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Fifty years ago next July, a sociologist-cum-journalist named Alvin Toffler published what would become one of the best-selling books ever: Future Shock (6.5 million copies so far). Its central claim — in 1970 — was that history was accelerating to the point where human beings, and human societies, could no longer effectively adapt. Toffler and his wife Heidi (who was not recognized as a co-author on their early books because the publisher thought divided authorship would hurt sales) became known as futurists, but they never claimed to be able to predict the future. Rather, they tried to understand broad social and cultural trends — especially those driven by technology — and suggest how best to cope with them.
Watching what’s happening in the world today of course evokes the notion of future shock. Ever more profound changes occurring at an ever-accelerating pace. Too much to cope with. Expectations shattered, conventions ignored, institutions disrupted — all in a morning’s Twitter feed.
So I re-read Future Shock last week, and was astonished by its remarkable insights about both the consequences of the social crack up being caused by accelerating change and the limits of effective response.
To begin, the Tofflers saw clearly the broad outlines of what was coming. Our ability to construct new realities was accelerating beyond our ability to acclimatize to the new realities being created. As they put it:
Change, roaring through society, widens the gap between what we believe and what really is, between the existing images and the reality they are supposed to reflect. When this gap is only moderate, we can cope more or less rationally with change, we can react sanely to new conditions, we have a grip on reality. When this gap grows too wide, however, we find ourselves increasingly unable to cope, we respond inappropriately, we become ineffectual, withdraw, or simply panic. In the final extreme, when the gap grows too wide, we suffer psychosis – or even death.
Yes, you say, I see this. But death by future shock — surely this is melodrama. And then you consider how many people – from Oklahoma City to an Orlando night club to the Middle East — have blown right past psychosis to mass murder, at least in part reacting to what they saw as intolerable changes thrust upon them and their communities. To say nothing of the quiet ones, who go alone, by fentanyl or some other palliative. Death indeed.
Prescient as they were, the Tofflers did not fully comprehend the breadth and depth of the challenge. Re-reading Future Shock, I find only muted hints of a coming populist revolt against the globalist change agenda — no clear harbingers of the cries of pain from the Muslim world, nor from the British cabbies who protest Uber and support Brexit, nor from my own people — the people of Southwest Ohio, ground zero to the social destruction recounted so powerfully in Hillbilly Elegy, and the force behind the movement to “Make American Great Again.”
Future Shock fully comprehends the inadequacy of existing institutions to address the challenge. Technocrats and bureaucracies came under especially withering fire, as “change-dazed governments” reacting in “knee-jerk” fashion with commissions and advisory boards, from which “technocratic plans, sub-plans and counter-plans spew forth.” But the Toffler’s proposed solutions seem in retrospect (and, I think, to many at the time) painfully naïve: We should “define the goals of progress” through “anticipatory democracy,” implemented by “social future assemblies” comprised not just of geographic units but of “social units” — “industry, labor, the churches, the intellectual community, the arts, women, ethnic and religious groups, students, with organized representation for the unorganized as well.” Kumbaya.
Ultimately, though, the Tofflers were anything but naïve. They grasped both the magnitude of the challenge and the limits of human response. Which is why, at the end, they wrote that the real imperative was not just to get better at adapting to change, but rather to slow it down:
Change is life itself. But change rampant, change unguided and unrestrained, accelerated change overwhelming not only man’s physical defenses but his decisional processes — such change is the enemy of life. Our first and most pressing need, therefore, before we can begin to gently guide our evolutionary destiny, before few can build a humane future, is to halt the runaway acceleration that is subjecting multitudes to the threat of future shock, while, at the very same moment, intensifying all the problems they must deal with.
Today it is clear that unabated change — the rampant, thoughtless destruction of norms and communities and mores and ways of life, the demolition of what The Wall Street Journal profoundly referred to in a 1993 editorial as “guardrails” — is doing immense harm in America and the world. And its victims are, as the Journal correctly pointed out, disproportionately the weaker and more vulnerable among us. Perhaps it’s time to slow down, to seek balance, and to recognize that there is a profound difference between change, on the one hand, and progress, on the other.
Post script: This morning, after this blog was posted, I reached out to Heidi Toffler’s office intending to share it with her. I was very sorry to learn that she passed away on February 6 at age 89. Heidi was a true pioneer and who contributed tremendously to our understanding of the digital revolution.
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