This year it is 50 years since Alvin Toffler published Future Shock. It was an immensely influential book in shaping how his generation thought about the future.
In commemoration of the anniversary, a new book After Shock: The World’s Foremost Futurists Reflect on 50 Years of Future Shock―and Look Ahead to the Next 50 is coming out in early February, with contributions from a wide range of leading future thinkers, including Ray Kurzweil, Alan Kay, David Brin, Zoltan Istvan, Aubrey de Grey, myself, and many others.
Below is the chapter I contributed, summarizing my thoughts on this remarkable book and how it helps frame our future.
Humanity’s adaptation to Future Shock
Fifty years after its publication, Future Shock is a testament to the potential for prescience. It is not possible to consistently and accurately predict the future. Indeed Toffler, not to mention thousands of other bold prognosticators over the decades, did get some predictions very wrong. However his insights on the likely path forward for humanity have amply withstood the cruel test of time, providing a sense of the shape of the future that has turned out to anticipate many aspects of the world that we live in today.
The progression of the past and the future are most definitely not linear. There is a world of difference between a trend-watcher, who implicitly expects current trends to continue into the future, and a futurist, who starts from the trends and directions we can perceive in the present and anticipates how the intersection of society, humanity, and technology may play out in the creation of rich, multi-dimensional potential future worlds. Trends always generate responses that amplify or dampen them, or as Toffler’s contemporary Marshal McLuhan put it, potentially ‘flips’ them into a reversal of the trend. This creates a set of patterns in the evolution of future that we can illustrate from Toffler’s original insights.
The trajectories of Toffler’s predictions
From the vantage point of today, some of Toffler’s insights were truly prescient, accurately describing our world. His evocation of the potential for same-sex parents was strongly against the grain of his times, yet he perceived the seeds of a social evolution that has taken decades to reach today’s widespead acceptance. What he described as the ‘rental revolution’, extended slightly, in fact reflects the rise of the sharing economy, in which people increasingly choose not to own things such as cars or lawnmowers, but to rent and use them as required, often from neighbors. The ‘experiential economy’ Toffler described in the late 1970s is no longer new, but we continue to see the rise of Customer Experience (CX) at the heart of many companies’ strategies, with Chief Experience Officers now often positioned amid the top echelons of management.
Some of Toffler’s forecasts are still in the process of playing out 50 years later. His description of organizations as ‘adhocracies’ is still significantly aspirational, yet I believe inevitable. In my work on the high-performance organizations of the future, I describe how well-networked companies create the conditions for real-time ‘ad-hoc’ connections between people, resources, and ideas and how they can be applied to address challenges and opportunities. While the best organizations today are far better at these ad-hoc structures than ever before, most have far further to go on that journey if they are to survive and thrive in our exceptionally dynamic business environment.
Yet other predictions were so far of their time that we are not there yet, though the issues may be now coming onto the table. Despite decades of anticipation of ‘super-babies’, we are just now on the verge of the first ones being born. The debate on whether and how we should deal with these possibilities as a society is long-standing and now intensifying. The idea of temporary marriage is not common today, though arguably long-standing de-facto relationships could be considered to fit this description.
In other cases we have already gone substantially past Toffler’s predictions. His insights on the ‘de-monopolization of media’ certainly anticipated a powerful shift in the world of media, yet the rise of social media has taken us beyond that into an entirely different media landscape.
It is important to acknowledge that Toffler sometimes did not see past the trend to the response. At the time his description of the development of a ‘throw-away society’ was too sadly true. However as a society we have eventually responded to this trend with the horror it deserves, resulting in not just recycling but more broadly resource efficiency driving government and business decision-making in developed countries and increasingly in developing countries.
Human adaption to future shock
The most important insight from Toffler’s work – then and today – is the very concept of ‘future shock’ and what he termed ‘adaptivity’. He accurately described the state of shock of people dealing with intense change. Yet 50 years later, future shock still seems like a very fair description of the nature of today’s life and society, while the pace of change is radically greater than when the book was published.
In the space of months, let alone years, important aspects of our business and social landscape can undergo substantive change, to a degree almost unimaginable five decades ago. Yet humans and human society have, by and large, not just survived but prospered, by many important measures that transcend economic growth. It is true that today many people experience stress in their lives and work, yet the extraordinary adaptability of humans means we can not only function amid mind-boggling change, but arguably deal with it substantially better than Toffler anticipated.
Looking forward to the decades to come, let us begin by extending Toffler’s thesis of future shock. I believe deeply in individual humans’ ability to respond to changing environments. It is what has allowed us to prosper over millenia, building a society in which our health, comforts, and scope for expressing our individual potential far transcend those of any of our ancestors.
Many people are struggling with accelerating change today. However looking back at Future Shock, written when the pace of development was a fraction of what it is today, provides us with a strong indication that humans are considerably more adaptable than we thought. Certainly living in today’s world is highly challenging. Yet still many people, when asked when they would choose to be alive if they could live at any time of human history, simply respond “now.” Not least, this is because one powerful upside of constant change is a sense of excitement, a fundamental human driver.
The concept of future shock may have been new when Toffler coined the term. However we can be sure we will never reach a time when we move past that to a time when we have a collective sense of continuity and stability. And I believe we will never be so fazed by change that we are unable to respond to it as individuals.
Of course the most important question facing humanity in the years ahead is whether we have the collective ability to respond to accelerating change, in a world in which short-sighted actions over many decades have created extraordinary challenges for us.
One trend that is now well in place and will shape our society for decades to come is the reversal of Toffler’s accurately observed trend in the 1970s of a throw-away society. The recent rise of bans on plastic bags around the world, for example, is a product of a social trend: a growing abhorrence of waste and pollution. Technological developments applied to this demand for a better environment will continue to impact a wide variety of areas, including packaging, retailing, and food utilization.
More in question is whether our collective response to climate change will be sufficient to mitigate potential environmental disaster. What is inevitable is that we will continue to shift apace to renewable energy and see many countries explicitly address carbon emissions in their economic policies.
The most important shift in coming decades will be the continued rise of what Toffler described as ‘the cyborgs among us’. As he pointed out, humans and machines were already merging when he wrote Future Shock. While we have come a long way down that path, we are only just now on the verge of true integration of humanity and technology, notably with a new generation of Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI) emerging.
There will be two kinds of humans: those who choose to augment themselves with technology, and those who choose not to do so. Inevitably more opportunities will go to the former, and bias and discrimination will flow in both directions between what will effectively be two classes of humanity. This, among other extraordinary developments, will further heighten what we now know as ‘future shock’. Yet humans will, largely, individually and collectively, continue to adapt and cope with tomorrow’s mind-boggling pace of change.