The Future: It's Not What it Used to Be

Adam Thierer pointed me to a posting by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, in which Popova has pieced together a somewhat cheesy 1972 documentary based on Alvin Toffler’s classic “Future Shock.”  The over-the-top narration by Orson Welles is well worth the price of your time.  I read Future Shock as a kid (I was 11 when it was published) and didn’t really understand it, but I loved its urgent tone and its sense of revealing a secret the “establishment” couldn’t handle.

Toffler was really the second person to point out the gap between the capacity of technology to change our lives and the ability of human beings to absorb that change.  The first (or at least an earlier version) comes from Henry Adams in his autobiographical “Education.”

Adams called the phenomenon, which he claimed had shipwrecked his life “The Law of Acceleration,” a revelation that struck him in the Hall of Dynamos at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he seems to have suffered a serious mental breakdown.  Working with pseudo-math and pseudo-physics, Adams calculated that the accelerating pace of change would end civilization by around 1920.

The world didn’t end in 1920, nor did it end in 1970.  Although perhaps from the standpoint of a Henry Adams (who died in 1917), the world of today might represent something so different and unpleasant that it might be described as post-apocalyptic.

Taking a more economic view of the process, I referred to is as The Law of Disruption.  Some technological breakthroughs cause considerable chaos and revolutionary change in business and society, it’s true, but what results on the other side, for those who survive the change, is always something better, or at least more efficient.

The period of adjustment is, to me, the most interesting.  Lucky for me then, that we seem to move from one period of adjustment to the next, or even to overlapping periods coming faster and closer together as “The Law of Acceleration” proceeds.

As excited as we get by the latest innovations in information, medical, materials, and transportation science, we can never exploit those changes as fast as the technology itself would make possible.  We need time to adjust, and to replace our inadequate metaphors (horseless carriage, radio with pictures, iron rope, etc.) for a new reality in which disruptive technologies are recognized as something new and not simply an incremental improvement.

From a business standpoint, the gap is an opportunity—companies can focus on helping customers and other business partners move up the curve just a little faster than they might on their own.  In some ways it’s like the old joke about the two campers who hear a bear outside their tent.  One of them starts to put on his shoes and the other says, “What are you doing?  You can’t outrun a bear.”  “I don’t have to outrun a bear,” the first one says.  “I just have to outrun you.”

But outside the business context, anxiety about the future—future shock—can look like a threat rather than an opportunity.  In my experience, in fact, you can divide the world into two kinds of people:  those who look forward to the sometimes uneven and messy process of adaptation and those who fear it.  Will the future be utopian (the United Federation of Planets) or dystopian (The Borg)?  The answer is of course neither—some things change for the better, some don’t, but mostly the course is unpredictable.  How someone views the future says much more about who they are now than anything else.

Toffler, as best I remember the book, didn’t really take a position, but his talent and the phenomenal success of the book rested on his ability to make the anxiety seem as unbearable as possible.   The transformation of society was inevitable, Toffler agreed, but the process was creating social chaos and leaving people to suffer from “shattering stress and disorientation.”

The changes Toffler wrote about (as a journalist, he largely collected example after example and lined them up as overwhelming evidence) seem modest and even quaint by comparison to those we are now experiencing forty years later.  Clearly, humanity survived, more-or-less intact.

Which suggests that we’ll survive the next wave, and the one after that, as well.  (Further still, well, who knows?)  Transformation is an inevitable feature of modern life, and isn’t likely to go away.  When change is constant, the only thing you can predict is unpredictability.  But at least you can predict that!

Watching the documentary, you get a sense of perspective from the inability of a previous generation to imagine its survival.  The process is there, but the result wasn’t nearly as disastrous as imagined.  So maybe we’ll cope just fine, too, with our dangerous inventions.

It’s not as if we have any choice.  As the Firesign Theater famously albeit cryptically said, “Live in the future.  It’s happening now.”  (To which a character in the background retorts: “The future?  The future’s not here yet, man.”)

I met Alvin Toffler in 1999.  We were teamed together for a one-day program, incongruously, in Buenos Aires.  Toffler spoke in the morning, and I spoke in the afternoon.  We weren’t asked to coordinate our messages, but it more-or-less worked out that he was giving the pessimist view of the future and I was giving the optimist view.  Most of all, I was interested in what new examples Toffler had found in his research on future shock—examples I hoped to use in my own speeches.

He spoke eloquently and powerfully, but all the examples he gave were the same old ones he had been using all along.  His research—at least—was stuck in 1970, and he seemed largely unaware of the digital revolution already well in progress by 1999.   (I have not read his most recent book, published in 2006.)

But perhaps in some sense, Toffler found—perhaps unintentionally—a cure for future shock.  Just keep living in the past, even a past in which you are fearing a future that has already arrived and kept going.

He is of course not alone.  The hell we’re familiar with is always easier to manage than the heaven that might be achieved.