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The Dream Society

Article from The Futurist, Vol. 30, No. 3, May-June 1996. Reprinted with permission

 

 

In today's Information Society, we prize those who can skillfully manipulate data. In tomorrow's Dream Society, we will most generously reward those who can tell stories.

By Rolf Jensen

The Information Age, which opened only a few decades ago with the appearance of the first commercial computers, is already approaching its end. In the years ahead, we will move into what may be called the Dream Society.

The future Dream Society will be the fifth techno-economic system in which humans have lived. The first - the Hunter-Gatherer Society - gave way to Agricultural Society about 10,000 years ago. Agricultural Society began yielding to a third system - Industrial Society - about 1750, when steam engines began appearing in England. About 1950, a fourth system - the Information Society - began to take shape, but it now appears that the Information Society will not last more than a few decades longer before yielding to a society focused on dreams, adventure, spirituality, and feelings.

When our future grandchildren look back on our age, they will see it as dull and gray, dominated by technology and neglecting human values. They will understand that we today could not yet free ourselves from our narrow focus on work, which we viewed simply as a means to pay for consumable goods and leisure pursuits. They may, however, wonder what it was like to live at a time when life was divided into little boxes of either work or leisure.

They will also think of us today as being poor. Historically, the production of material wealth has increased at the rate of about 20% to 25% per decade, and this trend must be expected to continue. This implies that our grandchildren will likely consume twice as much as we do.

The huge increase in material wealth owes much to science and technology, but, in the future, attention will turn away from science toward nonmaterialistic and nonscientific values. The highest-paid person in the first half of the next century will be the "storyteller". The value of products will depend on the story they tell. Nike and many other global companies are already mainly storytellers. That is where the money is - even today. The corporate strategy sessions are increasingly about storytelling - not manufacturing. Our heroes at the Olympic Games in Atlanta will be those telling magnificent stories - and they'll be getting well paid later.

The technologies allowing global communication - the Internet, direct broadcast satellites, etc. - will be taken for granted, and much more value will be places on the content of that communication. For example, 500 television channels offering nothing but reruns of old shows will not be tolerated - people who can produce highly imaginative new programs will be in greater demand, as will innovative CD-ROM creators, musicians and composers, actors, artists, journalists, and other storytellers. Just as information manipulation is a valued skill in so many occupations today, storytelling will be a key skill in a wide range of professions, from advertiser to teacher to business entrepreneur to politician to religious leader - even to futurists. Each will be valued for his or her ability to produce "dreams" for public consumption.

Two Key Trends

Two trends in today's society are particularly important in the transformation ahead:

The first trend is the automation of information tasks. Just as industrial tasks have been automated, clerical work such as typing letters, entering data, and adding and subtracting sums has been increasingly turned over to machines, such as computers, photocopiers, and telephone-answering machines. Now professional expertise - the tasks of lawyers, doctors, and engineers - is being turned over to artificial intelligence.

Human senses are also being automated, so that electronic devices can hear, see, and feel, thus further reducing the need for human workers in traditional jobs. Electronic sensors now can detect toxic fumes in factories, motion detectors spot burglars, and answering machines hear as well as speak.

We still need human experts to supervise and be available, just as we want a pilot on our airplane even if the plane is automated. But the role of the human worker will be increasingly limited to being present for the unexpected and to "comfort the passengers."

As "soft" knowledge, such as courtesy and manners, is automated over the next quarter century, routine functions of all kinds will disappear. Fast-food restaurants, for example, will be automated: You will order by computer, and your food will be prepared and delivered into your hands by robots. Computers will also serve you in retail stores, in banks, and at airport ticket counters. Humans will be needed only to make changes in the automated systems.

The second key trend is the commercialization of emotions. It will no longer be enough to produce a useful product: A story or legend must be built into it, a story that embodies values beyond utility. This imperative is already occurring with more and more products: People buy blue jeans, for instance, only partly to cover their bodies; most of the money they pay is for the story that goes with the product - a story of independence, youth, power, and perhaps traditional (or nontraditional) values. Similarly, when they buy eggs laid by free-range hens, much of the money they pay is for the hen's lifestyle. People pay because they value animal life, nature, and tradition.

