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August 15, 2003

Jack Shafer's flattering plug for

Daniel Radosh

Jack Shafer's flattering plug for my 1998 meta-satirical-investigation of trendspotting inspired me to dig out some material that got cut from the final version of that piece, but that deserves to be seen. I spent many hours in the fantastic Time Inc. library looking through back issues of Time, and I rewarded that institution's generosity with its resources by holding it up to ridicule. But not quite as much ridicule as I'd originally intended. Specifically, I ended up discarding a lengthy tangent about how poorly trend story predictions hold up over the long run, and, obversely, how contemporary trend writers must ignore the work of the predecessors in order to make their own points. Here are those missing passages:

Technology in particular feeds a fear of the future that trend journalism is always enthusiastic to address, despite its dismal track record. "Even the most moderate estimates of automation's progress show that millions of people will have to adjust to leisurely, 'nonfunctional' lives," predicted Time in 1965.

Even when accurate, forecasters frequently miss the point. Another 1965 Time article, "The Communications Explosion," raised the "frightening thought...that every man on earth will eventually have his own telephone number and will carry personal apparatus that will permit him to be called, even by people who have no idea where he may be." The truly frightening development that Time fumbled, of course, is that every man on earth will become rudely oblivious to his surroundings while yapping away on his apparatus in the middle of a busy sidewalk.

Delehanty believes that "technoromantic" and "technoapocalyptic" trend stories "rarely take into consideration the unpredictable human factor." Nor, for that matter, do many human-interest trend stories. A 1965 Time essay on "Today's Teen-Agers" avowed that "marijuana [is] out," "free sex [is] nowhere near at hand," and "the classic conflict between parents and children is letting up." Which times are a-changin'?


Conceivably, a knowledge of past trends hobbles our ability to draw meaning from current ones—or to pat our backs about how far we've come. In a 1984 Time article on "The New Concern with Civility," Judith "Miss Manners" Martin laughed at how in 1978 her boss told her that "etiquette was dead." He must not have seen the 1978 Time cover on "America's New Manners." Come to think of it, would we today be quite so pleased about Ellen DeGeneres and Rupert Evrett if we recalled that Time first proclaimed, "homosexuality is the vogue" back in 1969?

Trend stories prophesy the past the same way they do the future: based entirely on what we believe about the present. When the author of Time's "Everybody's Hip" essay excoriates Woodstock '94 as "a triumph of salesmanship over spirit," he harkens back to the original Woodstock and its flock's "heartfelt rejection of the mainstream." Few would argue with him, but then few remember his magazine's early 1971 lament that youth culture had become "diluted by Woolworth hippies [and] limped through the past two years a paranoid, fragmented version of its former self" [emphasis mine]. The hipster who moaned, "The music was adulterated and repackaged and sold to us like hamburgers" was not talking about Woodstock '94, he was, in '71, referring to the now-sanctified Monterey Pop Festival.

Or read Esquire on do-me feminism a few years back. Susie Bright wonders, "What happened to the joyful '70s exploration of Our Bodies Ourselves? When did that take-off-your-top-and-smash-the-state feeling die?" Perhaps it was when college students told Time they felt "uneasy about their almost unlimited new sexual license" and some detected "a new puritanism." In other words, 1972. Boomer trend writers of the '90s commonly find themselves yearning for the solid values of their parents' day, but in 1964 Time saw that parents had "only the tattered remnants of a code." And between 1990 and 1997, Generation X changed from "a back to basics bunch that wishes life could be simpler" to one that said, "material things...are really important to me"; from a generation that grew up with "Reagan's message: problems can be shelved until later," to one for whom "the message of the [Reagan] Administration [was] do-it-yourself, no-one-is-going-to-look-out-for-me-but-me."

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