Revisiting Future Shock

It’s been forty years since the publication of Future Shock, Alvin Toffler’s 500-page manifesto about the acceleration of change and its impact on individuals and society as a whole. I remember reading it soon after it came out (it was about the same time that I read the Whole Earth Catalog, Silent Spring, and The Peter Principle) and thinking how profound it was. Now that I am older and …older, I thought I would revisit the book that launched futurism.

Toffler coined the term “future shock” to describe what he saw as an emerging illness– a “shattering stress and disorientation” caused by “too much change in too short of time”. In his view, the fundamental cause of this is a new force called “the accelerative thrust” that is leading to a “third wave” of society – the “Super-Industrial Society”. (The first two waves were the rise of agriculture leading to the “agrarian society” and the rise of technology leading to the “industrial society”.) Toffler’s thesis is that this force is causing a pervasive and disruptive acceleration of social change that is overwhelming our ability to adapt.

The Causes of Future Shock. In the first 370 pages of his book (did I mention that this is a long book?), Toffler supports his thesis by relating dozens of anecdotes and facts concerning the three characteristic aspects of his new super-industrial society:  transience, novelty, and diversity.

Transience deals with Toffler’s observation that human relationships with people, places, and things are becoming more limited in number, shorter in duration, and shallower in nature.

Toffler cites the emerging “throw-away society” – the replacement of old Barbies with newer models, glass containers with disposable plastic, and permanent structures with portable buildings – as evidence that the permanence of things that our parents took for granted no longer exists. In our relationships with people, Toffler sees a similar transience, noting that the movement from small towns to urban fundamentally changed the way we deal with people. We no longer work with our neighbors, neighbors change regularly as people move to new towns and new states, and the people who serve our needs are replaced so often that they become interchangeable.

Our relationships with organizations are also becoming more tenuous. Temporary project teams, corporate transfers and advancement, and the “flattening” of corporate structures all mean that relationships with bosses and co-workers – and the scope of employment itself – are always changing. (Another Toffler-ism – “Ad-hocracy” – makes its appearance in this discussion.)

Finally, Toffler asserts that knowledge itself has become transient. He argues that so much new information is created and then displaced every day that that “information overload” – the constant flow of evanescent information and the inexorable growth of accumulated knowledge – is outstripping our ability to process it. He also comments on the rise of the instant celebrity, the decline in thoughtful writing and analysis, and the coming dominance of visual information and communication by symbols rather than words.

Novelty is the term Toffler uses for a catch-all category encompassing changes in technology, business, and family relations.

Toffler begins with a Cook’s tour of 1960s scientific and technological research. Typically, he quotes the futuristic speculations of some scientist or official and then uses that information as a springboard to jump into the realm of science fiction. For example, he prophesizes a mass migration of people to undersea cities and the wide spread use of aquaculture, the weaponization of weather control, and the use of cloning, genetic manipulation, and artificial organs to create pre-planned humans and human-machine hybrids.

Toffler states that the super-industrial society will be characterized by slow or no growth in wealth and there will be a compensating shift to valuing experience over luxury. He predicts that products and services will be individually tailored to each customer, that “simulated” and “live” environments will provide people with short-term alternative life, and that businesses will use marketing and advertising to increase consumers’ “psychic” satisfaction. (Ok, he got that one right.)

Lastly, Toffler predicts that the very notion of family will change. (It’s not clear why he puts this in the novelty section; it seems better suited for his section on diversity – see below). He quotes two “experts”, one who foresees the “extinction” of the family while the other promotes it as the key to personal and social stability. He then suggests a more likely and “reasonable” middle ground with the following characteristics: the ability to purchase pre-designed embryos at a “babytorium”; a shift of parenting responsibilities from a child’s biological parents to “professional” family units; the institutionalization of temporary marriages; and a general acceptance of communal, polygamous, and homosexual families.

From novelty, Toffler moves on the diversity, the third characteristic of the super-industrialized society. He begins by repeating that future products and services will customized for each customer, but here argues that those customers will become increasingly more stressed by the sheer number of decisions they have to make. He calls this the problem of “overchoice”.

Toffler extends the idea of overchoice to the educational and cultural spheres. He suggests that the divide between those who support standardized education and those who believe in individualized teaching may be bridged by computers that will enable flexible course selection and non-classroom based teaching. In the arts, Toffler remarks on the fragmentation of audiences and suggests that mass media will disappear, to be replaced by “mini-markets” for films, radio, books, and magazines.

Lastly, Toffler states that increasing specialization, finer demographic categorization, and expanded individual choice, are leading society to splinter into a staggering array of “subcults” and “lifestyles”. Scientists and stockbrokers, bowlers and surfers, marrieds and singles, young and old – all belong to different subcults, and it is those subcults that define the activities, preferences, and lifestyles of their lives. (BTW, he claims that specialization within the scientific fields has created their own fragmented and isolated sub-cults.)

