This morning I decided to read Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler. I had bought this book several years ago, not knowing what it was about, at a book fair. It has been sitting on a book shelf ever since. Until this morning.
The book was first published in 1970. The prior decade of the 1960s had seen a lot of social upheaval. There was racial unrest. The Sexual Revolution was catching on with the general population, especially among the young. The use of illegal drugs had exploded. The war in Viet Nam seemed like it would never end. To say that in 1970 people felt uneasy is to put it mildly.
The first paragraph of the Introduction states that the book is about what happens to people when they are overwhelmed by change. It is about the way in which we adapt - or fail to adapt - to the future.
The first chapter of the book is titled THE 800TH LIFETIME. Before explaining the meaning of the 800th lifetime, Toffler discusses what is meant by the term Culture Shock:
Culture Shock is what happens when a traveler suddenly finds himself in a place where yes may mean no, where a "fixed price" is negotiable, where to be kept waiting in an outer office is no cause for insult, where laughter may signify anger. It is what happens when the familiar psychological cues that help an individual to function in society are suddenly withdrawn and replaced by new ones that are strange and incomprehensible.
People who experience Culture Shock find themselves frustrated, bewildered and confused.
Future Shock is similar to Culture Shock, except that it deals with changes over time, not location. Future Shock could be thought of as Culture Shock in one's own society. But the traveler who visits a strange society knows that he can go back home. The person experiencing Future Shock cannot go back. As if that weren't bad enough, the pace of change is accelerating! Future Shock is like Culture Shock on steroids.
If we define a "lifetime" as 62 years, approximately 800 lifetimes have passed if we start 50,000 years ago (Why 50,000? Human beings appear to have been on the earth longer than that. Toffler doesn't say).
At first the major societal changes took place slowly. Transitioning from a hunter/gatherer to an agrarian society would be one example. Then the changes became more frequent. After the 800th lifetime, a very important change took place.
Geographical boundaries don't mean what they used to. The consequences of contemporary events radiate instantaneously around the world. The war in Viet Nam affected decisions in Moscow and Beijing. A protest in Stockholm might affect financial markets in Zurich.
Not only that, but Toffler speaks of a "time skip" in which events of the past are coming back and affecting us today. For example, the epic battles of ancient Greece were big deals when and where they took place, but someone living 800 miles away at the same time would be unaware of them.
But now, decisions that were made hundreds or even thousands of years ago are coming back and affecting us now. By changing the movements of men, the geographical distribution of genes, values and ideas of Europeans were exported all over the world.
Toffler concludes the first chapter by stating that by violently expanding the scope of change and accelerating its pace, we have broken irretrievably with the past. Toffler then asks how human beings will ever be able to adapt.
Some answers lie in the subsequent chapters.
I try to imagine myself reading this book in the 1970. I was old enough to be aware of many of the events of the 1960s, but too young to participate.
I remember the attitudes. At the time, most people still believed in the inevitability of progress.
When I was a freshman in high school, I was assigned a post-apocolyptic short story called, "By the Waters of Babylon." It was about a boy making a journey from the country to downtown New York City. The buildings and roads were there, but the city was mostly deserted. This story fascinated me. I had never come across anything like that. Later on, Mad Max and similar movies about life after some worldwide apocolyptic event came out and the idea of society moving backwards did not seem so strange.
Today, of course, the inevitability of progress doesn't seem assured at all.
Not that all change is progress. But at the time, in 1970, there was a general assumption that society overall would advance.
It should be interesting to learn more of Toffler's ideas and, with perfect 20/20 hindsight to evaluate them.
March 9, 2016