Future Shock

Future ShockThe other day I saw in a New York Times article that Alvin Toffler had died last month. The article wasn’t really an obituary so much as about Future Shock, the book Toffler wrote back in 1970. If you’re around my age, you may remember him and the book; both were a bit of a big deal.

I hadn’t thought about that book since back then, but as the Times writer points out, “it seems clear that his diagnosis has largely panned out, with local and global crises arising daily from our collective inability to deal with ever-faster change.” Truer words! Even in 1970, the technological pace was starting to affect people in bad ways, and it certainly hasn’t gotten any better since.

The article really struck a chord! I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately — and have written a few posts — about the growing disconnect between people and their grasp of the technological modern world.

What is crucial about what Toffler wrote in Future Shock is that it goes beyond mere feelings of stress and angst. Future shock amounts to an actual mental malady. Toffler defined it as, “too much change in too short a period of time.”

Avlin Toffler 1970I’ve written before about how, while people may not have changed, society and technology have, so to think modern life is the same old thing as always is foolish.

(Such as the posts It Was Ever Thus or Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes.)

Yes, we have always had the same thoughts, feelings,  and concerns.

But the framework — modern society — we have them in is very different, and the pace of that increasing difference is accelerating.

Even the pace of the acceleration is accelerating! If people struggled to keep up in 1970 — 40+ years ago — it has only gotten worse today.

To quote the great Carl Sagan (from his 1995 book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark):

“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which the most crucial elements — transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting, profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

In fact, that humans haven’t changed in thousands of years might be part of the problem. We don’t seem to have evolved the ability to sanely keep pace with our tools and toys. (Along, perhaps, with a bit too much lust for said tools and toys.)

Avlin Toffler 2006

Alvin Toffler in 2006. Or maybe it’s Bernie Sanders!

That young people today — who were born into this fast-paced technological environment — still feel the disconnect and the angst, it suggests we may not be adapting. Perhaps adaptation is neither possible nor desirable.

I was amused by an article in Wired the other day: I Can’t Believe I’m Saying This, But I Miss My CDs.

It was about how the author missed the tangible permanent physical reality of CDs compared to the multiple online services (which don’t always carry all the music you want) and the cloud (which can lose things).

Our headlong rush into the advantages these things brings sometimes blinds us to what we’re losing. Or what they will cost us down the road.

I’m tempted to buy a copy of Future Shock just to see how prescient it turned out to be. On the other hand, it’s likely to give me an even dimmer view of modern living. (If that’s even possible.)

Or at the least, make me depressed about how far we haven’t come.

And, as usual, my answer: Education.

Take it seriously and get a good one.

It’s too late for the adults; they’re a lost cause, but think of the children!

It’s not too late for them!


Read the original article, Why We Need to Pick Up Alvin Toffler’s Torch, in the New York Times. (Delete any nytimes cookies in your browser if the paywall blocks you.)

Read the Wikipedia articles about Future Shock and Alvin Toffler.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

9 responses to “Future Shock

  • dianasschwenk

    I haven’t been on WordPress for a bit, good to see you pop up in my reader Smitty! ❤
    Diana xo

  • Steve Morris

    I like your quote from Carl Sagan, but it requires a response, because Sagan seems to be predicting societal collapse. In fact, I believe there’s a really big piece of the picture missing – specialization. When the first city was built in Mesopotamia, some 7000 years ago, society had already reached the point where human survival depended critically on dozens of key skills, and no single person knew all those skills. If such a situation was truly a disaster in waiting, then civilization would have collapsed millennia ago. Instead, the rate of technological growth and specialization of skills has increased exponentially.

    In 2016, no one understands anything, or so it feels. In reality, every job that needs to be done has a specialist doing the job. The world turns. What is new is the pace of change, and this is something that few people grasp – because dramatic technological change within a single lifespan is definitely a new phenomenon.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Sagan refers to “a prescription for disaster” and suggests the situation “is going to blow up in our faces.” That’s more general, inclusive, and nuanced, than “societal collapse.” There are many levels and types of social malaise, and I think one can make a very good argument we’re already in that zone. There is a growing recognition of the downsides of modern technology.

