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.]