In Toffler’s view, individuals must make “super-decisions” and commit to cults and lifestyles that then dictate and influence all of the choices in their lives. To be “between” subcults or lifestyles is the ultimate in non-belonging, the most fundamental of life-crises. And, since Toffler believes that society in continually fragmenting into finer and finer subcults, it is inevitable that individuals will always be in crisis.

The Impact of Future Shock. From this exhaustive discussion of the characteristics of society that are leading to future shock, Toffler moves on to describing the resulting physical and psychological harm. In arguing that future shock can cause bodily damage and disease, Toffler uses the fact that sensory stimuli trigger neural and hormonal responses, to argue that too-rapid changes in our environment can overload the body. He also relies heavily on the work of researchers who have studied correlations between significant life events (marriage, divorce, birth of child, death of a spouse, etc.) and illness. Toffler’s not-unexpected conclusion is that “change carries a physiological price”.

Yet, according to Toffler, physiological harm is the least of our worries. Toffler blames a litany of social problems – drug abuse, apathy, nihilism, vandalism, conservatism(!) – on the overstimulation of our psyches. His support for this proposition includes the observations that fatigue can lead to difficulties in decision making, fear can lead to withdrawal, and audiences at rock concerts may suffer from sensory overload. Toffler also cites studies that show that individuals who are bombarded with too much information or requests for too many decisions may find their abilities to think and react “impaired”. (It is in this context that Toffler coins the term “information overload”).

Strategies for Survival. As I explained earlier, Toffler believes that future shock is an inevitable, unavoidable consequence of historical forces. But Toffler argues that we can protect ourselves from its worst effects with a combination of psychological reengineering, educational deconstruction, and technological control. In Toffler’s words: “the answer to future shock is not non-change, but a different kind of change”.

Toffler’s first suggestion for coping with change is to accept that different individuals will cope in different ways and at different rates and have society provide differing levels of social services keyed to individual needs. Those who can adapt but need assistance to do so, can be placed in “halfway-house” programs where the rate of change is carefully controlled, or less extremely, join “situational” support groups where they can share their concerns with others who are facing similar change-related stress. In more radical cases, Toffler suggests that crisis counseling programs and professionals may be needed to deal with traumatic life events and changes. For those who are simply unable to adapt to social and technological change, he suggests the creation of “enclaves of the past” – encapsulated, future-free, no-change zones subsidized by society at large.

Toffler then discusses the place of education in dealing with change. Starting with the premise that the goal of our current educational system has been to prepare students for factory life – and consistent with his view that we are entering a post-industrial age – Toffler argues for a “new educational revolution” focused on preparing students to deal with accelerating change.

In Toffler’s view, traditional schools are anachronistic and need to be replaced by a combination of computer-based instruction, independent study, and future-oriented apprenticeship programs. He argues for the creation of a decentralized and de-homogenized educational system directed by democratic community councils and driven by the changing needs of the community instead of traditional ideals of a liberal education. But in the same breath, Toffler notes that there must be some “common reference points” in order to provide a “unifying system of skills”. On the question of what should be in such a unifying curriculum, Toffler is deliberately vague, saying only that it must include “an extremely wide range of data-oriented courses”, “universal training” in “future-relevant behavioral skills”, and coursework that encourages both fanciful and systematic thinking about the Future.

Lastly, Toffler tackles the “problem” of “psychic pollution” caused by “runaway” technological change. He is careful to distance himself from those who “prate anti-technological nonsense”, but argues that the psychological, economic, and ecological costs of innovation need to be controlled. Toffler recommends creating panels of behavioral scientists charged with reviewing and clearing new technologies before they are released. These would be supported by technology ombudsmen – public agencies charged with investigating and acting on complaints of the “irresponsible application of technology”. Although he notes the controversial nature of his proposals, Toffler states categorically that “technology must be tamed … if future shock is to be prevented”.

Toffler ends his book with a diatribe against technocracy. Technocrats, he writes, are obsessed with finding economic (whether capitalist or Marxist) solutions to non-economic problems. They are myopic, focusing only on short-term consequences and oblivious to the futures they are creating or failing to create. And they are elitist and undemocratic, mired in the traditional hierarchical view that ideas and decisions must originate “at the top” before they can be promulgated to those below them.

Toffler’s solution to these problems is to educate a class of scientific futurists, supported by a broader, inter-disciplinary, creative community, all to be monitored by panels of behavioral scientists. Instead of technocrats deciding how to create the future, Toffler would empower neighborhood councils – “a massive, global exercise in anticipatory democracy” – that would first define and then assign priorities to consensus-derived social goals. These goals, issues, and concerns would then be analyzed by “professional” futurists skilled in mathematics, statistics, psychology, sociology, medicine, economics, and existing and emerging science. In this way, society would deliberately set its own course for the future and effectively control the rate of change itself. And thus, the raging epidemic of future shock would be controlled.

