Present Shock

Front cover of of the book Future Shock

Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock is about the experience of living in accelerating complexity. It looks at the social, economic and political conditions that are changing increasingly rapidly and the psychological effects this is having on our perception of the world and our behaviour towards it. ‘Information overload’ is one of the concepts that the book popularised. Published in 1970, Toffler’s analysis is grounded in the contemporary events of that time, but it’s striking how much of it applies to the present in 2016.

It’s in the final chapter, ‘The Strategy of Social Futurism’, that Toffler crystallizes his diagnosis of the problem. Extrapolating from here to a future crisis, he sketches out what would be needed for a political approach that might answer the question, ‘How can we live in a society that is out of control?’

That is the question posed for us by the concept of future shock. For that is the situation we find ourselves in. If it were technology alone that had broken loose, our problems would be serious enough. The deadly fact is, however, that many other social processes have also begun to run free, oscillating wildly, resisting our best efforts to guide them. Urbanization, ethnic conflict, migration, population, crime… (p.403)

Part of the causes of these problems, and part of their solution, is planning. Toffler defends the idea of planning against the tide of super-industrialisation and “econo-think”. Where critics say that soviet-style technocratic planning neglects socio-cultural values, he agrees. But to the extent that corporations “go to enormous lengths to rationalise production and distribution, to plan their future as best they can” and governments adopt the methods and language of this corporate managerialism, planning nevertheless occurs in capitalist economies even while they ostensibly reject the theory of central planning. Therefore, “The problem is not simply that we plan too little; we also plan too poorly.”

How else can we explain global warming, for example? In the attitudes that have led to situations like this, Toffler sees a “revulsion against intelligence”. Climate-change denial wasn’t yet a thing when he was writing, but it matches what he describes as a “disillusionment with science” which, he says, breeds from mounting evidence that society is out of control. There is also a foreshadow of ‘post-truth’ politics: “…when they plunge backwards into irrationality, anti-scientific attitudes, a kind of sick nostalgia, and an exaltation of now-ness, they are not only wrong, but dangerous.” And in describing the risk of violent reactions to the condition of future shock that call for a return to pre-industrial institutions, Toffler appears to pre-state the threat of terrorist organisations like ISIS, warning that “Nothing could be more dangerously maladaptive.”

The final section in the last chapter is called ‘Anticipatory Democracy’. It identifies a need for a revolution in the way we formulate our social goals, based on the premise that our current methods have been made obsolete by accelerating change.

Our first and most pressing need, therefore, before we can begin to gently guide our evolutionary destiny, before we 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 that we must deal with – war, ecological incursions, racism, the obscene contrast between rich and poor, the revolt of the young, and the rise of a potentially deadly mass irrationalism. (p.439)

Tofller’s prescription for the future is less convincing than his identification of the symptoms of the present. I’m not convinced that it’s possible or necessary to ‘halt the runaway acceleration’. Some of the predictions haven’t been borne out, yet most of the observations are accurate and the argument is coherent. The idea that we are living on the breaking crest of a wave of logarithmically-intensifying complexification is not particularly original. But the fact that many of these ideas that were shocking in 1970 seem ordinary or even truer today shows that Toffler got it pretty much right overall.

Toffler died in July this year. Today, the films of Adam Curtis are about the closest thing to Future Shock. Both offer persuasive arguments that simultaneously reflect and alter our view of the world. Whereas Toffler used contemporary events as the basis for building a vision of the future, Curtis uses history to create a narrative of the present. Curtis’s carefully constructed sequences of video footage, music and on-screen text/off-screen voice owe more to the ‘collage technique’ of the USA trilogy by John Dos Passos than the literary style of Toffler. His latest film, Hypernormalisation, covers roughly the period of time since Future Shock was first published. It explores some of the same themes. It’s about how we arrived at where we are now, “a time of uncertainty and confusion”, living through events “that seem inexplicable and out of control.”

Watch Hypernormalisation on BBC iPlayer. There’s some background to the film on Curtis’s blog. And there’s an article by Gavin Millar (AKA worriedaboutsatan) on his role as music supervisor. Millar also tweeted a track list:

[Page numbers refer to 1970 edition, published by Pan, London. Photo is of my copy, on a suitably ’70s Formica desktop.]

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Critical Reading and Listening

CORNISH-EVOL-DO_THESE-01Political and economic turbulence in the UK since the EU referendum. A lot of news and uncertainty. Amongst all this, some things offer orientation, clarity and hope – critical analyses for times of crisis. And there’s been lots of good music – a welcome contribution/distraction.

Salvage – a quarterly journal of political literature and art “written by and for the desolated Left”. Founding editors are Jamie Allinson, China Miéville, Richard Seymour and Rosie Warren. Heavyweight paper, good design, full-colour artwork, and an editorial in a separate booklet – a nice physical package. All articles are available online shortly after the print version is published. Print run of 1000, unfortunately the first issue is sold out. An introductory essay by Rosie Warren sets out its mission.

