In 1970, futurist Alvin Toffler defined the term Future Shock. It refers to a personal perception of too much change in a short period of time. Many kinds of shocks can spark personal disorientation, a Culture Shock probably being the most well-known. Analyzing whether Toffler’s rather pessimistic expectations came true, I attempt to search for other lessons to be learned from these insights.
Culture Shock versus Future Shock
Home Sweet Home
First of all, let’s compare the concept of a Future Shock with a well-known concept. If you’ve traveled to exotic places around the world, you’ve probably felt a Culture Shock at one point in time. Although I strongly believe every human being is equal, the way societies are organized strongly differs around the globe. ‘Culture’ is obviously a very broad term. Differences can be observed in many ways. A highly dissimilar environment is often constructed out of various components. Language barriers, technology gaps, religious differences, wealth differences: all of these aspects can come into play.
When cultural changes happen too quickly, or when they are too momentous for an individual to bear, a culture shock will occur. Losing many of its reference points, this individual could endure life-changing anxieties. The popularity of the phrase ‘Home Sweet Home’ isn’t a coincidence. People are creatures of habit and favor things they know.
So what’s a Future Shock?
The world is innovating at an increasingly rapid rate. In 1822, Charles Babbage began developing what is now viewed as the first ever computer. Nowadays, the average smartphone has more computing power than the entirety of NASA in 1969, the year they successfully put two astronauts on the moon. I think most of us will acknowledge the belief of rapid innovation, so let’s not waste time proving this point. Alvin Toffler argued that this accelerated change would structurally affect society in a rather gloomy way. People would drown in information, eventually leading to information overload. This overload would thereupon unleash massive levels of stress and anxiety, destroying both the individual and the social fabric of society. Fortunately, these predictions have not (not really) come true.
To tie in some current events, let’s think about a hot topic such as migration. When there is a strong influx of foreigners, bringing with them their own culture and beliefs, a shock is imminent. For the better or for the worse? That’s pretty hard to predict. Personally, I believe the way of dealing with this shock will strongly influence its effects, making it equally important as the (inevitable) shock itself. I’m sure many politicians will have a lot to say about this, so I won’t go into detail about my own beliefs. There is, however, an observation to make.
If the average Joe tweets negative remarks on migrants using his iPhone, he’s not only explicitly fighting a changing environment, he’s implicitly accepting a different kind of one. By buying an iPhone, or using Twitter, Joe’s embracing these technological evolutions. In essence, Joe is saying: I hate cultural change caused by migration, but I love cultural change following technological evolutions. Migration is bad, technology rocks. The latter probably having a much greater impact on Joe’s experience of life.
I’m not condemning Joe’s view. With technological innovations eliminating many reference points at a stunning speed, individuals seek long-lasting traditions and symbols to hold on to. Although I don’t share Joe’s view, I do understand it. The only thing I’m trying to say is: don’t be fooled. When robots start taking over our jobs, migration is not to blame.
Time! it’s all about time.
Time is money. In fact, it’s the only currency we truly possess. Having its deficiencies, such as being entirely unfit to actually be a currency, we divide our time into leisure and labor. Time transforms into labor, and labor transforms into money. As technology evolves and humans are becoming more intelligent, society becomes more productive. In the 19th century, we worked almost 70 hours a week, in the 20th one this number drops to 60. Today, most people work approximately 40 hours a week. It’s a clear trend, although its sustainability has been put into question by many governments and economists around the world.
Strangely enough, a number of reports indicate that anxiety levels have been rising. Living in the 21th century is probably a lot more pleasant than living in the 19th one. Still, it seems rather odd that anxiety levels rise when wealth and leisure-time have grown. My gut feeling tells me it has something to do with the quality of sleep, food and leisure-time. Toffler told us, 45 years ago by the way, it has a lot more to do with a changing cultural and technological environment.
Will we get hit by a ‘Future Shock’?
With entrepreneurs aspiring Mars colonization, extremely sophisticated robots being built and optimally fabricated ‘Bieberstars’ dominating follow-lists on social media, we’re in for a shock alright. As the master of darkness stated thousands of years ago:
The only constant is change. – Heraclitus
Based on history, I think as a whole we’ll do fine. But at the same time I think it will only get harder along the way. Firstly, Innovations will accelerate and surprise many of us, but we will manage if we adapt. Rather than trying to fight change, we should analyze its consequences and build a society which is capable of coping with the new reality. Secondly, becoming older ourselves won’t help either. Thirdly, being hit by a future shock, or any kind of a cultural shock for that matter, is highly personal. Some will embrace change and evolve with it, others will long for the past and face difficult times. It is, therefore, important for those being spared of future shocks to at least understand those that aren’t.
For some of you that are already feeling nostalgic after reading this post, enjoy this thirty-year-old gem and relax.