Future shock

Future Shock began as an essay in a 1965 edition of Horizon magazine.

The essay was called “The Future as a Way of Life” and was written by Alvin Toffler.

Toffler’s essay closed with the following paragraph:

Man’s capacity for adaption may have limits, but they have yet to be defined. If, as Margret Mead has shown, the Manus of New Guinea could, within a twenty-five year period, pass from Stone Age primitivism to a twentieth-century way of life, and do so happily and successfully, modern man should be able to traverse the passage of postcivilisation. But he can accomplish this grand historic advance only if he forms a better, clearer, stronger conception of what lies ahead. This is the only remedy for the phenomenon of future shock.

You can read the whole thing here, if you’re interested.

Five years later, “future shock” was developed into the now-famous book of the same name, by Toffler and his wife Heidi.

What exactly is the phenomenon of future shock?

From Wikipedia:

The Tofflers argued that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a “super-industrial society”. This change overwhelms people. He believed the accelerated rate of technological and social change left people disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation”—future shocked. The Tofflers stated that the majority of social problems are symptoms of future shock. In their discussion of the components of such shock, they popularized the term “information overload.”

It’s basically what we live through every day of our lives in the 21st century. Particularly poignant is that phrase, “information overload”.

Back in 1970, when the book came out, there was no internet and no mobile phones.

The mobile phone was released in 1973 but took decades to become popular. And the internet didn’t take off till the mid-90s.

So, what passed for information overload at the time this book was written was very different from what we now understand it as.

I find it interesting that although culture, technology and society have massively moved on since the 70s, the Tofflers’ definitions of a “post-industrial society” are still highly relevant – again, perhaps more than ever.

Here they are, again from Wikipedia:

Features of post-industrial society

  • Many goods have become disposable as the cost of manual repair or cleaning has become greater than the cost of making new goods due to mass production. Examples of disposable goods include ballpoint pens, lighters, plastic bottles, and paper towels./em>
  • The design of goods becomes outdated quickly. (And so, for example, a second generation of computers appears before the end of the expected period of usability of the first generation). It is possible to rent almost everything (from a ladder to a wedding dress), thus eliminating the need for ownership.
  • Whole branches of industry die off and new branches of industry arise. This affects unskilled workers who are compelled to change their residence to find new jobs. The constant change in the market also poses a problem for advertisers who must deal with moving targets.
  • People of post-industrial society change their profession and their workplace often. People have to change professions because professions quickly become outdated. People of post-industrial society thus have many careers in a lifetime. The knowledge of an engineer becomes outdated in ten years. People look more and more for temporary jobs.
  • To follow transient jobs, people have become nomads. For example, immigrants from Algeria, Turkey and other countries go to Europe to find work. Transient people are forced to change residence, phone number, school, friends, car license, and contact with family often. As a result, relationships tend to be superficial with a large number of people, instead of being intimate or close relationships that are more stable. Evidence for this is tourist travel and holiday romances.
  • The driver’s license, received at age 16, has become the teenager’s admission to the world of adults, because it symbolizes the ability to move independently.
  • Death of Permanence. The post-industrial society will be marked by a transient culture where everything ranging from goods to human relationships will be temporary.

Remember, they wrote this before the birth of the internet, before mobile phones, before Facebook.

It’s almost 40 years on from the Tofflers’ book, and we are no better positioned to come up with a remedy for the phenomenon of future shock than we were when they first coined the phrase.

So, maybe some things don’t change.

There is a satisfying irony here that a book written about how fast the world is changing and how unprepared we are to deal with it has managed to stay relevant 40 years on.

To steal a famous quote: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Over the last few decades, technology has moved on at an ever-increasing, or exponential – hence the name of this e-letter – pace. But our minds have not.

Future shock is likely not a problem that is ever going to go away. But that doesn’t make it any less relevant or important.

Fourteen years ago, another similarly far-reaching book came out called The Paradox of Choice by psychologist Barry Schwartz.

The premise of the book goes like this (from Pacific Standard):

Instead of increasing our sense of well-being, an abundance of choice is increasing our levels of anxiety, depression, and wasted time. Whether you’re deliberating between breakfast cereals, TV shows, career paths, pension plans, or lifetime partners, the amount of options out there can be overwhelming.

While Schwartz doesn’t claim he discovered the setbacks of excessive choice, The Paradox of Choice is perhaps our best articulation of the overall problem. In the book, for example, he explores the stress people feel when confronted with ample opportunity, and the regret that follows from choosing poorly (whose fault is it other than mine?). He also discusses our loss of presence (why am I doing this when I could be doing that?), our raised expectations (with so many options, why settle for less?), and our tarnished sense of self that comes from comparing our choices with the choices of others (why do I continue to pick the wrong things when Alex always picks the right ones?). In sum, Schwartz’s work poses a serious challenge to the notion that more choice brings about more freedom, and more freedom brings about more happiness. As the book’s subtitle implies, sometimes a lot is simply too much.

Schwartz’s solution to his own version of future shock was basically to stop trying to get the best possible outcome from everything.

His advice can be summed up by a simple quote from Voltaire, in which he was quoting an Italian proverb: “The best is the enemy of the good.”

Voltaire wrote that in 1770, and in the more than 300 years that have followed, no one seems to have come up with a better solution to this problem.

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

Category: Energy

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