new social forms to meet these challengespublic corporations, regional compacts, nonprofit organizations, responsive municipalities, and the like. The problem of the future consists in defining one's priorities and making the necessary commitments. This is an intention of the Commission on the Year 2000.

Source: "The Year 2000The Trajectory of an Idea" by Daniel Bell, Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, Mass. Summer, 1967. p. 643. Posted by permission from Daniel Bell.

The Turn The End The Start The Idea The Spirit The Year
The Meaning of the Year 2000

How do we get beyond the Y2K Computer Crisis? Is millennial fever and techno-phobia distracting the church at the advent of the third millennium? How must the church change in order to be relevant to the 21st century? Let your views be heard on our bulletin-board. Enter the Magi Forum...

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