Friday, September 28, 2007

The Disease of the Future (1970)

The August 3, 1970 issue of Time magazine profiles Alvin Toffler and his book Future Shock. An excerpt appears below but you can read the entire article here.
What brings on future shock, according to Toffler, is a rate of social change that has become so fast as to be impossible for most human beings to assimilate. "The malaise, mass neurosis, irrationality and free-floating violence already apparent in contemporary life are merely a foretaste of what may lie ahead unless we come to understand and treat this disease," Toffler argues. "Future shock arises from the superimposition of a new culture on an old one. It is culture shock in one's own society. But its impact is far worse. For most travelers have the comforting knowledge that the culture they left behind will be there to return to. The victim of future shock does not."

See also:
Future Shock (1972)
Future Shock - Electrical Stimulation (1972)
Future Shock - Skin Color (1972)
Future Shock - Babytorium (1972)
Headlines of the Near Future (1972)
Progress to Counter Catastrophe Theory? (1975)
Going Backward into 2000 (1966)
Technology and Man's Future (1972)


Mark Plus said...

Oh, don't get me started on "future shock."

I think Toffler described a plausible social phenomenon in the late 1960's. A lot of Americans, Europeans, Japanese and other people in developed countries who had grown up before the Second World War found themselves in an unfamiliar environment by 1970. My father, for example, was born in 1927, the year Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic and became a celebrity for an accomplishment that now sounds trivial. Dad grew up before computers, television, nuclear power, space rockets, jet travel, the Pill and other inventions transformed America's material culture. He didn't even get to see his first television program until well into his 20's (in Oklahoma, where TV arrived later than on the coasts). Around the time he turned 40, he could plausibly say that he had experienced enough change from his rural childhood to quality for "future shock."

I, by contrast, was born in 1959, near the height of a lot of the paleo-future nonsense, and all of those things have existed in my environment as far back as I can remember. The material culture I see around me hasn't changed all that much since my teens. Even the current fears of oil shocks and hyperinflation sound familiar. I don't even feel "future shock" from the fact that the U.S. government now tries to spy on everyone, restricts the mobility of certain citizens (e.g., "no fly lists") and promotes blatant falsehoods to build public support for its agenda. I read about that world in my early teens when I picked up George Orwell's paleo-future novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. We've entered an era that still experiences change, perhaps, but not any real progress, despite the breathless speeches about "technological acceleration" and "singularities" by the likes of Ray Kurzweil. I have to wonder if, in fact, we've entered a kind of "post-progress society," where people can reach middle age, as I have, and not feel particularly threatened by unfamiliar inventions or social trends.

Anonymous said...

I was born in the JUST pre-internet generation... Back in elementary school, the important part that technology was going to play in our lives was exemplified by our daily Apple IIe classes.

Future Shock? Nah... About the only things that give me the willies are robotics and genetic engineering, but that's more of a moral/theological/dystopian-Sci-Fi willies than anything else. The rest is just variations on a theme.

An iPod Nano is just a really, really small Walkman that has the music in it. A computer is just a cross between a TV, telegrams and a typewriter... Though I can see how, for people like my dad (1932!) who pre-date TVs, it's a bit crazy. He does love TV though, and has a more complicated home threatre set-up than even I can figure out.

If I was going to look into my crystal ball, I would guess the Future Shock would hit me when tactile computer interface becomes outdated. I have a hard time imagining how I would cope with projected screens (ala. Minority Report) or direct neural interface (which, actually, I would undoubtedly eschew).

Anonymous said...

Two interesting points are being made or implicated here.

First, mark plus's comment re: Orwell's 1984 raises an interesting notion -- maybe the mainstreaming of science fiction from the early 1960s onward "innoculated" the population against the "disease" of future shock. Our parents (or grandparents) didn't generally have that, and so were "wowed" or surprised at new gadgetry such as telephones, airplanes, satellites, indoor toilets... whereas a fan of Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odessey would hardly blink at a new development such as suspended animation or hypermach airplanes. "Where's my jetpack?" as an expectational, aspirational statement, as it were.

Second, cory's point touches on a concern that I've had over the last several years -- that our recent techological advances have focused more on efficiency and appearance rather than revolutionary innovation. From horse to car to prop plane to jet, those are revolutionary advances -- whereas to my generation (born 1960s), air travel has been "static"; planes have gotten larger or more efficient, but not materially faster, let alone there having been developed a revolutionary advance (such as hypermach suborbital flight). Ditto TV -- we have more channels, but the same basic system as has existed since color was introduced -- cars, phones, etc. In this case, "Where's my jetpack?" as more of an irritated petulant complaint -- where's the next techological revolution?

Unknown said...

I've long thought that all the Singularity talk from Vinge, Kurzweil and such was just Future Shock with a happy face drawn on it.

As for the distinction between old and recent technological advances, I'm not so sure that recent ones are less fundamental or revolutionary--it's just that they are in different areas of endeavor.

The example of airplanes is instructive. For a little over a century, maybe the middle 1800s until 1970, there was tremendous progress made in transportation, and that happened to be the era when science fiction and futurism as we know it were born. So most of our paradigmatic ideas of science-fiction future-tech have to do with transportation: super-fast flying things and space rockets.

Since 1970, though, progress in transportation has been more incremental, or even backwards. When I was a kid in the Seventies, I remember reading about gasoline-electric hybrid cars--they're just now hitting the market in a big way, 30 years later. Starting in 1976, for enough money you could fly across the Atlantic at twice the speed of sound; you can't any more.

Yet today's Internet is almost unimaginable from a 1970s perspective; it makes many futuristic predictions from that era seem primitive. (John Brunner in The Shockwave Rider had everyone interacting with the net through land-line telephones that didn't even have displays.) It's not transportation, though, so it doesn't feel futuristic enough.

R Fischer said...

We analyze risk-cost-benefit in tremendous detail now, which strongly favors incremental change and improvement in efficiency, rather than changes in kind. This largely keeps Future Shock from being a problem.

Continuing Matthew's riff, the Concorde was a great example. Public expectations of mach-speed civilian transport were further supported by "national pride". In the end it just didn't work financially, even in the cheap fuel environment of the late 60s/ early 70s.