Friday, July 06, 2007

Future Shock: Charles Stross and Alvin Toffler

"Future Shock"  was published in 1970. I read it as a child; what I remember best is how "shocking" Toffler thought it was to have a shopping mall appear where houses once stood. There was nothing in the Toffler's book that was anywhere as "shocking" as this post by Charles Stross, a highly regarded writer of very ambitious modern "hard" science fiction:

Charlie's Diary: Unpacking the Zeitgeist

I'm trying to work out how I'd go about explaining this news item from WOWinsider to someone thirty years ago, in 1977, and it is making my head hurt because there are too many prior assumptions nested recursively inside it to unpack easily...

...There are thirty years' worth of future shock condensed into this one news item. And the reason I'm writing about it is that I don't think I could get away with putting such an conceptually overloaded incident into one of my novels; it would take too much set-up and require so much infodumping that many readers would lose interest. This Russian doll of a news item contains some rather scary pointers to where we're going, and a harsh warning about the difficulty of accurately portraying plausible futures in literature.

There was another recent story about similar techniques (read the essay) used by children to bypass safety constraints set into Disney's online game communities. I think Schneier wrote about it; if I remember correctly the safety measures were to prevent non-game specific communications that might be exploited by very nasty adults. The children learned to rearrange objects to spell out messages they could not type.

So was Toffler being silly with his dire predictions of incapacitating "future shock" and the examples of vanishing shops that I remember? This is taken from the Wikipedia summary:

Toffler argues that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a "super-industrial society". This change will overwhelm people, the accelerated rate of technological and social change will leave them disconnected, suffering from "shattering stress and disorientation" – future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems were symptoms of the future shock. In his discussion of the components of such shock, he also coined the term "information overload".

In retrospect Toffler was wrong about the social transformations of 1970 (student unrest, racism, the civil rights movement, free speech, divorce drugs, rock and roll, antiwar demonstrations) being due to "future shock". They had a technological component (television, affordable automobiles, contraceptives, the emergent middle class, widespread education), but they were mostly due to demographics.

The examples of "future shock" I recall from the book also seem quaint nowadays, and hardly very threatening. We're used to massive structures vanishing and transforming with little knowledge, and most of us don't even live in Shanghai or Bangkok.

And yet ...

I have a suspicion we're not doing so well these days. There's a lot going on that, I think, would be setting off alarm bells in a healthy society. Instead, our society is quiet, passive, disconnected. We're more like stunned sheep than active participants in a changing world.

Maybe Toffler wasn't so much wrong as premature.

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