What Happened to Futurism?

Alvin TofflerSource: Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times, July 6

An abbreviated version.

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 convention and 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 subsuming journalism, 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-moving war 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….

Technological change has 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,” Amy Webb, a futurist who founded the Future Today Institute, 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.”


2 responses to “What Happened to Futurism?

  1. From time immemorial all societies have had prophets, shamans, and other “futurists”. Julius Caesar should have heeded their advice on a March 15. As one who has studied professions both formally and informally, I confess that I did not know that, today, there is “a class of professionals charged with thinking systematically about the future”. What are their qualifications and has there been any studies of the quality of their services?

  2. Brian Felske

    If there is no sense of future, that does not leave much of a role for futurists. Toffler in a way wrote finis to his own professed profession. Whether we agree with Toffler or not, we must acknowledge that anxiety is much more about the here and now than it is about the implications of unfolding future. It may be difficult to find futurists among millenials.