Notes: Future Shock

In 1970, Alvin Toffler (and his wife Heidi, they wrote as a couple but used only his name) published a book that took the world by storm, selling millions of copies and introducing a phrase — “Future Shock” — that soon earned a place in the dictionary.

Future Shock was not just a book about what was likely to happen, based on trends and patterns (though it did plenty of predicting). It was a book about how human beings were reacting to a feeling that the future was arriving faster than they could prepare for it. The principal thesis of the book is preserved in its dictionary definition: “the physical and psychological distress suffered by one who is unable to cope with the rapidity of social and technological changes” (Merriam-Webster).

The Tofflers (Alvin died in 2016) were surprisingly skilled at extrapolating from the trends of the 1960s into the world that later emerged, accurately predicting personal computers, the Internet, “Information Overload,” the sharing economy, telecommuting, the role of artificial intelligence in the workplace, and the rise of informal and less-hierarchical organizational structures. Their famous “errors” look wise in hindsight: Heidi predicted throwaway paper clothes, which did not happen; but the throwaway society certainly did. Today’s “fast fashion” garments may not be made out of paper, but they are not much longer-lasting.

Future Shock was not the first book to claim that “This lifetime is … different from all others because of the scale and scope of change,” nor was it the last. But it was the first to bring the speed of change into global public discourse as a topic of debate, and to highlight the counter-intuitive features of exponential growth — a topic that would stand at the center of another mega-bestseller that followed just two years later, The Limits to Growth. The Tofflers noted that accelerating economic expansion — Japan was the China of their day, its GDP growing at an average of 9.8% per year — translated into “a doubling of the total output of goods and services in the advanced societies about every fifteen years.” The individuals coming of age in the 1960s might live to see a world 32 times as “big” in economic terms (after five doublings) because of the compounding impact of exponential growth.

As it happens, the world economy has doubled in size more than four times since 1950. Graphs of that growth resemble rocket launches.

The Tofflers were not the world’s first futurists — the term had emerged during World War II, in connection with US think tanks — but they were the first to popularize the profession on the world stage. Alvin even taught the first known university course on the subject of “future studies” in 1966.

In introducing the systematic study of the future to a mass audience, they were careful not to let it be reduced to mere trend-spotting and prediction. Instead, they gave the popular understanding of future studies a decidedlhy philosophical and analytical character. Here they are writing on the advancement of technology, in words that seem to presage the significantly more developed and coherent theories of contemporary thinkers such as W. Brian Arthur (The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves, 2009):

“[T]echnological innovation does not merely combine and recombine machines and techniques. Important new machines do more than suggest or compel changes in other machines — they suggest novel solutions to social, philosophical, even personal problems. They alter [humanity]’s total intellectual environment — the way [we think and look] at the world.” (Future Shock, p. 29)

The Tofflers noted that for humans to avoid the “shock” part of “future shock,” they would need to become more adaptable, flexible, and ready for the unfamiliar and unpredictable. It was wise advice then, and it also seems to have anticipated the emergence of an entirely new area of scientific inquiry, which is today called “resilience”. Becoming more resilient was imperative, wrote the Tofflers, because the advancement of technological civilization “offers no surcease from change. It offers no return to the familiar past. It offers only the highly combustible mixture of transience and novelty.”

While the Tofflers are usually remembered as cheerleaders for the future, their agenda was far more radical. In their book’s final pages, they called for a massive slow-down in the pace of economic, industrial and social change in order “gently guide our evolutionary destiny.” Their diagnosis of where “this wild growth, this cancer in history” was leading reads less like a prediction, and more like a hauntingly accurate premonition of the early decades of the 21st century:

“[B]efore we can build a humane future, [we must] halt the runaway acceleration that is subjecting multitudes to the threat of future shock while, at the very same moment, intensifying all the problems they must deal with — war, ecological incursions, racism, the obscene contrast between rich and poor, the revolt of the young, and the rise of a potentially deadly mass irrationalism.” (Future Shock, p. 486)

Today’s “ecological incursions” are happening at the scale of planetary ecosystems. The global “contrast between rich and poor” is wider and more obscene than ever. Phrases like “climate change” or “mass migration” or “school shooting” were not even in our lexicon when “future shock” was invented, nor was “social media,” which has become the most powerful technology ever known for spreading “mass irrationalism” in the form of conspiracy theories and fake news.

Today the “runaway acceleration” of human history appears to be speeding up rather than slowing down. The ever-faster arrival of “the future” may have become less and less shocking to us since the Tofflers’ time. It may even be that the majority of humanity is not just accepting, but even desiring, of the “novelty and transience” they worried about.

But that does not mean that we have solved the problem of collaboratively making the future that we are creating more humane, more livable, more sustainable. In fact, we appear to have just caught up to the Tofflers’ vision of how we might start.

In the closing pages of 1970’s Future Shock, the Tofflers laid out a suggested program of activity that bears a striking resemblance to something that finally occurred, at the international level, in the years 2012 to 2015. They called for “a movement” that would “broaden and define in social, as well as merely economic terms, the goals of ‘progress.'” They imagined gatherings happening “in each city, in each neighborhood” whose purpose was to “assign priorities to specific social goals for the remainder of the century.” They even proposed the use of large-scale, participatory simulation games, involving thousands or even millions of people at a time, to help us “formulate goals for the future.”

In 2015, the largest-ever gathering of heads of state convened in New York City, at the United Nations headquarters, to formally approve a document that had been developed with the input of hundreds of thousands of people, from all around the world. Called “Transforming Our World,” the document included 17 broad “Sustainable Development Goals”, and 169 prioritized sub-goals, to guide global development through the year 2030.

It was not exactly what the Tofflers had in mind. But it was astonishingly close.


Additional sources to review:

Future Shock at 40: What the Tofflers Got Right (and Wrong)

Future Shock on Wikipedia

“Future Shock” Documentary Film on YouTube (starring Orson Welles):

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