Lauren In Tokyo

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Future Shock

I just wrapped up the third book in my selection of Rand's 50 Books for the Future. Having wrapped up The Past, I've moved on to The Future in the Past. Rand holds these selections as useful representations of people thinking about the future, and readers can not only compare the predictions with the present day but also gain insight into how these authors were looking into their crystal balls.

My first selection from this group is Future Shock by Alvin Toffler.

Toffler's first thesis is that the rate of change of society, technology, science, and organizational constructs is accelerating faster than ever and the acceleration itself is accelerating. This was what he proposed 35 years ago. Today, this idea is more appropriate than ever.

His other thesis is that this accelerating rate of change will result in something he calls 'future shock'. This is the future-equivalent to 'culture shock'. Whereas culture shock occurs when a person is thrust into an unfamiliar environment where none of his experience is appropriate, future shock is the similar shock a person would feel as the future rapidly approaches and presents a completely unfamiliar world. Such a condition would result in all sorts of mental maladies, Toffler predicts. From widespread depression to maniacal behavior, the inability of human beings to cope with change would force us all to feel culture shock even in our own culture.

I can't agree.

Here we are in 2006 surrounded by computers and beeping and flashing and buzzing and beeping and flashing and beeping and BEEPING AND FLASHING AND BEEPING...

Sorry. I was overcome with a touch of future shock.

Seriously, though. The problem with his conclusion is that the future isn't thrust upon us as it would be if we were suddenly transplanted in a new country. The type of anomie that is felt when we are out of our element is real, but the crucial difference is that the future (even the accelerating future) is still presented to us as a gradual process. We don't go to sleep and wake up in a completely different world. The next day, hopefully, is simply a continuation of the day before, and if there are changes they are typically easily understood and adapted to. No matter what type of change happens, human beings can adapt. We do not see widespread future shock because humans are more malleable and adaptable than Toffler gives us credit for.

There are exceptions. Sudden and dramatic changes such as the attacks of 9/11 or the stripping of divinity from the Japanese emperor do cause widespread anomie and what Toffler would deem future shock. However, even these events are short-lived though their after-effects may be felt for years. Mentally, we adapt to the new circumstance, though it may take a period of uncertainty, anger, and confusion before we come to grips with the situation.

So Toffler was right in one respect. People need time to adjust to a changing world. His mistake was assuming that there was a limit to that adaptability that was soon to be reached back in 1971. 30 years on and we are doing just fine adapting to the modern world. Future shock as a mental malady does not bear out.

If we redefine Future Shock as the inability to anticipate the future and make valid judgements and correct decisions based on such anticipations, then we may be closing in on the real effects of the accelerating pace of change. It isn't so much that we can't cope with the future, but that it's easier to ride the wave than to build the infrastructure to push the wave in useful directions.

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