Perhaps the best way to describe the flawed vision of fin de siecle futurists is to say that, with few exceptions, they expected the coming of an ''immaculate'' economy -- one in which people would be largely emancipated from any grubby involvement with the physical world. The future, everyone insisted, would bring an ''information economy'' that would mainly produce intangibles. The good jobs would go to ''symbolic analysts,'' who would push icons around on computer screens; knowledge, rather than traditional resources like oil or land, would become the primary source of wealth and power.
But even in 1996 it should have been obvious that this was silly. First, for all the talk about information, ultimately an economy must serve consumers -- and consumers want tangible goods. The billions of third-world families that finally began to have some purchasing power when the 20th century ended did not want to watch pretty graphics on the Internet. They wanted to live in nice houses, drive cars and eat meat.