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  • T. W. Emory

Shocked by the Future?

I learned recently that the writer and futurist Alvin Toffler died. His book Future Shock came out in 1970, and I remember it was all the rage when I was in high school, and though I probably exaggerate, at the time it seemed like every third person I came across was carrying a copy of it.

While devoting a whole book to the subject, Toffler distilled the basic meaning of “future shock” into one sentence: “Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” He appears to have come up with the term and title of his book from the expression “culture shock,” and the disorienting effects that occur when a person is suddenly thrust into an environment where he is immediately faced with many new and foreign things.

Again, while Future Shock was a popular read in the early 70s (or at least a popular purchase), I never read it completely, but only skimmed through it to get its gist. However, back in the 80s, I did read another of Toffler’s books, The Third Wave, and I have found it rather remarkable how many of his rippling cause-and-effect predictions have come true as countries have transitioned from what he called a “Second Wave” society into a “Third Wave” society. It was Toffler’s contention that we (particularly those of us in the West) are undergoing a tremendous structural revolution from an Industrial Age society (i.e. the “Second Wave”) to a super-industrial society or what some call the Information Age or Digital Age (i.e. the “Third Wave”), and that the technological and social changes are taking place at such an accelerated rate that it overwhelms, stresses, and leaves people feeling disconnected (i.e. future-shocked), while at the same time causing them to lose the familiarity that old institutions once provided them.

With all the technological changes linked to computers, smart phones, and the internet, not surprisingly many of us “baby boomers” have found we are a bit overwhelmed, stressed, and disconnected at times, with “too much change in too short a time.” Or, as Alvin Toffler would have put it, some today are feeling somewhat ‘future shocked’ from what he called “information overload.” A rather sobering thought, when we consider that Toffler also said:“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

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