People have always bought more than they need to satisfy their material needs. What is happening now is that the story that shapes our feelings about a product has become an enormous part of what we buy when we buy the product. So business firms have reached a new frontier - the realm of imagination, emotions and dreams. This new frontier is no longer limited to the entertainment industry, with its theme parks and video games, but is also claiming practical, everyday products, which now come with built-in stories and emotions.

Today, people still buy products mostly for their function; nonmaterialistic reasons remain secondary. But that is changing. In 25 years, what people buy will be mostly stories, legends, emotion, and lifestyle. Poverty will be redefined as the inability to satisfy more than one's material needs. In the future, people's focus will shift from material to spiritual needs, from technology and science to emotions and storytelling. When buying a computer, for example, you will pay comparatively little attention to its functionality, which you will take for granted; your attention will focus on the product's style and the story that goes with it.

As a result, new jobs will appear in the creation and distribution of feelings. For example, sensory designers will use colors, scents, and textures to create environments that stimulate certain emotions; "strategic dreamers" will help corporations understand the spiritual goals of potential customers, employees, and stockholders; idea-generation studio operators will offer relaxing places for people to daydream, either for pleasure or to solve troubling problems.

Life in the Dream Society

Here are some ideas about what life will be like in the Dream Society:

The landscape will look more as it did at the beginning of this century. Cows, pigs, hens, and horses will again be out on the countryside. They will have a "decent" animal life, as recommended by animal-rights activists. Ecological principles will be accepted everywhere.

Forests will have been replanted, and wildlife will be returning to its pre-Industrial Age status. Nature may be worshiped as holy, with a reverence greater than that of today's most devout Greens. Man will have rediscovered his place as being within nature rather than above it. The green movement will have triumphed, not because of any scientific necessity, but because of changing values in the affluent regions of the world. Values, not science, will rule.

Work will turn into play. Before the Industrial Age, work and leisure were not viewed as separate spheres. But, with the need for industrial discipline, a work ethic developed; work acquired a darker, heavier character, with a suggestion that one must suffer while working. Work became viewed as simply a means toward a goal, and the more one suffered, the more one deserved to be rewarded.

Work will be different in the future. In two or three decades, only a small percentage of the population will be employed in industry, which will then be almost completely automated. The typical work situation will be in an office, where you sit at a desk and talk with your computer. (Voice recognition will make writing and typing obsolete.) What the worker produces will be largely nonmaterialistic: It could be news, education, design, knowledge, scientific data, or perhaps management.

For the worker, work will be play. If you watch small children, you see that their play is serious: They identify strongly with what they do. In the future, the notion that work should be no more than a means of obtaining something else will disappear. People will, of course, be paid for working, but money will not be the main reason for working. Discipline will lessen because the production of stories will not require it. What will be required is total dedication to the task.

In the more-affluent societies, efficiency will not be considered tremendously important; feelings and values will be what counts. Today's business firm is rational, efficient, and devoted to making profits, because it developed out of the Industrial Age and the Information Age. But this type of company will either adapt or disappear in the future. What a Dream Society requires is values - ethical, social, or religious. A company obsessed with efficiency and working only for profit will be regarded as untrustworthy.

Before the Industrial Age, companies sought to earn a profit but had other goals, typically religious. The Industrial Age has been a cold, sterile period of worshiping science and material well-being. These obsessions have continued in the Information Age, but in the Dream Society, companies will be more balanced: They will seek to earn a profit, but they will also want to achieve certain human values, for example, kindness to animals, fairness to all, or happiness for their workers and their communities. The idea that work might become play and companies might stress human values more than profits is not new. Already, many business leaders claim that they are working for fun, and companies talk about their ethics and core values, so the vague outline of the future Dream Society may already be seen.

