I learned the term future shock long before it held any emotional resonance for me.
It was the title of Alvin Toffler’s best-selling book in 1970, almost half a century ago. The term means exactly what it suggests: the sense of being overwhelmed by what Toffler called “the roaring current of change.” Back in 1970 I was alive but still naive, paying attention to no future except my own, which I thought I was free to shape however I wanted.
In his introduction Toffler wrote,
The book argues forcefully, I hope, that, unless man quickly learns to control the rate of change in his personal affairs as well as in society at large, we are doomed to a massive adaptational breakdown.
A 2010 article by Greg Lindsay in Fast Company, besides pointing out that Toffler’s wife Heidi was an uncredited coauthor, gave the two credit for many amazing predictions:
“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,” the pair wrote. The accelerating changes they predicted included the “electronic frontier” of the Internet, Prozac, YouTube, cloning, home-schooling, the self-induced paralysis of too many choices, instant celebrities “swiftly fabricated and ruthlessly destroyed,” and the end of blue-collar “second-wave” manufacturing, to be replaced by a “third wave” of knowledge workers. Not bad for 1970.
Despite the Tofflers’ prescience, and despite the book’s sales of more than 6 million copies, the phrase future shock sounds almost as quaint today as Alvin’s confident use of the male pronoun to denote all humans, not to mention Heidi’s original willingness to let her work go unacknowledged. And in my own life the concept has been more curious than forceful—something that might apply to other people, not to me. I’ve been proud of my adaptability to change: sloughing off outmoded ways, teaching myself new skills. In general outlook I’ve always been an optimist, the kind who speaks with downbeat irony but harbors a secret rosy idealism. Even the tragedy of 9/11 didn’t subvert my innate belief that things wouldn’t turn out so badly.
Yet now, I confess, I’m finally feeling the disorientation. Like many other people, I took the results of last November’s US presidential election as a blow to the system for which shock may be too mild a word. Some of my friends have been in a near-constant state of hyperventilation. Some seem to have changed personalities, growing angry and bitter. Some are terrified of what will happen tomorrow. “It can’t happen here” was always an illusion, and now we’re understanding that with a vengeance.
I suppose the best response to future shock, or to any undesired change, is to fight back. That’s what many of my friends are now doing. Not fighting against change itself—the current is going to roar regardless—but fighting to direct it in a way that does the least damage and the maximum (dare we hope?) good.
Alvin Toffler died in July 2016. I wonder if he too would have been shocked at this point, and what he would have done about it.
Sam Gridley is the author of the novels The Shame of What We Are and The Big Happiness. His fiction and satire have appeared in more than fifty magazines and anthologies. He has received two fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and neurotic dog and hangs out at the website http://gridleyville.wordpress.com/.
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