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In 1970, Alvin Toffler Predicted the Rise of Future Shock—But the Exact Opposite Happened
And it's much, much worse
Back in 1970, Alvin Toffler predicted the future. It was a disturbing forecast, and everybody paid attention.
People saw his book Future Shock everywhere. I was just a freshman in high school, but even I bought a copy (the purple version). And clearly I wasn’t alone—Clark Drugstore in my hometown had them piled high in the front of the store.
The book sold at least six million copies and maybe a lot more (Toffler’s website claims 15 million). It was reviewed, translated, and discussed endlessly. Future Shock turned Toffler—previously a freelance writer with an English degree from NYU—into a tech guru applauded by a devoted global audience.
Toffler showed up on the couch next to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Other talk show hosts (Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, etc.) invited him to their couches too. CBS featured Toffler alongside Arthur C. Clarke and Buckminster Fuller as trusted guides to the future. Playboy magazine gave him a thousand dollar award just for being so smart.
Toffler parlayed this pop culture stardom into a wide range of follow-up projects and businesses, from consulting to professorships. When he died in 2016, at age 87, obituaries praised Alvin Toffler as “the most influential futurist of the 20th century.”
But did he deserve this notoriety and praise?
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Future Shock is a 500 page book, but the premise is simple: Things are changing too damn fast.
Toffler opens an early chapter by telling the story of Ricky Gallant, a youngster in Eastern Canada who died of old age at just eleven. He was only a kid, but already suffered from “senility, hardened arteries, baldness, slack, and wrinkled skin. In effect, Ricky was an old man when he died.”
Toffler didn’t actually say that this was going to happen to all of us. But I’m sure more than a few readers of Future Shock ran to the mirror, trying to assess the tech-driven damage in their own faces.
“The future invades our lives,” he claims on page one. Our bodies and minds can’t cope with this. Future shock is a “real sickness,” he insists. “It is the disease of change.”
As if to prove this, Toffler’s publisher released the paperback edition of Future Shock with six different covers—each one a different color. The concept was brilliant. Not only did Future Shock say that things were constantly changing, but every time you saw somebody reading it, the book itself had changed.
Of course, if you really believed Future Shock was a disease, why would you aggravate it with a stunt like this? But nobody asked questions like that. Maybe they were too busy looking in the mirror for “baldness, slack, and wrinkled skin.”
Toffler worried about all kinds of change, but technological change was the main focus of his musings. When the New York Times reviewed his book, it announced in the opening sentence that “Technology is both hero and villain of Future Shock.”
During his brief stint at Fortune magazine, Toffler often wrote about tech, and warned about “information overload.” The implication was that human beings are a kind of data storage medium—and they’re running out of disk space.
It’s not clear that Toffler invented either of those terms—“future shock” or “information overload.” Back in 1963, the former phrase had shown up in a talk delivered to a group of educators by Charles Weingartner and Neil Postman. They defined “future shock” as the “social paralysis induced by rapid technological change.” Two years later, Toffler published an article in Horizon magazine entitled “The Future as a Way of Life,” which showcased some of the key points.
Here Toffler announced the arrival of this new affliction. Future shock was the inevitable result of a “second industrial revolution” sweeping the world. “But it was “bigger, deeper, and more important” than the previous industrial revolution. Here, too, he looks at technology as a threat.
Toffler points out that there were now 15,000 academic journals, publishing maybe a “million significant papers in them each year.” Who could keep up with all this progress? (Of course, that assumes that the contents of 15,000 academic journals represent progress—but that’s a different discussion.)
I find it curious that Toffler spoke so much about technological change, and so little about sociological change. When he published Future Shock in 1970, the US had just experienced a tumultuous decade, but the disruptions weren’t coming from machines. The real sources of shock were the people themselves, the masses were unleashed.
Instead of Future Shock, Toffler should have written a book called Future Numbness or Future Couch Potato. That would have hit the mark with a bullseye.
The real forces of change in that era were the sexual revolution, liberation from censorship, the rise of alternative lifestyles, vocal protests, and the overturning of inherited values of all sorts. But Toffler looked for disruptive change elsewhere, and pointed at “air travel and space flight, television, the development of nuclear energy, the invention of the computer, the discovery of DNA with its possibilities for the control of evolution,” and other trends of that sort.
You might think that Toffler, writing in 1965, would focus on the assassination of the President or the Civil Rights movement. But instead he devotes more attention to attempts to detect radio signals from Jupiter.
But does the existence of space travel really put us in a state of shock? Is air travel a danger to our psyches and organisms?
And what about television? I have a friend who can’t fall asleep unless the TV is on in his bedroom. To my mind, that provides a much better metaphor for consumer technology. It doesn’t shock us—not at all.
It numbs us.
