“Future Shock” is a book written by Alvin Toffler, a renowned sociologist and futurist. First published in 1970, during a time of significant social and cultural upheaval, the world was experiencing rapid technological advancements and unprecedented changes. Toffler’s book warns about the dangers of “future shock,” a term he coined to describe the psychological stress caused by the rapid pace of change in modern society. Toffler had first used the term “future shock” in a magazine article during the 1960s when he was a researcher for IBM.
He argues that the accelerating rate of change in society is overwhelming people’s ability to adapt and cope, leading to a sense of disorientation, confusion, and anxiety.
The book remains highly relevant today, over five decades after its initial publication. The rapid pace of technological innovation and societal change has only accelerated, and many of Toffler’s predictions about the impact of technology on our lives have come to pass. He predicted the rise of the internet and its impact on communication, the growth of the service sector and the decline of manufacturing, and the increasing prevalence of information overload.
Toffler was a journalist and a futurist. He wrote extensively on social and economic issues. He was also a consultant to numerous governments and corporations, advising them on issues related to technology and social change.
In the book, Toffler discusses the accelerating rate of change in Western society over the past 300 years, which has led to the emergence of a strange and rapidly evolving social scene. This has given rise to a new psychological disease called “future shock” and has led to the development of odd social phenomena, such as psychedelic churches, science cities, and wife-swapping clubs. Toffler cites people like Herbert Read and Kenneth Boulding, who argue that we are living through a revolution comparable to the transition from the Old to the New Stone Age.
Herbert Read was an English poet, art historian, and philosopher who was a prominent figure in the Surrealist movement. He was also a prolific writer on art, literature, and politics, and was an advocate for modernism and avant-garde art, while Boulding was a British economist and interdisciplinary thinker, who made contributions to economics, systems theory, and social ecology. He is known for developing the concept of “spaceship earth” and for his work on general systems theory.
The concept of “Spaceship Earth” was introduced by Boulding in the 1960s. It refers to the idea that the Earth is like a spaceship, with limited resources and a fragile environment that must be carefully managed for the survival of all its inhabitants. The concept emphasizes the need for global cooperation to address issues such as climate change and resource depletion.
Toffler begins the book by illustrating the rapid pace of technological change by dividing the last 50,000 years of human history into lifetimes. He notes that the vast majority of all material goods used today were developed within the present, the 800th lifetime. Toffler also observes that agriculture, the original basis of civilization, has lost its dominance in many countries, and that a third stage of economic development has been reached in which white-collar occupations outnumber blue-collar workers.
The tempo of human evolution during recorded history is at least 100,000 times as rapid as pre-human evolution. The rate of change has been accelerating throughout the past 5000 years and has become particularly noticeable during the past 300 years.
Changes that justify this super-charged language include the most extensive and rapid urbanization the world has ever seen, the acceleration of economic growth in nations racing toward super-industrialism, and the great, growling engine of change — technology. Technology is a major force behind the accelerative thrust, which is evident in the invention of transportation technology. The tempo of the development of transportation technology is a prime example of the accelerating rate of change; it took millions of years for humans to achieve speeds of 10 mph, but in 58 years, the speed limit was quadrupled to 400 mph.
Transience refers to the rapid turnover rate of relationships, experiences, and material goods that is increasingly prevalent in modern society. Toffler argues that this rapid turnover creates a dangerous level of future shock, making it difficult for individuals to cope with the constant change.
Moreover, the book discusses the rental revolution, which further intensifies transience, long before modern apps like “Airbnb” came into existence. As affluence rises, human needs become less universal and more individualized, leading to a society where people are more likely to rent things they only need temporarily. Finally, the book highlights that the most mobile Americans are not only the poorest, but also include professionals and executives, suggesting that the transition to a super-industrial society is causing significant changes to the way people live and work.
“Future Shock” also discusses the increasing amount of messages that the average American adult is exposed to every day, including print, radio, and television advertisements in the 1970’s. The book highlights how advertisers try to communicate maximum imagery in minimum time and use symbolic techniques to accelerate image-flow.
Neil Postman and Marshal McLuhan were two important media theorists who wrote extensively about the effects of new forms of communication on society. As television and color TV were invented, they argued that these technologies would fundamentally change the way we interact with each other and the world.
Postman was particularly concerned about the impact of television on our ability to reason and think critically. He argued that television was a medium that emphasized entertainment over information, and that it encouraged a fragmented, superficial understanding of the world. In his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” he wrote that “television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore…how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged.”
