Why We Need to Pick Up Alvin Toffler’s Torch

This article was published in the NYTimes in July, in Farhad Majoo’s column, a week after Alvin Toffler died.

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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, who collaborated on “Future Shock” and many of his other books with his wife, Heidi, 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.

“I don’t know of many people anymore whose day-to-day pursuit is the academic study of the future,” said Amy Webb, a futurist who founded the Future Today Institute.

Stuart Goldenberg Credit Stuart Goldenberg

It didn’t have to come to this. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as the American government began to spend huge sums in the Cold War, futurists became the high priests of the coming age. Forecasting became institutionalized; research institutes like RAND, SRI and MITRE worked on long-range projections about technology, global politics and weaponry, and world leaders and businesses took their forecasts as seriously as news of the present day.

In 1972, the federal government even blessed the emerging field of futurism with a new research agency, the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which reviewed proposed legislation for its long-term effects. Futurists were optimistic about lawmakers’ new interest in the long term.

“Congressmen and their staffs are searching for ways to make government more anticipatory,” Edward Cornish, president of the World Future Society, said in 1978. “They’re beginning to realize that legislation will remain on the books for 25 or 50 years before it’s reviewed, and they want to be sure that what they do now won’t have an adverse impact years from today.”

But since the 1980s, futurism has fallen from grace. For one thing, it was taken over by marketers.

“‘Futurist’ always sounded like this weird, made-up, science-fiction term,’” Ms. Webb said, even though in its early years, people were doing deep, nuanced research on how various tech and social movements would shape the world.

Futurism’s reputation for hucksterism became self-fulfilling as people who called themselves futurists made and sold predictions about products, and went on the conference circuit to push them. Long-term thinking became associated with the sort of new-agey “thinkfluencers” who hung out at TED and Davos, and who went by names like Shingy and Faith Popcorn. Futurism became a joke, not a science.

The end of the Cold War and a rise in partisan political interests also changed how lawmakers saw the utility of looking at the future. In the Reagan years, many on the right began to see the government as the cause of most of the nation’s ills. The idea that the government could do something as difficult as predict the future came to be considered a ridiculous waste of money.

Newt Gingrich has long been enamored of science fiction — he wants to build a moon base. But when Mr. Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, became speaker of the House in 1995, he quickly shut down the Office of Technology Assessment. The government no longer had any place for futurists, and every decision about the future was viewed through the unforgiving lens of partisan politics.

Of course, the future doesn’t stop coming just because you stop planning for it. Technological change has only sped up since the 1990s. Notwithstanding questions about its impact on the economy, there seems no debate that advances in hardware, software and biomedicine have led to seismic changes in how most of the world lives and works — and will continue to do so.

Yet without soliciting advice from a class of professionals charged with thinking systematically about the future, we risk rushing into tomorrow headlong, without a plan.

“It is ridiculous that the United States is one of the only nations of our size and scope in the world that no longer has an office that is dedicated to rigorous, nonpartisan research about the future,” Ms. Webb said. “The fact that we don’t do that is insane.”

Or, as Mr. Toffler put it in “Future Shock,” “Change is avalanching upon our heads and most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope with it.”

 

distant self, love media, civic media

If the culture of the online world has no rules, we certainly observe patterns, most of them affecting relationships. Online connections are the new ways of the heart, less sensory, much more verbal, and praising the virtual connection itself. The downside is that it has made us human commodities in search of the self; and romance is just like a multi-layer game happening in the virtual world. How to break the pattern and ease the search is a challenge. Men and women, older generation and youth, all seem to be in different paces.

Reading about unions of 20+ years that get shattered by social networking to the difficult task of online dating, I conclude that there are more misses than hits in the telematic world. I’m not old-fashioned, absolutely; it’s just that it seems juicier and real when it doesn’t involve a screen. If a guy leaves his wife of many years because he got in touch with a childhood sweetheart through facebook, this is a direct result of the new social computing. He is nostalgic for former intimacies. The couple who had been together since their early twenties broke up thanks to the new technology; and the politician who leaves his wife to be with his mistress in distant Argentina does it thanks to an online hook up that made them feel like teens. The pattern is distance, one of distant intimacy, the other of time. The husband looked backward in time not to dwell on banal dealings he would have with his wife in the present. Email was a point of entry to what was an indication of being alone. Just as the politician wife, that thought the husband wanted to be alone away from his kids to write; ‘taking a hike on the Appalachian’. Both wanted to disappear ‘back in time’….the safe distant. Both were looking for the distant other again.

In these departures and arrivals, the connection is the star, the freedom of the virtual world is the new epistolary romance; and the media testifies as it brings about the truth in it’s civic new role, defined by the patterns of our new lifestyle, that of social computing. While youth knows the exact time to power down and drop the lvu spelling innovation of the txt romance; the older generation, who grew up reading Bronte and Byron, makes it bigger and louder, ignoring the limits and the power of the virtual world.