      What’s different now than in Mesopotamia is that, while one person couldn’t learn all the skills necessary for civilization then, pretty much any person could learn any given one.

      The way things worked wasn’t beyond the ken of most people at the time. That stayed true until fairly recently.

      Just about anyone can learn to farm, cook, make pots or spears, even hunt or fish. To the extent you don’t do all those things yourself, you do rely on others, but you can grasp what they do, even if you don’t understand all the details or have the practiced skills. Most people can grasp farming, pottery, or animals.

      Until recently, any clever human with some basic tool training could fix their washing machine or even do basic work on their car. Most could open the back of their radio or TV, extract the tubes, and take them down to the drugstore that had a tube-testing machine. Many people had a basic idea how those things worked. Us early VW Bug owners reveled in being able to do so many kinds of work on our simple cars.

      As modern cars evolved, the joke was how you could stand inside the engine compartment of an old Chevy and work on the V8, whereas in modern cars it was hard to find room to stick your hand into that massive mess of a compact modern engine.

      Open your iPhone or iPad? You can’t; not without special tools and very special knowledge. How many people do you know who have even a basic grasp of how networks or computers work? Or their iPhone or TV? Or even a modern car engine?

      And yet these things are central and fundamental to our lives these days.

      That’s Sagan’s deeper point, how central science and tech has become.

      And the gap is on multiple levels. The tech is getting more complex and more central to our lives. At the same time, people are finding it harder and harder to keep up. There’s a positive feedback situation that makes the gap larger and larger over time.

      In Mesopotamia you could choose to learn about any specialty and there would be a certain amount of effort involved. Today the effort required is greater and requires more abstract knowledge. But the importance is also greater. Much greater.

      Simply put, a highly complex and highly technological society begs highly educated citizens, or risks exactly the “disaster” Sagan talks about: people become enslaved to technology that has surpassed their understanding.

      And as I said, that is arguably already happening.

      • Steve Morris

        Agreed. If we extrapolate further forward in time, there will be a point when even highly educated citizens can’t understand what is happening – the Singularity, if you like. In that world, are people free or enslaved? Or both? Everything we build is a tool, and as you have argued, a gun can be used as a tool, or as a weapon.

        Re-reading the Dune series, I am again confronted by the Butlerian Jihad, and its destruction of any machine that works like a human mind. That is one possible outcome of a Singularity event. However, the problem you have identified is a much deeper one – what do humans do when they no longer understand the technology they have created?

        The Amish chose to artificially freeze technology at around 19th century levels. Many people on the environmentalist front want to roll certain technologies back a hundred years, but seem very keen to retain their iPhones, social media and healthcare. I’m firmly convinced that this cherry-picking is impossible – technology is interconnected by nature.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I very much agree. Technology is a classic (if not the classic) Pandora’s Box. And we always open it. The trick we haven’t mastered is learning to live with it intelligently and thoughtfully.

        I think people who lose connection to their tools are enslaved, not free.

        I resist the idea that people can’t have at least a basic grasp of science and technology. Having some understanding of atoms and basic chemistry doesn’t mean having to know all about Bose-Einstein condensates, for example. A basic understanding of math doesn’t require knowing all about tensors. You can know about the solar system without being an expert in orbital dynamics.

        The gap I’m talking about comes from those who have no interest in even the basics. Who, for whatever reason, have actively rejected knowing anything. (In many cases because it would force them to rethink their worldview.)

        The Amish, I think, do fairly well walking their talk. I respect them for that. As you point out, a lot of moderns are a bit selective with their attacks on technology. I generally have little respect for them.

  • ~ Sadie ~

    I really enjoyed this post, WS – now you’ve got me wanting to read the book, too . . . 😉

    When I have time to read it, I always enjoy your conversations with Steve, as well!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      The moment I started reading the NYT article, I was like, “Whoa, right on dude! Exactly right.”

      Steve, Tina, Mike (Self Aware Patterns), and a few others, have all provided some great discussions here over the five years. We do go on sometimes, but some of that is the narrow columns! I’m surprised at how many column inches I generate sometimes; it never seems that long with I’m writing it.

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