Why We Need to Pick Up Alvin Toffler's Torch
More than 40 years ago, Alvin Toffler, a writer who had fashioned himself into one of the first futurists, warned that the accelerating pace of technological change would soon make us all sick. He called the sickness "future shock," which he described in his totemic book of the same name, published in 1970.
In Mr. Toffler's coinage, future shock wasn't simply a metaphor for our difficulties in dealing with new things. It was a real psychological malady, the "dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future." And "unless intelligent steps are taken to combat it," he warned, "millions of human beings will find themselves increasingly disoriented, progressively incompetent to deal rationally with their environments."
Mr. Toffler, who collaborated on "Future Shock" and many of his other books with his wife, Heidi, died last week at 87. It is fitting that his death occurred in a period of weeks characterized by one example of madness after another— a geopolitical paroxysm marked by ISIS bombings, "Brexit," rumors of Mike Tyson taking the stage at a national political conventionand a computer-piloted Tesla crashing into an old-fashioned tractor-trailer. It would be facile to attribute any one of these events to future shock.
Yet in rereading Mr. Toffler's book, as I did last week, it seems clear that his diagnosis has largely panned out, with local and global crises arising daily from our collective inability to deal with ever-faster change.
All around, technology is altering the world: Social media is subsumingjournalism, politics and even terrorist organizations. Inequality, driven in part by techno-abetted globalization, has created economic panic across much of the Western world. National governments are in a slow-movingwar for dominance with a handful of the most powerful corporations the world has ever seen — all of which happen to be tech companies.
But even though these and bigger changes are just getting started — here come artificial intelligence, gene editing, drones, better virtual reality and a battery-powered transportation system — futurism has fallen out of favor. Even as the pace of technology keeps increasing, we haven't developed many good ways, as a society, to think about long-term change.
Look at the news: Politics has become frustratingly small-minded and shortsighted. We aren't any better at recognizing threats and opportunities that we see emerging beyond the horizon of the next election. While roads, bridges, broadband networks and other vital pieces of infrastructure are breaking down, governments, especially ours, have become derelict at rebuilding things — "a near-total failure of our political institutions to invest for the future," as the writer Elizabeth Drew put it recently.
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In many large ways, it's almost as if we have collectively stopped planning for the future. Instead, we all just sort of bounce along in the present, caught in the headlights of a tomorrow pushed by a few large corporations and shaped by the inescapable logic of hyper-efficiency — a future heading straight for us. It's not just future shock; we now have future blindness.
"I don't know of many people anymore whose day-to-day pursuit is the academic study of the future," said Amy Webb, a futurist who founded the Future Today Institute.
It didn't have to come to this. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as the American government began to spend huge sums in the Cold War, futurists became the high priests of the coming age. Forecasting became institutionalized; research institutes like RAND, SRI and MITRE worked on long-range projections about technology, global politics and weaponry, and world leaders and businesses took their forecasts as seriously as news of the present day.
In 1972, the federal government even blessed the emerging field of futurism with a new research agency, the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which reviewed proposed legislation for its long-term effects. Futurists were optimistic about lawmakers' new interest in the long term.
"Congressmen and their staffs are searching for ways to make government more anticipatory," Edward Cornish, president of the World Future Society,said in 1978. "They're beginning to realize that legislation will remain on the books for 25 or 50 years before it's reviewed, and they want to be sure that what they do now won't have an adverse impact years from today."
But since the 1980s, futurism has fallen from grace. For one thing, it was taken over by marketers.
"'Futurist' always sounded like this weird, made-up, science-fiction term,'" Ms. Webb said, even though in its early years, people were doing deep, nuanced research on how various tech and social movements would shape the world.
Futurism's reputation for hucksterism became self-fulfilling as people who called themselves futurists made and sold predictions about products, and went on the conference circuit to push them. Long-term thinking became associated with the sort of new-agey "thinkfluencers" who hung out at TED and Davos, and who went by names like Shingy and Faith Popcorn. Futurism became a joke, not a science.
The end of the Cold War and a rise in partisan political interests also changed how lawmakers saw the utility of looking at the future. In the Reagan years, many on the right began to see the government as the cause of most of the nation's ills. The idea that the government could do something as difficult as predict the future came to be considered a ridiculous waste of money.
Newt Gingrich has long been enamored of science fiction — he wants to build a moon base. But when Mr. Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, became speaker of the House in 1995, he quickly shut down the Office of Technology Assessment. The government no longer had any place for futurists, and every decision about the future was viewed through the unforgiving lens of partisan politics.
Of course, the future doesn't stop coming just because you stop planning for it. Technological change has only sped up since the 1990s. Notwithstanding questions about its impact on the economy, there seems no debate that advances in hardware, software and biomedicine have led to seismic changes in how most of the world lives and works — and will continue to do so.
Yet without soliciting advice from a class of professionals charged with thinking systematically about the future, we risk rushing into tomorrow headlong, without a plan.
"It is ridiculous that the United States is one of the only nations of our size and scope in the world that no longer has an office that is dedicated to rigorous, nonpartisan research about the future," Ms. Webb said. "The fact that we don't do that is insane."
Or, as Mr. Toffler put it in "Future Shock," "Change is avalanching upon our heads and most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope with it."
A column from Farhad Manjoo that examines how technology is changing business and society.
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