EVOL – DO THESE (Presto!? Records). Isolated loops of squelchy synth. Pure acid. Accompanying text (excerpt pictured above) written by Dale Cornish [PDF]. Also by EVOL – Hardcore vol. I. Tons of music for just €3.03, including two new slime variations of Hannah Darboven’s Opus17a, all 100 Variations for Solo Hoover, a brilliant Pain Jerk remix, and a stroboscopic video of pareidolia sounds and the words that they sound like written in the same font as the DO THESE text.

Neal Lawson – Downfall. An article analysing the current state of the Labour party – identifying the basis of the opposing camps and weighing up their chances. (At the time of writing, the leadership challenge ballot will happen soon, having been agreed by the party executive a few hours ago, and already there’s argument about the cut-off date for new members’ eligibility to vote. In the meantime – tomorrow morning, in fact – we will have a new, unelected, Conservative prime minister.) Lawson also offers some starting-points for rebuilding the party’s intellectual and organisational foundations, beginning with Antonio Gramsci’s idea that political struggle is essentially cultural. As Rosie Warren says in Salvage‘s mission statement: “Because it is not just the perspectives of the Left but its culture that must be revolutionised.” Lawson’s quotation of Gramsci sums up the problem now facing both the Left in the UK political system and the country in relation to the EU:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

Pita Get In (Editions Mego). Great stuff from Peter Rehberg. Long-awaited follow-up to Get Off (2004) and Get Out (1999). Like those albums it’s abstract and noisy but clever and funny.

Publisher Verso Books runs a blog with commentary on current affairs in the UK and the US from a wide range of contributors.
White Fungus is an art magazine based in Taiwan that started as an anarchic performance. The current issue (#15) features interviews with Jeff Mills, James Hoff, and Lin Chi-wei.
It will be interesting to follow the progress of the Democracy in Europe Movement as a cross-party, international attempt to “repair the EU” (= regain democratic power from the neoliberal establishment), based on simple, feasible proposals such as live-streaming meetings and publishing documents to begin improving transparency and accountability. Founded by Yannis Varoufakis, people on board so far include Brian Eno, John McDonnell, Caroline Lucas and Slavoj Žižek.

On the Ge-stell label which released Tom Knapp’s Mophoc Rez EP, two new releases, both with remixes by label owner Cameron Shafii and artwork by Joe Gilmore (pictured below):  Sote – Hyper-urban 20 30 and CoH – Return to Mechanics Listen to the CoH EP here.


Beatrice Dillon / Karen Gwyer – split single on Alien Jams. Can’t get enough of Dillon’s work at the moment – really nicely crafted sounds. First heard on Where To Now? Records – Face A / B last year. Recently also got her collaborations with Rupert Clervaux: Studies I-XVII for Samplers and Percussion (Snow Dog Records) is seventeen short exercises in bare rhythmic pattern formation and instrumentation. Two Changes (Paralaxe Editions) is two longer pieces in which the percussion works with/against more melodic parts, whose shifting structures and textures reflect the track titles’ reference to process philosophy. Both Dillon’s and Gwyer’s sides of the latest single sound great:

In an attempt to actively participate in the political future in some small way, and in the hope of contributing to building better economic systems, I joined a cooperatively-owned music streaming service. Resonate offers better deals for artists and fans, based on some new business strategies – like blockchain technology as the basis for not only financial but also legal and administrative decentralised systems. It’s currently recruiting musicians, labels and bloggers, and will launch a beta version at the end of the year. People signed up so far include TCF and Mat Dryhurst (musicians and advisors), Marc Weidenbaum (blogger), Planet Mu Records (label), Peter Kirn, Karl Fousek, Calum Gunn and GOTO80 (musicians). Get more info and sign up here:

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Apologies for neglecting this blog for a while. Here’s a brief update on things.

For The Wire magazine I wrote a review of Timothy D Taylor’s latest book, Music and Capitalism: A History of the Present. Review published in the May issue #387. Taylor’s book published by The University of Chicago Press.


Remixed Pinata, a track from Tobias Reber’s album Kola.

Remixed a piece of music for Audio Obscura – a musician I met last winter on a sound recording course with Chris Watson and Jez Riley French. To be released on disc 2 of forthcoming album, Western Wind.

Working on a set for the Imaginary Forces show by Imaginary Forces on Radar Radio.

Continuing the Tintinnabuli Mathematica project, generating new MIDI sequences and making new sounds with recently-purchased FM8 VSTi synth.

Listening to:

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BCA#39 GIF 2

256 block cellular automaton patterns, 8×8 cells, generated from all possible initial conditions sorted in Gray code sequence. Initial row of cells is at the top. Gray code sorting means this row changes by only one cell at a time.


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TM9f4 blotch video

For the Share Ideas channel, Serge Goldwicht made this paint blotch video to go with my track Tintinnabuli Mathematica 9f4:

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Block cellular automaton, rule number 39 in the Wolfram Atlas of Simple Programs, 40 cells × 40 generations. GIF made with just 2 frames: original + inverted image, 50 ms.


