Mares: Alvin Toffler's Future Shock

Jul 5, 2016

Alvin Toffler, who died last week at age 87, was a self-taught social scientist, writer, and futurist - that is, one who engaged in wide interdisciplinary and systems thinking on such matters as diverse global trends, and possible scenarios. Toffler taught one of the first college course in futurism at the New School in New York City. But Toffler was no remote ivy-tower academic. He began his career as a welder in a Cleveland factory, and wrote: My wife and I spent five years working on assembly lines. We came to fully understand the criticisms of the industrial age, in which you are an appendage of a machine.

He - and later with his wife Heidi - wrote a trilogy of books and hundreds of articles on change. And his key book, Future Shock, had a profound effect on me. Future shock, he wrote, is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.

I read the book as a first edition when it came out in 1970 in the societal tumult of technological change, Women's lib, civil rights movement, and Vietnam War protest. I worked for a newspaper in Chicago then, and thought this was a secular Book of Revelation that described not just the future but the dizzying present - with a new template for understanding the world of accelerating change in economics, society and culture.

I filled the book with underlining, exclamation points and marginal notes, in constant triangulation with the new ideas he propounded. Much later, I quoted the book in graduation speeches to both high school and college audiences.

Into the crowded field of navel-gazing books for individuals, he brought a self-help book for culture and society. In it he showed vividly how knowledge and information, not labor and raw materials would become the bedrock of advanced societies. The book sold millions of copies and is still in print.

Clever chapter titles like The Technological Engine, Knowledge as Fuel, Modular Man, and Information Overload, introduced content equally original and evocative.

Toffler didn't pretend to omniscience or infallibility, but likened his work to the mediaeval cartographers, who got much wrong in their map making, but continued to explore and trusted that future generations would make the inevitable corrections.

Throughout his work, Toffler wrote about business with a poet's ear. "Change" he wrote, "is the way the future invades our lives."