Books: Visions Before Midnight — Hermie |
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Over the past five years television has been instrumental in convincing humanity that unless it has a vasectomy and learns to recycle its non-biodegradable flotsam, it will be smothered by a rising tide of empty detergent containers on or about April 1979. This impression being by now well ground in, the new fashion is to set about reversing it.

Broadly, the shift is from the gloomwatch mood of Professor Ehrlich back to the good old dependable zest and bounce of Bucky Fuller, who cheerily regards energy crises as the merest blockages in Spaceship Earth’s fuel-lines, easily cleared by the whirling Dyno-rod of the human intellect.

Embodying this change of emphasis on a massive scale is fat-man futurologist Herman Kahn, hugely in evidence this week in a Horizon called The Future Goes Boom! (BBC2). Roly-poly Herman first reached fame as a Thinker about the Unthinkable, dreaming up Scenarios for the conduct of nuclear war. In the Pentagon his message went down like a fifty-megaton bomb, since thinking the unthinkable was an indispensable preliminary requirement to financing it. Inspired by his success to an ever more panoramic view of the future, Herman went into business as a panoptic clairvoyant. Gradually the negative aspects (e.g. the prospect of total devastation) got played down. More and more it turned out that the years ahead were viable, even rosy. He saw the future, and it worked.

Like Enoch Powell, Kahn has the knack of convincing people who in the ordinary way know nothing about what constitutes intellectual distinction that he is intellectually distinguished. His purported IQ of 200 is bandied about like Powell’s Greek. Bernard Levin — than whom, usually, no man rates higher for acerbity and gorm — has been seen arriving at Kahn’s feet by helicopter and nodding thoughtfully at the very kind of ex cathedra fol-de-rol which in the normal course of events he would greet with a penetrating raspberry. And if Kahn fooled Levin, he made a turkey of Brian Gibson, who in producing this programme put a glaring dent in his track-record as a documentary whiz-kid. Renowned for his programmes on Venice and Charing Cross Hospital, Gibson should have been smart enough to lay on some opposition that would pin Kahn down. As it was, the fat man was left free to toddle.

The really fascinating thing about Kahn’s predictions is their predictability. With the aid of his colleagues in the Hudson Institute — an outfit which hires itself out on a global basis as an ecosystematic Haruspex — Kahn is able to focus a divining eye on a country rich in natural resources and predict that it will get rich. Similarly he is able to glance at the figures for a country poor in natural resources and predict that it will get poor. But genius is nothing if not flexible, and the Institute is proud of having discovered, all of ten years ago, that Japan would become a leading world Power. The true marvel of course, would have been to discover anybody who ever thought anything else, but you can’t expect miracles. Kahn’s boys don’t claim to be infallible: merely prescient.

Kahn speaks a personal language featuring units of time and distance otherwise unknown to science. In particular, the auto-extruding temporal unit ‘fivetenfifteentwennytwennyfiveyearsfromnow’ crops up often enough to be worthy of a name. On the analogy of the Fermi (the diameter of an electron) I propose it should be called the Hermie. Kahn’s First Law of Ecodynamics can then be simply stated. In the space of one Hermie, anything that is happening now will still be happening only more so, unless something stops it. (The Second Law states that the fee for being told the First Law will be very large.)

Apart from their predictability, Kahn’s predictions are also notable for their vulgarity, as in his notion that future wealth will allow everybody two cars and a helicopter each plus access to free-fall sex. A sociologist from the University of Kent was allowed just enough screen time to point out that Kahn’s preachings constituted an ideology, but not enough to outline which ideology it was. The producer’s hope, I suppose, was that Kahn would condemn himself out of his own mouth. The hope was pious, placing too much trust in the efficacy of self-revelation. A quick salvo of incisively expressed disbelief would have done wonders.

10 March, 1974

[ The original unedited version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]