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2015 reading

Most of the stuff I read in 2015 was about economics and politics. This was a deliberate effort to plug some gaps in my knowledge, prompted by following the news on the deepening economic crisis in Greece, the subsequent rise of Syriza, and their clash with the EC, ECB & IMF troika. So, here are some of the books, articles and blogs that I read with the hope of understanding the present state of the world and what we can do about it.

Owen Jones – The Establishment: And how they get away with it (Allen lane)
Highlights the anti-democratic nature of the socio-political structures of the UK’s neo-liberal elite, which accounts for some of the disconnect between people and politics today.

Ole Bjerg – Making Money: The philosophy of crisis capitalism (Verso)
Bjerg uses Slavoj Zizek’s ontology to understand money it its various forms (gold, notes and coins, digital data, etc.) and in its different modes of being: real, symbolic and imaginary. He explains that money doesn’t exist in the way we usually think it does, because when banks lend money they actually create it. Governments have created systems where banks now have more power than the state over the economy. The philosophical analysis is clear at the start, gets a bit heavier, but ends with a simple practical proposition: “the restoration of the state’s prerogative to create new money, and the reduction of banks into mere financial intermediaries that lend rather than create money”. This, Bjerg says, “would do nothing but make both parties conform to the idea of what most people already erroneously believe they are doing.”

David Graeber – Debt: The first 5,000 years (Melville House)
Debt debunks the idea that money emerged as a solution to the problems of the barter system, as is taught in standard economic textbooks. Graeber takes an anthropological approach, with evidence that there never really was a barter system. Instead, there were systems of credit – that is, social systems based on trust amongst family, friends and neighbours. Debts would be recorded on tallies, and there would be ‘reckonings’ every so often to settle up, or ‘jubilees’ in which debts (usually taxes) were cancelled and indebted prisoners/slaves were freed, or else there would be regular riots and revolutions. Money first appeared in the form of credit notes and IOUs that were transferable. Such systems of credit were therefore more common than money in the form of precious metals etc., which was used in situations without trust – in dealings with enemies, strangers and the military. Finally, legal tender money (coins and notes) requires the power of a state to enforce the legality of its money whilst demanding it as the form of payment of taxes. Building on this fundamental revision of the history of money, Graeber explores how debt is shaped by violence and power, why economic language is essentially moralistic, and how basic principles of communistic living and fair exchange formed the foundations of today’s socio-economic order.

What is a debt, anyway? A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence. If freedom (real freedom) is the ability to make friends, then it is also, necessarily, the ability to make real promises. What sorts of promises might genuinely free men and women make to one another?

Ann Pettifor – Just Money: How Society Can Break the Despotic Power of Finance (Prime Books)
Ann Pettifor is director of Policy Research in Macroeconomics (Prime), a good resource for non-mainstream economics. Just Money is an accessible introduction to modern finance and the role of credit in our political and social systems. The book provides a coherent account of a broad picture by explaining clearly the constituent parts of the whole economy. In addition to banking, finance, money and debt, Pettifor includes ecology and sustainability as vital elements in understanding what’s wrong with the current system and how it might be fixed. @AnnPettifor

Richard Murphy
Tax expert, promoter of the “People’s Quantitative Easing” idea. Author of The Joy of Tax: How a fair tax system can create a better society. Commenter on economic and taxation policy issues via the blog Tax Research UK. @RichardJMurphy

Another Angry Voice
A blog by Thomas G. Clark on economics, philosophy, politics and other stuff:

David Allen Green
Lawyer, writer of the Jack of Kent blog and for the Financial Times. Sharp observer of legal policy. Foresaw that trouble with the Ministry of Justice contract with Saudi Arabia, for example. Insightful criticism of the government’s approach to law reform, legal justice, human rights and civil liberties. @DavidAllenGreen

Paul Mason – Postcapitalism: A guide to our future (Allen Lane)
Mason argues that we are seeing the end of neo-liberalist capitalism and the beginning of some kind of information-based economy. The failure of organised labour and lack of political will to counteract the inherent destructive tendencies of capitalism and financialisation has caused a break with established economic cycles. Austerity measures result in a prolonged post-crisis slump and a false impression of economic stability. This means that a second global financial crisis is increasingly likely. In addition, we also face the problems of an ageing demography and a changing climate, both of which are enmeshed with economic factors. But although the outlook is bleak, Mason says, there is a chance to develop a postcapitalist system that appears to be emerging, a networked information economy based on new forms of ownership and business. A lengthy article in The Guardian covers the main points of Mason’s argument:

Mason presents evidence to suggest that Kondratieff’s wave theory is basically correct, and that the deviation from this pattern is accounted for by Marx’s Fragment on Machines (PDF) which describes the revolutionary potential of automated labour and an information economy based on accumulated knowledge. In this respect, the argument is similar to Accelerationist Manifesto by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek. Their new book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (Verso) is next on my reading list.

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