As I look back on Future Shock with the benefit of 50 years of hindsight, I see this everywhere in his book. Things turned out the exact opposite of what Toffler anticipated. Instead of Future Shock, he should have written a book called Future Numbness or Future Couch Potato. That would have hit the mark with a bullseye.
People today aren’t put into shock by all their tech devices. They are numbed and hypnotized. They’re addicted and won’t put them down. These folks haven’t been invaded by the future. If these machines are the future, they can’t get enough of it.
It’s the past that people have lost. They don’t care about it. They don’t understand it. They don’t want to understand it.
We live in cities that embody thousands of years of human labor, ingenuity, and imagination. Perhaps this might be shocking and anxiety-provoking if people thought about it—and especially if they focused on how fragile all this is. History tells of other cultures that created amazing technologies and then collapsed. Thinking about that might actually cause some real shock.
But that’s not how the dominant mindset right now views city life or digital devices—or any other legacy of the past. The reality is that people don’t think about much of anything at all, because technology turns them into passive receptors.
Nobody is “invaded by the future.” The citizenry is entirely absorbed by the present moment—to the exclusion of everything else.
Just watch them on the street or subway with their devices, and see that empty look on their faces. Like zombies in those horror films, they might have had a real life once, long ago, but they’ve forgotten what it’s like.
“It’s the past that people have lost. They don’t care about it. They don’t understand it. They don’t want to understand it.”
And what about information overload? That has to be true, no?
Ah, the reality on the street is much different. As I noted in my recent article on “The State of the Culture, 2023” people sip that information with a very narrow straw.
Your data stream is like a morphine drip at the hospital. And with the same result—you want to make sure you’re always hooked to the machine that provides the drip.
TikTok and Instagram, for example, can be described in many ways. But “information overload” or “future shock”aren’t the words I’d use. Consumers have become very skilled at blocking out information—maybe too skilled. That’s what happens when your interactions with the real world are reduced to 10 or 20 second video snippets.
Nobody is overloaded with information not in the year 2023. Not even students—or especially not students.
If we turn away from technology for a moment, and look instead at culture, we absolutely do not find rapid change. We see the exact opposite.
Movie studios keep releasing the same stories with the same characters. The hottest Hollywood star at the Cannes festival this year was Harrison Ford, age 80. Last year it was comparative youngster Tom Cruise, age 60. Both showed up to pitch sequels in which they played the same character they originated four decades ago.
Musical genres don’t change much from year to year, or even from decade to decade. A recent survey found that the most popular song has been the same for three years.
Many of the biggest names in commercial music are the same ones who were popular when Toffler peddled his Future Shock concept back in the 1970s. For example, here’s what a search engine told me when I asked about the bestselling rock artists in the year 2023.
So even if tech devices are evolving rapidly—and I’m not entirely convinced of that—the culture is stagnating. It needs more change, not less.
Yet Toffler was correct about one thing. People are getting sick.
Rates of depression are up. Suicide rates are up. Self-harm and eating disorders and mental illness are rising everywhere. Drugs kill millions of individuals—and it’s not always illegal drugs. Addictions of all sorts plague society, and ‘recovery’ programs of all sorts are big business. And so is ‘anger management’—a vocation that didn’t even exist in Toffler’s day. People can’t control their anger, and lash out at the slightest things. Violence is at a high point; tolerance at a low point.
Toffler saw something of this sort coming—in fact, he probably underestimated it. If you look through the index to his book, you won’t find suicide, depression, addiction, or other such topics. But you will find numerous references to the “nervous system” or “pace of life” or “adaptation.”
He clearly envisioned an anxious world on the go. People would travel in space ships. We would be operating complicated machines like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. But that’s not the world we live in now.
People aren’t flying in spaceships. (Well, a few billionaires do that, but there are no tickets for us.) In fact, people are barely interested in getting a driver’s license nowadays. Hey, there’s so much entertainment just sitting at home with that tiny screen.
That’s what Toffler missed. The future came and it didn’t shock us with its complexity. They simplified everything so we can manage by swiping left or right, or just clicking on a button.
It’s “information underload” nowadays—and huge corporations work to deliver it. They ensure that our digital lives have no shocks or surprises. Their algorithms are designed to deliver today something almost identical to what they gave us yesterday. And tomorrow will be no different.
As a result, the future has fallen from view, replaced by a sense of stasis. And so has the past, which ought to be a resource but has become so weightless that it might as well not exist at all. All this is causing real sicknesses, and we don’t need to invent new names for them. They’ve been around a while, only now they’re much worse and afflicting more people.
In a situation like this, we ought to reverse Alvin Toffler’s advice. We need more change, not less. And it ought to be centered on the areas of greatest numbness and disconnectedness. I’m talking about the culture itself, not the technology.
This isn’t the place to spell out the necessary agenda—that’s a huge issue beyond our scope here. But I can tell you one thing. The kind of change we need isn’t going to happen on an app.