Why We Need to Pick Up Alvin Toffler’s Torch

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In “Future Shock,” Alvin Toffler used the term to describe a real psychological malady stemming from too-rapid change. Credit Bettmann

 

More than 40 years ago, Alvin Toffler, a writer who had fashioned himself into one of the first futurists, warned that the accelerating pace of technological change would soon make us all sick. He called the sickness “future shock,” which he described in his totemic book of the same name, published in 1970.

In Mr. Toffler’s coinage, future shock wasn’t simply a metaphor for our difficulties in dealing with new things. It was a real psychological malady, the “dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future.” And “unless intelligent steps are taken to combat it,” he warned, “millions of human beings will find themselves increasingly disoriented, progressively incompetent to deal rationally with their environments.”

Mr. Toffler died last week at 87. It is fitting that his death occurred in a period of weeks characterized by one example of madness after another— a geopolitical paroxysm marked by ISIS bombings, “Brexit,” rumors of Mike Tyson taking the stage at a national political convention and a computer-piloted Tesla crashing into an old-fashioned tractor-trailer. It would be facile to attribute any one of these events to future shock.

Yet in rereading Mr. Toffler’s book, as I did last week, it seems clear that his diagnosis has largely panned out, with local and global crises arising daily from our collective inability to deal with ever-faster change.

All around, technology is altering the world: Social media is subsuming journalism, politics and even terrorist organizations. Inequality, driven in part by techno-abetted globalization, has created economic panic across much of the Western world. National governments are in a slow-moving war for dominance with a handful of the most powerful corporations the world has ever seen — all of which happen to be tech companies.

But even though these and bigger changes are just getting started — here come artificial intelligence, gene editing, drones, better virtual reality and a battery-powered transportation system — futurism has fallen out of favor. Even as the pace of technology keeps increasing, we haven’t developed many good ways, as a society, to think about long-term change.

Look at the news: Politics has become frustratingly small-minded and shortsighted. We aren’t any better at recognizing threats and opportunities that we see emerging beyond the horizon of the next election. While roads, bridges, broadband networks and other vital pieces of infrastructure are breaking down, governments, especially ours, have become derelict at rebuilding things — “a near-total failure of our political institutions to invest for the future,” as the writer Elizabeth Drew put it recently.

In many large ways, it’s almost as if we have collectively stopped planning for the future. Instead, we all just sort of bounce along in the present, caught in the headlights of a tomorrow pushed by a few large corporations and shaped by the inescapable logic of hyper-efficiency — a future heading straight for us. It’s not just future shock; we now have future blindness.

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