Future Shock: a message from the past that defines the present

We are all futurologists now. We all have our 2020 visions. But there was a time, not so long ago, when the title was reserved for a few people who would be able to shake and shape the world with a single idea and a book. Yes, a book. Nowadays a book has to go hand in hand with a Ted Talk, blogs on the Huff Post and a speaking tour to get you anywhere at all. But within living memory it was possible to shift the thinking of the planet with a book. This is a past just as exotic as the future once described by the likes of Charles Handy, James Gleick and Alvin Toffler who died last year in Los Angeles at the age of 87. Toffler’s 1970 blockbuster Future Shock created not just an enduring expression of an idea but also set the standard for all subsequent futurologists. His ideas and the terms he used to encapsulate them continue to resonate as we now understand how the future world he described so memorably has come to pass.

‘Future shock’ was a term Toffler had first used in a magazine article in the 1960s while he was working as a researcher for IBM. Toffler defined it as the anxiety brought on by ‘too much change in too short a period of time’. He was also the person who coined the term ‘information overload’.  Toffler, along with his wife Heidi who co-wrote much of his work, was prescient about the impact of the emerging digital world. They did not believe its impact would be restricted to specific spheres such as business, but would influence everything including our personal lives and the way we interacted with others.

In some ways, this thinking may have been shaped by his roots. The son of poor, Polish, Jewish immigrants he became a Marxist in his youth, working in a factory in Ohio. He discarded Marxism as he grew older but never lost his suspicion of the market and its often negative effects on people’s lives.

Future Shock also described the ways in which a shift to a post-industrial society would uncouple our sense of the world and our place within it as the old social foundations of family, church, community, nation and profession were swept away. Prosperity would continue to grow indefinitely in this new era, but the price would be a loss of identity. “We must search out totally new ways to anchor ourselves, for all the old roots religion, nation, community, family, or profession are now shaking under the hurricane impact of the accelerative thrust”, he wrote.

He foresaw what this would mean for our professional lives. We would no longer have fixed professions and places of work and would need to constantly update our skills and move to find work.  “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write,” he wrote, “but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” He also argued that the unskilled would also have to move constantly to find sources of income, putting pressures on societies to accommodate their mass geographical shifts.

He also argued that the society to come would be defined by the mass produced disposability of its products. This would not only include low value items like pens and lighters, but also computers which would be obsolete by the time people had got used to using them.

 

In 1972, an eponymous film based on his most famous work was released. Narrated by a pensive, cigar chomping Orson Welles, its juxtaposition of bleak and hopeful imagery and talk of an age of anxiety and time of stress also managed to convey the prosperity that would emerge, as well as the dissolution of identity, power and influence and the flattening of corporate structures.

In his later work, Toffler identified many of the ways in which communications technology would transform the way we work. He forecast the spread of ‘electronic mail’ and the demise of post, as well as the use of telecommuting, interactive media, online chat rooms, videoconferencing and electronic personal assistants.

His influence spread globally and his words resonate to this day. We should celebrate the fact that his most famous book Future Shock does not appear to have a Kindle edition, because it was written at a time when the printed word could shake the world, even when it was talking about the world that would put a match to its pages.

Main image: Vern Evans

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