How a Book from the 1970s Predicted the Frustrating Future We Live In

Like a character in a Black Mirror episode, Fry flung into the year 3000 in Futurama, or David Byrne, you may occasionally find yourself asking, “How did I get here?” If you’ve ever found yourself stunned by the world we’re creating, uneasy about how quickly the technological and social landscapes are changing around you, you may have “future shock.”

Future shock is a psychological phenomenon first described in Alvin Toffler’s eponymously named book, which, despite being 47 years old, still illuminates the problems exponential technological and societal change inflicts on people.

Toffler’s book may be nearly a half-century old, but the crux of it is as true as ever. The thesis states there are limits to how much change average humans can tolerate and society may be subjecting people to far more change than they can handle. Sounds stressful.

In Toffler’s words: “There are discoverable limits to the amount of change that the human organism can absorb, and that by endlessly accelerating change without first determining these limits, we may submit masses of men [and women] to demands they simply cannot tolerate.” In the year 2017, it’s not hard to live a life where this pace is noticeably picking up, forcing us to sprint on a societal treadmill that’s moving faster and faster. You can wake up with a baseline discomfort that never seems to pass.

“An unread email in your inbox can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.”

The discomfort of future shock stems from transience. Toffler calls this the Transience Index, “the rate of turn-over of things, places, people, [and] organizational and informational relationships…” In 2017, transience is taking on guises that you’re likely intimately familiar with or even subscribe to, causing your life to change in frustrating ways.

A short documentary based on the book was also made, and narrated by none other than Orson Welles.

The Transience Index is growing too. The “gig economy” for example, defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as one where “workers often get individual gigs using a website or mobile app” is an economy without air quotes. The CEO of Intuit, which owns TurboTax, said in a company earnings call back in May that the gig economy is currently estimated to be about 34% of the workforce and expected to be 43% by the year 2020.

This means that by 2020, 43% of the workforce won’t have a permanent company to call home. Instead, they’ll change companies and jobs, again and again, which will doubtlessly cause a good portion of those people to feel the stress associated with constantly finding new work and learning new skills. Toffler points out in the book how people are more prone to falling physically ill when they’re forced to process new circumstances too rapidly.

We are constantly thinking about whether or not we should be working, not allowing full immersion in either work or play.

You can also see an increase in this transience in our love lives. Ever feel like Tinder and other dating apps are in some sense, a fast food service for romantic companions? That’s because they are. Toffler notes that “transience necessarily affects the durational expectancies with which persons approach new [relationships],” and that “while [people] may yearn for a permanent relationship, something inside whispers to them that it is an increasingly improbably luxury.” And indeed, that’s what we’re seeing in the U.S.:  Marriage rates have dropped from 70% in 1949 to 50.5% in 2012; 40% of Millennials say that the “till death do us part” vow should be deleted; and various short-term relationship models like the “dating partner,” where two people are involved romantically, but not actually in a committed, exclusive bond, are on the rise. In Buzzfeed’s article “23 Stages of A Tinder Relationship,” it’s noted that “going into [a Tinder relationship], you know [it] isn’t going to be long term.”

Glimpse at Master of None where Aziz Ansari gives us a look at dating, which he investigates thoroughly in his book Modern Romance. Image: Netflix

Online dating also represents another challenge that those living in a “super-industrial society” face, something Toffler refers to as “overchoice.” This is the feeling of being crippled by way too many options. Toffler says “automation… frees the path to endless, blinding, mind-numbing diversity,” and that “the society of the future will offer… the greatest variety of unstandardized goods and services any society has ever seen.” Psychologist and social theorist Barry Schwartz has a brilliant 2007 TED talk on exactly this — what he calls “The Paradox of Choice” — and he reiterates how an overabundance of choice can often leave consumers paralyzed.

This overabundance of choice in every area of life leads to what Toffler calls “decision stress,” leaving people constantly upset. One of the most distressing examples of this is the intermingling of work and leisure time. Schwartz claims that always having the option to work means we are constantly thinking about whether or not we should be working. It’s a feeling that puts us in a kind of limbo, not allowing full immersion in either work or play.

Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitan says in The Guardian that having “an unread email in your inbox can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.”

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of future shock is what Toffler describes as “technological backlash,” which stems from a society ill-equipped to handle the incredible pace of technological change. The author argues that those experiencing this backlash end up turning to “astrology and the occult, the search for truth in sensation, ecstasy and ‘peak experience,’ [and] extreme subjectivism.” He says that because people can’t understand the technology they’re dealing with, the result is a growing feeling that reason has failed mankind.

We see this play out, for example, with climate change skepticism. Despite the U.S. being listed by Bloomberg as sixth on its list of 50 most technologically innovative countries in the world, according to a Global Trends report from 2014 published in The New York Times, it also has the highest percentage of people (amongst developed countries) who are skeptical of the idea that climate change is caused by human activity. And before you say skepticism is an important part of being scientific, it only works if you’re willing to change you’re mind once you’re presented with overwhelming scientific evidence.

“How did I get here?”

Another brilliant scientist, writer, and educator, the cosmic sherpa himself, Carl Sagan, echoes this sentiment in his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Sagan writes:

I have a foreboding of an America… when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

Future Shock goes on to examine many of a super-industrial society’s frustrating facets, including overstimulation, which can sometimes make us feel like Bing in the Black Mirror episode “15 Million Merits,” inundated and even tortured by screens, sex, violence, games or social media. One report from Hackernoon claims Americans (18+) spend over four hours a day on their smart phones. Another report from Neilson notes that Americans watch over five hours of television a day. With eight hours set aside for sleeping, this is an enormous chunk of time of one’s waking life spent in front of a screen. And niether Toffler’s book nor “15 Million Merits”  even touches on augmented or virtual reality.

If any of these feelings of baseline discomfort, angst, restlessness, or anxiety resonate with you, and reverberate in what feels like an empty shell, read Toffler’s book. Like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it can help you navigate, or at the very least understand, the new world order. The new world that’s a new kind of new every day, where you wake up and ask yourself, “How did I get here… Am I right? Am I wrong?”

“How do I work this?”

Images: Channel 4 Television Corporation

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