McLuhan, on the other hand, believed that new forms of communication like television and color TV would lead to a global village, where people from all over the world could connect and communicate with each other. He believed that these technologies would help to break down cultural barriers and create a more interconnected world. He famously said that “the medium is the message,” arguing that the form of communication is just as important as the content.
This statement implies that the medium shapes our perception of reality and alters our understanding of time and space. Furthermore, different media have different characteristics that affect the way we communicate. McLuhan also believed that the medium through which we communicate shapes our culture and society. For instance, social media has had a significant impact on the way we interact with each other, our privacy, and the spread of information. Finally, McLuhan believed that media is part of a larger system that includes other technologies, institutions, and cultural practices, and changes in one medium can have ripple effects throughout the entire system.
Despite their different views, both Postman and McLuhan agreed that new forms of communication were changing society in profound ways. They believed that we needed to be aware of the effects of these technologies, and to think critically about how we use them.
Postman, in particular, was concerned about the impact of television on education. He argued that television was a medium that encouraged passive consumption rather than active engagement, and that it was undermining our ability to think critically and learn deeply.
Toffler, for his part, did not focus on the pedagogical aspect of technology — he was much more focused on speed and disruption. For instance, Toffler emphasizes that it was the increasing rate of communication which has led to the success of speed-reading courses. Furthermore, the book argues that the super-industrial revolution will bring new opportunities for personal growth, adventure, and delight. However, the problem is not whether man can survive regimentation and standardization, but whether he can survive freedom in a novelty-filled environment.
In other words, Toffler was not so much concerned about the future, as much as the human response to the future.
He was concerned that the accelerating rate of technological and social change was leaving people disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation.” Toffler’s central message was that individuals and societies need to adapt to this accelerating rate of change in order to avoid future shock and thrive in a rapidly changing world.
“Future Shock” is thus not a dystopic vision of the future, but more like a warning siren, “adapt before it’s too late.”
The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. — Alvin Toffler
Toffler then discusses the possibility of advanced man-machine fusions, known as “Cyborgs,” which are becoming closer to reality due to the work of thousands of engineers, mathematicians, biologists, surgeons, chemists, neurologists, and communications specialists. The book explores the idea of a disembodied brain being combined with artificial sensors, receptors, and effectors, which would create a human being made of wires and plastic. Toffler also highlights the progress being made in the field of robotics, including the creation of extremely life-like computer-controlled humanoids capable of simulating a wide range of emotions.
It is no longer science fiction. For years, we have had robots that are capable of creating new possibilities for the development of intelligent robots that can learn and adapt to their environment. The field of robotics is rapidly advancing, and we are seeing the emergence of robots that can perform complex tasks and interact with humans in new and innovative ways. As AI continues to evolve, we can expect to see even more exciting developments in the field of robotics in the years to come.
But in many important ways, we have already reached the stage of transitioning from man to “cyborg.” Significant examples of this include brain-computer interfaces, which allow people to control machines with their thoughts. Stephen Hawking, for instance, was able to communicate using a computer interface that was controlled by his eye movements.
Moreover, even smartphones have enabled a kind of cyborg existence. Much of our thinking, calculating, predicting, communicating, transacting, and remembering now occurs through these devices and other technologies.
The ultimate goal is the direct link-up of the human brain with the computer, which would enhance human and machine intelligence by linking them together organically. This was known to Toffler back in the 1970’s. In other words, the movement towards brain integration with machines is not some recent, accidental idea, but rather, the concerted effort of scientists and engineers for decades.
Toffler discusses the changes in family structure that may occur in the future due to technological and societal developments. Toffler predicts that families will become increasingly streamlined, with many couples remaining childless or postponing having children until retirement. He also suggests that professional parents may take on the child-rearing function for others, and that communal families and communes may become more common. In this world, serial marriages are a natural and inevitable outgrowth of a social order in which relationships and ties with the environment are transient.
Serial marriages will become the mainstream marriage pattern of tomorrow, with one out of every four bridegrooms in America already having been to the altar before. Divorce will be easy to arrange as responsible provision is made for children, and professional parenthood could touch off a great liberating wave of divorces. The book also discusses how children in this super-industrial society will grow up with an ever-enlarging circle of “semi-siblings.”
It’s important to note that some of the predictions made by Toffler have not fully materialized, while others have seen some degree of realization.
