16 June 2012

Beyond future shock

Filed under: alienation, books, change, chaos, futurist, Humanity Plus, rejuveneering, robots, Singularity, UKH+ — David Wood @ 3:10 pm

They predicted the “electronic frontier” of the Internet, Prozac, YouTube, cloning, home-schooling, the self-induced paralysis of too many choices, instant celebrities, and the end of blue-collar manufacturing. Not bad for 1970.

That’s the summary, with the benefit of four decades of hindsight, given by Fast Company writer Greg Lindsay, of the forecasts made in the 1970 bestseller “Future Shock” by husband-and-wife authors Alvin and Heidi Toffler.

As Lindsay comments,

Published in 1970, Future Shock made its author Alvin Toffler – a former student radical, welder, newspaper report and Fortune editor – a household name. Written with his wife (and uncredited co-author), Heidi Toffler, the book was The World Is Flat of its day, selling 6 million copies and single-handedly inventing futurism…

“Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time”, the pair wrote.

And quoting Deborah Westphal, the managing partner of Toffler Associates, in an interview at an event marking the 40th anniversary of the publication of Future Shock, Lindsay notes the following:

In Future Shock, the Tofflers hammered home the point that technology, culture, and even life itself was evolving too fast for governments, policy-makers and regulators to keep up. Forty years on, that message hasn’t changed. “The government needs to understand the dependencies and the convergence of networks through information,” says Westphal. “And there still needs to be some studies done around rates of change and the synchronization of these systems. Business, government, and organizational structures need to be looked at and redone. We’ve built much of the world economy on an industrial model, and that model doesn’t work in an information-centric society. That’s probably the greatest challenge we still face -understanding the old rules don’t apply for the future.”

Earlier this week, another book was published, that also draws on Future Shock for inspiration.  Again, the authors are a husband-and-wife team, Parag and Ayesha Khanna.  And again, the book looks set to redefine key aspects of the futurist endeavour.

This new book is entitled “Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization“.  The Khannas refer early on to the insights expressed by the Tofflers in Future Shock:

The Tofflers’ most fundamental insight was that the pace of change has become as important as the content of change… The term Future Shock was thus meant to capture our intense anxiety in the face of technology’s seeming ability to accelerate time. In this sense, technology’s true impact isn’t just physical or economic, but social and psychological as well.

One simple but important example follows:

Technologies such as mobile phones can make us feel empowered, but also make us vulnerable to new pathologies like nomophobia – the fear of being away from one’s mobile phone. Fifty-eight percent of millennials would rather give up their sense of smell than their mobile phone.

As befits the theme of speed, the book is a fast read. I downloaded it onto my Kindle on the day of its publication, and have already read it all the way through twice. It’s short, but condensed. The text contains many striking turns of phrase, loaded with several layers of meaning, which repay several rethinks. That’s the best kind of sound-bite.

Despite its short length, there are too many big themes in the book for me to properly summarise them here. The book portrays an optimistic vision, alongside a series of challenges and risks. As illustrations, let me pick out a selection of phrases, to convey some of the flavour:

The cross-pollination of leading-edge sectors such as information technology, biotechnology, pervasive computing, robotics, neuroscience, and nanotechnology spells the end of certain turf wars over nomenclature. It is neither the “Bio Age” nor the “Nano Age” nor the “Neuro Age”, but the hybrid of all of these at the same time…

Our own relationship to technology is moving beyond the instrumental to the existential. There is an accelerating centripetal dance between what technologies are doing outside us and inside us. Externally, technology no longer simply processes our instructions on a one-way street. Instead, it increasingly provides intelligent feedback. Internally, we are moving beyond using technology only to dominate nature towards making ourselves the template for technology, integrating technologies within ourselves physically. We don’t just use technology; we absorb it

The Hybrid Age is the transition period between the Information Age and the moment of Singularity (when machine surpass human intelligence) that inventor Ray Kurzweil estimates we may reach by 2040 (perhaps sooner). The Hybrid Age is a liminal phase in which we cross the threshold toward a new mode of arranging global society…

You may continue to live your life without understanding the implications of the still-distant Singularity, but you should not underestimate how quickly we are accelerating into the Hybrid Age – nor delay in managing this transition yourself

The dominant paradigm to explain global change in the Hybrid Age will be geotechnnology. Technology’s role in shaping and reshaping the prevailing order, and accelerating change between orders, forces us to rethink the intellectual hegemony of geopolitics and geoeconomics…

It is geotechnology that is the underlying driver of both: Mastery in the leading technology sectors of any era determines who leads in geoeconomics and dominates in geopolitics…

The shift towards a geotechnology paradigm forces us to jettison centuries of foundational assumptions of geopolitics. The first is our view on scale: “Bigger is better” is no longer necessarily true. Size can be as much a liability as an asset…

We live and die by our Technik, the capacity to harness emerging technologies to improve our circumstances…

We will increasingly differentiate societies on the basis not of their regime type or income, but of their capacity to harness technology. Societies that continuously upgrade their Technik will thrive…

Meeting the grand challenge of improving equity on a crowded planet requires spreading Technik more than it requires spreading democracy

And there’s lots more, applying the above themes to education, healthcare, “better than new” prosthetics, longevity and rejuvenation, 3D printing, digital currencies, personal entrepreneurship and workforce transformation, the diffusion of authority, the rise of smart cities and their empowered “city-zens”, augmented reality and enhanced personal avatars, robots and “avoiding robopocalypse”, and the prospect for a forthcoming “Pax Technologica”.

