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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 May 2005, 11:51 GMT 12:51 UK
The View from River Falls

By Peter Day
Presenter, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service

Futurology took a big hit from the bursting of the dot com bubble at the end of the 20th Century.

Nine Shift
The internet: as revolutionary as the car was to horse drawn society?

So did round-numerology, or whatever the right word is for placing undue significance on round numbers. (Remember how it took about 20 years for the Dow Jones Average to close above 1000, though time after time it wavered a fraction under that level).

As late 20th Century investors caught internet mania at the end of the 1990s, so did those People Who Think About What Happens Next.

Thinking about the future of business, it really did seem that everything was going to change as we slipped over the threshold of the century, into what so many people expected to be the New Economy.

History repeats itself

The bursting of the dot com bubble vaporised so many billions of investment dollars and so many reputations of newly established gurus, that it also swept away most of the perceptions that Big Change was afoot.

But just because the bubble burst does not mean that business is not being rewritten by technologies such as the network computer.

Even if we don't call it the New Economy, it's clear that something is up.

And it's happened before: 100 years ago to be precise.

I'd sort of been aware of it for years, but I owe the precision of this insight to a husband and wife couple from deep in the heart of the US, in River Falls, Wisconsin.

Nine predicted upheavals

William and Julie Draves run LERN, a national (but virtual) organisation devoted to promoting life-long learning from this rural place an hour east of Minneapolis.

Julie and William Draves
The Draves say the turn of the Century was significant

The Draves listened to a World Service Global Business programme about the future last summer, and disagreed with it.

So they sent me a copy of their book "Nine Shift", a preview of nine great big predicted upheavals to our lives, which comes with a commendation from no less a thinker than the superlative nonagenarian Peter Drucker.

Most futurologists take an ivory tower, top down approach, but not William and Julie Draves. Theirs is a bottom-up, small town view of what may happen next.

They told me more about it when I dropped in to see them one Sunday at the end of last year. Their story is an intriguing one, and their conclusions (as Professor Drucker says) are important.

Former glory

First the story they told me, sitting on their sofa in River Falls.

William and Julie Draves started thinking about the future when her brother sent them a 100-year-old catalogue from Heleker's department store in a town called Frankfort, Kansas, even deeper into the Midwest than Wisconsin, and even flatter too.

They were intrigued by the profusion of stuff, the sheer choice available in one store in a town of 1,500 people in the middle of nowhere in 1907. Seeking more information, they made the long journey to Frankfort and sought out the town librarian.

Oh yes, she said, 100 years ago there were four stores like that here. And two opera houses, six banks, a local millionaire, a racetrack and a daily newspaper.

"Where in Kansas was there another opera house?" William Draves asked.

"Oh," said the librarian, "that's easy: the next town, Blue Rapids, 11 miles away."

And suddenly Julie recollected the Midwest geography of her childhood: tiny towns 10 or 12 miles apart, representing (of course) the distance that a horse could drive, there and back, in a day.

Big decline

Meanwhile, right at the start of the 20th Century, something disruptive was starting, 800 miles across the continent.

In Detroit, Henry Ford was putting together the new technique of mass production.

The vehicles he made on his new production lines bit deep into the agrarian way of life that had dominated America in the 19th Century and brought temporary prosperity to towns such as Frankfort.

Thanks to the coming of the car (and the tractor), by 1915 Frankfort was a town in big decline.

The banks were closing, the stores were boarded up, the opera house and the racetrack were gone. The millionaire was back home in Scotland.

Settlers' family farms were amalgamating, as the tractor ploughed and drilled far more acres than a man with a horse could manage.

Radical change ahead

The 19th Century way of life passed from the stage in the first two decades of the 20th Century, say the Draves.

And this is of more than historic interest. The Draves are convinced that the 21st Century is ushering in a similar and convulsive wave of change to the way we worked and lived for most of the 20th.

It sounds too glib to be true: that radical change should be precipitated by a change in the numbers at the beginning of our years.

But, say the Draves (and I agree), the internet is going to be just as disruptive to all our lives as was the automobile to the people who emerged from the 19th Century.

I'll explore exactly what changes the Draves think we are going to experience in a subsequent Work in Progress. But there will be readers who whisper: "Hang on; we know this already. No-one argues that the internet doesn't mean change."

The point is that the changes are going to be more than mere amendments to the existing way of doing business, leisure, whatever.

This is radical stuff that's coming. As the Draves point out in "Nine Shift", most people in the early 20th Century thought that the car was merely an addition to the horse.

They have a lovely example: in 1915 the people of Hartford, Connecticut, erected a memorial to a local automobile pioneer called Alexander Pope (not the poet).

The memorial took the shape of a horse trough. As the Canadian technology prophet Marshall McLuhan observed decades ago, we view the future through a rear view mirror. Thus we get taken by surprise when it arrives.

Work in Progress is the title of this new exploration of the big trends upheaving the world of work as we steam further into the twenty-first century; and it is a work in progress, influenced and defined by my encounters as I report on trends in business and organisations all over the world.


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