So, what should we make of all of this? Four decades after its publication, what can we say about Future Shock?

Well, the first thing we might notice is that the world has not come to an end despite the continuing rapid displacement of technologies, art forms, fashions, and ideas by the new, improved, and rediscovered. Some of these changes have certainly been disconcerting, perhaps even discombobulating. Even those of us who try to maintain a longer-term perspective, tempering our futurism with an appreciation of both human nature and historical experience, sometimes find ourselves mimicking our parents’ dismay when we seemed to discard their past in favor of our own “radical” presents and futures. But our discomfort – the sense of always being one gadget, one fashion, one fad behind – falls far short of the psychological illness and social breakdown that Toffler predicted.

Second, we might legitimately scoff at Toffler’s naïve and utopian vision of scientific progress tamed by universal democracy and councils of wise humanists. For all of his talk about the importance of humanistic studies, Toffler portrays a woefully limited understanding of how homo sapien, homo economicus, and homo socialis are all aspects of the same person. The idea that democratic decision making can and should be used to define the future presupposes an egalitarianism of wealth, opportunity, knowledge, and social beliefs that does not exist today, and probably never existed in the post-aboriginal past. And while it is not impossible that a new world consciousness based on Toffler’s ideas and ideals could arise, it seems highly improbable.

Finally, we might nitpick at Toffler’s predictions. Some of them were patently ridiculous when he made them; many more will likely never come to pass; but some proved to be quite prescient. As a result, those who are critical of Toffler can find lots to criticize; those who are impressed by Toffler find a lot that is impressive. And since my own track record of getting predictions right is probably no better than his, I won’t be so hypocritical as to judge him on the basis of what did or did not “come true”.

Still, when all is said and done, I find myself severely disappointed after rereading Future Shock. My problem with Toffler, however, has little to do with what he wrote and almost nothing to do with what he predicted and proposed. Instead, my criticism is based on how he created this view of the future.

Toffler started with the premise that the future was obvious and predictable, caused by technological innovation, and driven by an “accelerative thrust” to history. He totally ignored the existence of economic, demographic, and political forces that might be driving changes in personal behavior and society at large. Most damningly, Toffler used and misused cherry-picked anecdotes, studies, and facts to support his own broad theses and to express his own unsupported personal opinions.

It is this deliberate shading of the facts that I find most disturbing. Futurism, as a discipline, should be about more than personal opinions and agendas; it should require a certain level of ratinonal objectivity. To be of any value at all, futurism needs to be rooted in the scientific method: based on logical hypotheses, supported by facts and analysis, creating reasonable expectations of probable futures. In failing to meet these basic standards, Toffler demonstrated that he was no futurist.

Instead, Toffler was (and is) a prolific reporter of technological and demographic change, an observer of society and trends, and a popularizer of catchy phrases. He invented new words – future shock, ad-hocracy, information overload, super-industrial society, the third wave — to describe a technology-driven discordance that he expected to overthrow current society. He (and his wife and co-author Heidi) achieved world-wide fame as futurists and sociologists with the publication of this book and attracted a diverse group of disciples, including Newt Gingrich, Ted Turner, Mikhail Gorbachev, Kim Dae Jung, and Zhao Ziyang.

Forty years ago, Alvin Toffler introduced the field of future studies to a wide audience. And forty years on, Future Shock continues to be influential. Its strange, and often contradictory combination of optimistic and pessimistic predictions was thought-provoking in 1970 and still merits discussion today. In that sense, Future Shock has survived the test of time, and for better or worse, remains a classic in futurist writing.

— David Grant

5 thoughts on “Revisiting Future Shock

  1. I was born about the time of fs’ publication. I read it 20 years later and was quite impressed. Another 20 years later rereading proved to be less impressive and all the more tiresome. I resolved to picking a few chapters and then to your summary, for which i am grateful.

    I agree with most of your critique but remain somewhat more impressed by some predictions. On the other hand the long list of facts collides with his won introduction that the reader should care more about the ideas than the facts which are destined for obscolescence. Today a book like this should be shorter. It probably shouldn’t be a book at all but a hypertexted article, and even that would not pass the test of time.


  2. I was aware of the book back when, but didn’t read it until a few years ago. Had to put it down because I do my own thinking. However, in spite of all Toffler and Heidi’s conjecture and inaccuracies, the title of the book is captivating, and so are the headings of ‘novelty’ and ‘diversity’. The basic idea in the titles work for me as broad categories to clarify and inspire one to think about the negatives. Then too, the future may hold accurately to it, as it is too early to know if an inspired humanistic leadership is in the offing. I am seeing examples of it.

  3. Splendid and fine thesis review. David Grant, you did a fine and comprehensive rewiew relevants to academia. Bless you.

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