In July 1970, Future Shock by Alvin and Heidi Toffler was published before the personal computer was even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye. The book was astonishingly prescient in asserting that “future shock,” defined as the “disease of change,” would profoundly afflict the world. Today, the disease’s symptoms have not only spread, but have metastasized into a pandemic that is leveling everything from values to societies, organizations, and political structures. Given that there is little sign of the pace of change slowing down, the Tofflers’ book still provides a frightening diagnosis as to what could happen in the next 50 years.
In broad-brush terms, humanity falls into two categories. There are those who still live medieval existences that are nasty, brutish, and short. And there are those who live in a world of plenty and economic progress. The Tofflers warned that this second group of people will be bombarded by new products, people, policies, professions, organizations, movements, and values delivered at warp speed. This bombardment would require them to adopt new and multiple roles in order to navigate through unprecedented choices about everything from lifestyles to allegiances to values. “Future shock,” the authors posited, marked the “death of permanence,” a fact that is both exhilarating and threatening.
Fifty years later, technologies have redrawn the world’s economies and societies. Facebook, Tinder, and the mobile phone have redefined relationships while the internet has reconfigured work, fame, entertainment, business, organizations, opportunities, and politics. Technological advances have enabled some poor countries to overtake rich countries economically. But rich or poor, millions of citizens in all countries have succumbed to some form of future shock. Unable to cope, they descend into maladaptive behavior, depression, denialism, nihilism, revisionism, dogmatism, or extremism.
To me, as a journalist and activist, the biggest unrecognized casualty today is the assault of change on civil society itself. The world, nation-states, regions, tribes, and families are being atomized into warring factions, ideologies, new religions, movements, cults, cabals, allegiances, websites, or social media factions. In this respect, the disease of change has also destroyed consensus and social cohesion. The result is that division and extreme polarization are plaguing societies and democracies.
The process the Tofflers identified clearly contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the future economic growth in the Asia-Pacific region. And while many of these outcomes have clearly benefited humanity, it’s impossible to ignore the increase in general social dissension that has accompanied these changes. With the rise of smartphone technology and the proliferation of internet tracking, the practice of micro-advertising and targeted news feeds have splintered civil societies into millions of “filter bubbles” where people are fed information based on their unique set of biases. Unchecked, the social and geopolitical fragmentation that has in part driven the political transformations since the end of the Cold War will likely continue to destabilize the European Union, the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, NATO—and even the United States itself.
Economically, the effects have likewise been profound. Although one ought not minimize the positive effects that the interconnectedness of the internet has had on people’s everyday lives in terms of sheer convenience, the attendant economic churn has been breathtaking. Unemployment and under-employment grows as those thrown out of work are unable to adapt or keep pace. The opioid crisis is one symptom of this churn. The creation of a ready and growing audience for conspiracy theories peddled by polarizing ideological entrepreneurs is another.
In the next 50 years, advances in computing, genetics, and robotics will likely revolutionize human life further. The revolutionary effect smartphones have had on how we interact with our environment is but a glimpse into what brain interfaces will do to our lived experience. Genetic engineering in the womb could create more “perfect” human beings, albeit only for those with the means to access the technology. And androids, AIs on two legs with personalities, will lead to the further mutation of the human experience, blurring the ethical lines of what constitutes life at all.
In 1945, two nuclear bombs destroyed cities in Japan. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who ran the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb, realized that the spread of such weapons of mass destruction would destroy the world. He and others spent years lobbying world leaders and formulated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed in 1968 by dozens of nuclear and non-nuclear powers. Since 1970, the treaty has provided a framework of oversight and, thus far, has helped save mankind from limited or all-out nuclear war.
Likewise, the proliferation of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, synthetic biology, and other technologies needs some kind of basic oversight framework to help us grapple with their impact. The United Nations is working on getting its nation-state members to agree to a ban on autonomous weapons, or “killer robots”, and hundreds of scientists and technologists have signed on to moral, ethical, and security frameworks for artificial intelligence and biotechnologies. But the piecemeal effort is likely falling far short of what is required. Coordinated action at the highest state levels will be required.
Given the difficulties of coming to a workable binding interstate approach to climate change—a much more readily apparent threat—the prognosis is not good. But that does not mean that it should not be tried. Brakes and backstops must be devised to mitigate damage; institutions that can monitor and intervene must be created; remedies must be found.
Future Shock remains one of the most important books of the 20th century and remains an important roadmap to understanding what lies ahead as the “disease of change” gathers speed. Its warnings must not be ignored. Mankind must heed.