Regarding the prediction of couples remaining childless or postponing having children until retirement, there has been a decline in fertility rates in many developed countries. According to the World Bank, the global fertility rate has decreased from 4.95 in 1960 to 2.4 in 2019. In the United States, the fertility rate has also declined, from 2.47 in 1970 to 1.64 in 2020, which is below the replacement level of 2.1. However, it’s worth noting that this decline in fertility rates has not necessarily led to a significant increase in childless couples or couples postponing having children until retirement.
Toffler’s prediction of professional parents taking on the child-rearing function for others has seen some realization with the growth of the childcare industry. In the United States, for instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of childcare workers will increase by 2% from 2019 to 2029, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations.
The prediction of communal families and communes becoming more common has not been fully realized. While there have been some examples of communal living, such as intentional communities, cohousing, and ecovillages, they remain a small segment of the population.
Toffler’s prediction of serial marriages becoming mainstream has also seen some degree of realization. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the divorce rate in the United States has increased from 2.2 per 1,000 population in 1960 to 2.9 per 1,000 population in 2019. The percentage of people who have been married multiple times has also increased. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2019, 12.6% of men and 13.6% of women had been married three or more times.
Toffler’s prediction of children growing up with an ever-enlarging circle of “semi-siblings” has also seen some realization. With the growth of blended families, stepfamilies, and co-parenting arrangements, children may have half-siblings, stepsiblings, or other non-traditional siblings.
Did Toffler want these changes to the family structure to occur?
Toffler believed that the traditional nuclear family structure, consisting of a married couple and their children living together in the same household, was no longer sustainable or desirable in the face of rapid social and economic changes.
However, it is important to note that Toffler did not advocate for specific changes to the family structure. Instead, he argued that society needed to adapt to the changing needs of individuals and families, and that the family structure would naturally evolve to reflect these changes. In short, Toffler did not necessarily want changes to occur, but rather predicted that they would occur as a result of larger social and economic shifts.
Toffler also predicts the increase in literary diversity in technologically advanced countries and the emergence of subcultures within them. The growth of distinct subcultures and the increase in the number of acceptable pastimes, hobbies, games, sports, and entertainments is leading to an escalation in the Transience Index, a measure of how frequently we move from one subculture to another, and how often we change our identities. This is leading to an intensification of the problem of over choice, which is causing an “identity crisis” among masses of people. People in the future will spend more time searching for styles and subcultures, and they will move from one tribal grouping to another, which is a social mobility of the future.
This prediction has seen some degree of realization. With the advent of the internet and social media, people have greater access to information, which has led to an increase in the number of subcultures and niche interests. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 72% of American adults use social media, which provides a platform for people to connect with others who share their interests and passions. Additionally, the rise of streaming services has led to an increase in the availability of diverse content, including books, movies, and TV shows.
Toffler’s prediction of an escalation in the Transience Index has also seen some realization. According to a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median tenure of workers with their current employer was 4.1 years in 2020, down from 4.6 years in 2014. This suggests that people are changing jobs more frequently, which could be linked to a desire for new experiences and a search for identity.
Toffler’s prediction of an intensification of the problem of over-choice and an identity crisis has also seen some realization. With an abundance of options in various aspects of life, people may feel overwhelmed and struggle to make decisions. According to a study by Columbia University, the number of options available in the average supermarket increased from 9,000 in the 1990s to 40,000 in 2010. This abundance of choice can lead to decision paralysis and a sense of dissatisfaction with the chosen option.
Toffler’s prediction of people spending more time searching for styles and subcultures and moving from one tribal grouping to another has also seen some degree of realization. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 43% of Americans have changed their religious affiliation at least once, and 62% of those who did so changed to a different religious tradition altogether. Additionally, according to a survey by Eventbrite, 78% of millennials would rather spend money on experiences than things, which suggests a desire for new experiences and a search for identity.
Dealing with Future Shock
The book ends with a discussion of the different ways individuals respond to future shock, which is caused by decisional stress combined with sensory and cognitive overload.
One common response is outright denial, where individuals block out unwelcome reality. Another response is specialism, where individuals keep pace with change but only in a narrow sector of life. A third response is obsessive reversion to previously successful adaptive routines, which are now irrelevant and inappropriate. The fourth response is the Super-Simplifier, who seeks a single neat equation to explain all the complex novelties threatening to engulf him. All these responses increase the likelihood of personal catastrophe when the individual is finally forced to adapt to massive life crises.
With the increasing pace of change and overload of information, individuals may struggle to adapt to new realities and cope with decisional stress.
The response of outright denial has become more evident in recent years,.