It makes me breathless just remembering all these themes – and how they time and again circle back on each other.

Footnote: Readers who are in the vicinity of London next Saturday (23rd June) are encouraged to attend the London Futurist / Humanity+ UK event “Hybrid Reality, with Ayesha Khanna”. Click on the links for more information.


  1. I was completely blown away by Future Shock when I read first read it 20 years ago. Many of the Toffler’s points are more true now than ever.

    I tried to google the quote about the acceleration shock you feel when stepping on an airport mechanical walkway but once you’re on and moving you don’t feel it any more and how that relates to technology change. If anyone can point me to it I’d appreciate it.

    Thanks for the pointer to the new book.

    Comment by David Durant (@cholten99) — 16 June 2012 @ 4:04 pm

    • @David – The “Search Inside” feature of Amazon.com hasn’t shown me any matches for the phrases you mention above.

      But I did come across a recent interview with American science fiction Kim Stanley Robinson which includes the following:

      I came through the Atlanta airport today, and you know those speedwalkers that are underneath the various terminals? When I was young there was this famous bestseller, Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler. Future shock: we don’t talk about that anymore because none of you are shocked. And that’s because the shock comes at the moment you step on the walkway and you feel the drag between one acceleration and another. At the moment you’re being accelerated to a new speed there’s a little gravity drag on your body, and that’s the moment of “future shock”—1972 or ‘3—and when you’re walking with the walkway that’s moving at a different speed there’s no shock there. You simply are moving at that speed. So now we’re moving a new historical speed that’s faster than the historical speed was when I was a kid…

      Comment by David Wood — 16 June 2012 @ 8:04 pm

  2. I still have my original paperback copy (US Edition, I think). On geopolitics (which is my area of knowledge more than most of the science), there will be a counter-view (since futurists can get a bit breathless about this sort of thing) of Friedman at Stratfor and others. There is certainly a move back in international relations circles to hard-nosed realism after a long period of ‘values idealism’ and of ideology, largely because of actual events unfolding on the ground and fast. I have to admit we (TPPR is our vehicle) had also sustained a realist position unfashionably in our advisory approach but we were not the norm.

    Friedman (who takes it far further than we would since we consider culture and ‘memetic engineering’ to be central to the political process and are more ‘Foucauldian in our analysis of power) centres on geography and resources providing continuity over time and thus the centrality of sovereign nation states. Others also see the nation state (for different reasons) as real solutions to managing markets, populations and change even if the regimes shuffle around and clumsy empires emerge alongside systemic breakdowns. Others go further and see radical decentralisation as possible – the city-state model.

    Even if you disagree with them (which I often do), I recommend Stratfor’s YouTube Channel – http://www.youtube.com/user/STRATFORvideo/featured – (the company was famously targeted by ‘super-idealists’ Anonymous) – and their analyses of the geo-politics of particular countries within that channel. Their main website is at http://www.stratfor.com I won’t plug ours as bad manners 🙂

    Our own position is a hybrid of something like theirs and the one suggested by the Khannas (we hope to be at their talk). As ‘anti-ideological’ observers and advisers, we see a serious struggle (caricatured as one between matter, viz. for resources and physical space, and emergent mind viz. the capability of cultural and personal transformation) defining the next few decades – sometimes trivial events (such as the outcry over the Argyll Blog or the Bangor curfew) give you more insight on what is happening in this respect than pronunciamentos on Syria but that is for another blog.

    Something profound is under way – the 13% of the polled vote for the Pirates in Germany, the attempt by States to control the internet by the back door in a systematic and co-ordinated way and the emergence of an oppositional approach to the West from the SCO are all part of this.

    Realists are often not ‘getting’ the new technology or its effects on minds (Marxists being right that changes in the technological underpinnings of society mean changes in culture and politics) while the ‘futurists’ perhaps are not always grounded on the real nature of State force and resource control (I refer to the Marxian rival De Jouvenal). Interesting times and I look forward to hearing Ayesha Khanna’s exposition …

    Comment by Tim Pendry — 17 June 2012 @ 8:48 am

  3. I read future shock in the early 1970’s and it remains one of the most influential books on my thinking I have ever read.

    Comment by marksackler — 6 July 2012 @ 11:10 pm

  4. […] Beyond future shock (dw2blog.com) […]

    Pingback by Shifting Gears : Trends Issue – Changing World Dynamics | futuritymegatrends.com — 19 October 2012 @ 2:57 pm

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