Future Shock


Alvin Toffler who wrote “Future Shock” (1970), “The Third Wave” (1980) and “Powershift” (1990) died on Monday June 27 2016. One of the themes of this blog is the exploration of concepts and ideas that cause us to question what is happening and consider the consequences and opportunities.

My copy of Future Shock is 45 years old and it has been about 35 years since I read the book. Upon seeing his obituary I dug out the book and started leafing through it. Although there are aspects of the writing and examples that are somewhat dated, it is remarkable how much of this book is relevant today. For example, in one chapter, titled “Future Shock: The Psychological Dimension: Toffler makes the assertion that just as extreme under-stimulation of the senses and mind can lead to harmful side-effects in organisms including humans, chronic over-stimulation is potentially just as harmful.

Here is one passage where he shares his thesis on the perils of rapid change and over-stimulation or “future shock:”

Just as the body cracks under the strain of environmental overstimulation, the “mind” and its decision processes behave erratically when overloaded. By indiscriminately racing the engines of change, we may be undermining not merely the health of those least able to adapt, but their very ability to act rationally on their own behalf.

The striking signs of confusional breakdown we see around us — the spreading use of drugs, the rise of mysticism, the recurrent outbreaks of vandalism and undirected violence, the politics of nihilism and nostalgia, the sick apathy of millions — can all be understood better by recognizing their relationship to future shock. (Future Shock, page 343, Bantam Edition 1971.)

Toffler goes on to describe how increasing sensory and informational rates of flow meet the limitations of human cognitive capacities resulting in stresses that have mental and physical health consequences as well as consequences for the quality of our decision-making.

In another section Toffler lays out his prognosis of the consequences and reactions to this kind of informational and sensory overload and an overly high rate of change.

When we combine the effects of decisional stress with sensory and cognitive overload, we produce several common forms of individual maladaptions. For example, one widespread response to high-speed change is outright denial. The Denier’s strategy is to “block out” unwelcome reality. When the demand for decisions reaches crescendo, he flatly refuses to take in new information.

A second strategy of the future shock victim is specialism. The Specialist doesn’t block off all novel ideas or information. Instead, he energetically attempts to keep pace with change — but only in specific narrow sector of life. Thus we witness the spectacle of the physician or financier who makes use of all the latest innovations in his profession, but remains rigidly closed to any suggestion for social, political, or economic innovation.

A third common response to future shock is obsessive reversion to previously successful adaptive routines that are now irrelevant and inappropriate. The Revisionist sticks to his previously programmed decisions and habits with dogmatic desperation…Shocked by the arrival of the future, he offers hysterical support for the not-so-status quo, or he demands, in one masked form or another, a return to the glories of yesteryear.

Finally, we have the Super-Simplifier. With old heroes and institutions toppling, with strikes, riots, and demonstrations stabbing at his consciousness, he seeks a single neat equation that will explain all the complex novelties threatening to engulf him.

Toffler wraps up this chapter with a reminder that we base a great deal of our society and its policies on the assumption of “enlightened self-interest” and “rational markets.” But throws into the mix the idea that we should not take rationality as a given.

…Social rationality presupposes individual rationality and this, in turn, depends not only on certain biological equipment, but on continuity, order and regularity in the environment. It is premised on some correlation between the pace and complexity of change and man’s decisional capacities. By blindly stepping up the rate of change, the level of novelty, and the extent of choice, we are thoughtlessly tampering with these environmental preconditions of rationality.

Books published 46 years ago about the future typically are in danger of obsolescence or appearing, years later, as hopelessly naive. But overall, although “Future Shock” has a style and some examples that give it a “70’s” fell to it, there is a great deal in this book to ponder as we make our way through our current events.

One cannot help but consider Trumpism and the Brexit vote, to name but two current events, without also considering how Toffler described these phenomena in “Future Shock” years ago.