The Home of 2020

In the year 2020, wealth will be 60% higher than today. Goods produced with labor-intensive methods will still be expensive, but products produced with little labor will be cheap or even free. Vacuum cleaners will be cheap but servants so expensive that only billionaires will be able to afford them.

The home of the future may resemble a royal palace in that it will have many servants. But the servants will be electronic. Already, television gives each home the equivalent of a court jester. In 2020, your personal court jester will have a better sense of humor; it will respond to you and even laugh at your jokes. In the amusement room, your children may play virtual-reality games, which will allow them to fight violent battles or explore the outer regions of space. Every home will have the equivalent of a theme park.

There may be an information room where you can learn, teach, and communicate. The information room would develop from today's home office. In the information room, any conceivable piece of information will be yours for the asking, and you will be able to get in touch with anybody, anytime, anywhere. And your computer and communications devices will be designed to be exciting electronic companions for you.

Today's home is designed to provide privacy, with the castle as its basic model. But, as new communications invade the home, people may seek new retreats, such as boats. However, people already accept that information technologies have taken away much of their privacy, and many will grow tired of living in isolated electronic fortresses. As a consequence, they may often head out to restaurants and malls to seek the company of others. The shopping mall of the future will become a place for relaxation and partying as well as an exhibit center and marketplace.

Dream Products

Today's products are mainly designed for rational purposes - to meet physical needs, to increase comfort, or to save time. In the future, products will be designed to meet spiritual and emotional goals. Such products will serve:

The market for thrills and excitement, including the market for violence. Some of today's products already serve this market, though we do not yet fully admit it. We still feel that each product should have a rational purpose, even though it may simply be to provide amusement.

The market for solitude and meditation, for quiet. This market is probably already huge because most people live in cities, but the demand for these qualities will be met in a more open way, in spiritual rather than materialistic terms.

The market for personal identity - signals about oneself. Even today, automobiles may be less a means of transportation than a symbol of a person's lifestyle and dreams. In 25 years, it will become more obvious that people buy cars to symbolize their lifestyles. Thus the car of the future will not become more rational, practical, and efficient, but quite the contrary: It will mainly express a person's dreams. The ability of a car to take you from point A to point B will be subordinate to its symbolic character.

The market for understanding life. Man has always wanted to know why he exists and what comes after his existence. Religion, work, art, and science have offered answers to these profound questions, but we must expect this market to grow because more people will have time to think about such issues.

A Revival of Local Cultures?

In the year 2020, many regions of the world will still be relatively poor compared with the developed nations. The difference in wealth may be just as great as it is today, but the key question is whether the developing countries will see themselves mainly as poor or as simply different. At the moment, western culture is gaining ground in many countries, due to the global dissemination of information. In 50 years, this could result in a global monoculture, with a world market for the same products, music, entertainment, and fashion. Many cultures and philosophies would disappear.

The other possibility is a global revival of cultures, with each tribe rediscovering its roots. Just as we today are trying to preserve biodiversity, we may decide someday to preserve cultural diversity. If so, cultural diversity may become more important than a nation's gross national product. Accountants will work with a very new set of assumptions. Your tribe and its values will hold the highest importance for you. Issues that deal with cultural attributes will take top priority. People will not be concerned about whether one culture is "better" or "worse" than another; the important thing will be to preserve the difference.

The Long View Is Needed Today

Back in 1900, it was relatively easy to predict the American future for the first few decades, though by 1950, the forecasts would be going awry due to the coming of the Information Age. Similarly, today, we can anticipate some features of the society of the twenty-first century. We can already see the beginnings of another transformation. The seedlings of the Dream Society may be glimpsed in such developments as the election of an actor as president for the United States and a playwright of the Czech Republic. In the decades ahead, the seedlings will become mighty Sequoias.

The Futurist (ISSN 0016-3317) is published monthly by the World Future Society, U.S.A. Copyright © 1996 World Future Society. All rights reserved.


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