- Political polarization: In many countries, political polarization has become increasingly intense, with people on opposite sides of the political spectrum living in separate “echo chambers” where they only hear opinions that reinforce their existing beliefs. This can lead to a denial of the legitimacy of opposing viewpoints and a lack of willingness to compromise or work together.
- Demographic change denial: As demographic shifts occur in societies, some people may deny or resist the changes that come with increased diversity, such as cultural differences, language barriers, or social tensions. This denial can lead to a lack of understanding or acceptance of people from different backgrounds or a lack of participation in efforts to promote inclusion and diversity.
- Social media addiction denial: As social media use continues to grow, some people may deny or ignore the negative effects that excessive social media use can have on mental health, relationships, and productivity.
- Technological obsolescence denial: As technology advances at an increasingly rapid pace, some people may resist upgrading to newer technologies or refuse to learn new technological skills. This denial can lead to a lack of competitiveness in the job market or difficulty in using new technologies.
The response of specialism has also become more prevalent in today’s society. With the increasing complexity of various fields, individuals may choose to specialize in a narrow sector of life to keep pace with change and complexity. This can be seen in the increasing number of individuals pursuing specialized degrees and careers.
The response of obsessive reversion to previously successful adaptive routines has also become more evident, particularly in regards to politics. Some individuals and groups may hold onto outdated or irrelevant beliefs and ideologies, refusing to adapt to changing circumstances or new information.
The response of the Super-Simplifier has also become more prevalent, particularly in the age of social media and the internet. With the abundance of information available, individuals may seek simplistic explanations for complex issues, leading to the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Here are only three examples of many:
- 5G causing COVID-19: Some conspiracy theorists have claimed that the rollout of 5G wireless technology is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, despite there being no scientific evidence to support this claim. This theory has been widely debunked by health experts and telecommunications companies, but it continues to circulate online.
- Flat Earth: This is the theory that the Earth is not a sphere but is instead a flat disc. Despite centuries of scientific evidence to the contrary, some people continue to believe in this theory, which has been fueled in recent years by social media and other online platforms.
- Chemtrails: Some conspiracy theorists believe that the contrails left by airplanes in the sky are actually part of a government conspiracy to release harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. This theory has been thoroughly debunked by scientists, who have pointed out that contrails are simply the result of water vapor condensing in the cold air.
Acceleration of Change
One of the main themes in Toffler’s book is the acceleration of change.
The reason why Future Shock has demanded a revisit was that Toffler, unlike many others, clearly saw the need to address the fact that society was rapidly changing, and would change even more rapidly in the future.
It is easy for us, in 2023, especially with introduction of artificial intelligence to the mainstream, to expect a world that will move even faster than it is moving now. But it wouldn’t have been so obvious in the 1990’s, let alone the 1970’s. Not only did Toffler foresee this problem of accelerating pace, but he was also correct in predicting changes in work, leisure, and all areas of life.
I once watched an interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and he was dismissive of A.I., saying that no matter how good it was at manipulating data, it would never be able to come up with original insights, like humans do.
This is not an outlandish idea. In a previous article, I discussed how Roger Penrose made a similar point, in that A.I. does not understand the same way a human does. He argues that human creativity cannot be reduced to a computational process, as it involves non-computable aspects of the mind, such as intuition, insight, and understanding. Penrose proposes that human creativity arises from the interaction of conscious and unconscious processes in the brain, which cannot be replicated by machines. He argues that the creative process involves a degree of randomness, which is not present in deterministic algorithms used in AI.
But many people thought that something like Chat GPT would be impossible such as John Searle and Noam Chomsky.
Searle’s Chinese Room argument and Chomsky’s generative grammar theory were both based on the idea that understanding language requires more than just the ability to process symbols and rules. Searle argued that there is something inherently different about human consciousness that machines can never replicate, while Chomsky posited that human language ability is innate and hardwired into the brain in a way that cannot be replicated by machines.
GPT, however, has shown that machines can indeed be trained to understand and generate language at a level that was once thought impossible. While GPT does not have consciousness or emotions like humans do, it has demonstrated a remarkable ability to process language and generate responses that are often indistinguishable from those of a human.
There is no doubt that this technology will continue to evolve and improve in the years to come. The only real impediment to further advances in A.I. is a major disruption such a war which could disrupt the global supply chain that assembles sophisticated microchips required for A.I. Such a war is not unlikely. For example, If China goes to war with Taiwan, then the speed of development of A.I. could dramatically slow down for many years. But absent such conflicts and disruptions, the only prudent position to have is that of open-mindedness. And to, as Toffler recommended over 50 years ago, be ready to unlearn and re-learn, once again.