It's been four decades since futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler predicted a wave of "future shock," the sensation of panic and unease that happens when people are "overwhelmed by change." And, depending on who you talk to you, we're either in the middle of a huge epidemic of future shock, with people struggling to adapt to a world of iPhones and climate change, or future shock is a totally passe concept. But one thing's for sure: A lot of people are uneasy these days.
How would you be able to tell if your loved ones or coworkers were suffering from future shock? And what would the treatment be for this ailment? We asked some experts.
Is Future shock an epidemic, or is it over?
Here's how Toffler talks about future shock in the opening to his famous 1971 book:
Our psychologists and politicians alike are puzzled by the seemingly irrational resistance to change exhibited by certain individuals and groups. The corporation head who wants to reorganize a department, the educator who wants to introduce a new teaching method, the mayor who wants to achieve peaceful integration of the races in his city — all, at one time or another, face this blind resistance. Yet we know little about its sources. By the same token, why do some men hunger, even rage for change, doing all in their power to create it, while others flee from it? I not only found no ready answers to such questions, but discovered that we lack even an adequate theory of adaptation, without which it is extremely unlikely that we will ever find the answers.
(I phoned Toffler up, but he's not doing any interviews right now because he's on deadline for another book.)
The notion of future shock "was really useful at the time [in the 1970s] for us oldsters," says Todd Essig, a Training and Supervising Analyst with the William Alanson White Institute in New York. Toffler's prediction "came true in significant ways," especially the notion of "information overload," he adds, and helped birth the field of "future studies." But Toffler was "overly pessimistic about our ability to manage (and thrive from) constant change."
And now, says Essig, we know what the world Toffler was predicting is really like — it's our present, our life right now. "We really don't need his predictions any more because we are here today — we know what happened."
"Future shock is over," agrees Douglas Rushkoff, author of Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. In fact, Rushkoff's next book is called Present Shock, and it's about that very idea. Adds Rushkoff:
Forty years ago, Toffler was right about what America was experiencing. Things were changing very fast as we moved from radio to TV, land to space, broadcast to digital, and so on. In a very real way, time was speeding up, and people were forced to content not just with all the changes happening around them but change itself.
Instead of wondering where things are going, says Rushkoff, people have started to wonder about where things are right now. Around the time of the dotcom era, people became obsessed with speculating about the present. " I think we have moved out of linear time and the historic sensibility altogether," says Rushkoff, "and our current stress stems more from the simultaneity and instantaneity of the digital media environment, as well as the loss of narrative and other connections to organic time."
For an opposing point of view, here's a 2010 blog post by Rule 34 author Charles Stross that I came across while working on this article. Writes Stross:
My working hypothesis to explain the 21st century is that the Tofflers underestimated how pervasive future shock would be. I think somewhere in the range from 15-30% of our fellow hairless primates are currently in the grip of future shock, to some degree. Symptoms include despair, anxiety, depression, disorientation, paranoia, and a desperate search for certainty in lives that are experiencing unpleasant and uninvited change. It's no surprise that anyone who can offer dogmatic absolute answers is popular, or that the paranoid style is again ascendant in American politics, or that religious certainty is more attractive to many than the nuanced complexities of scientific debate. Climate change is an exceptionally potent trigger for future shock insofar as it promises an unpleasant and unpredictable dose of upcoming instability in the years ahead; denial is an emotionally satisfying response to the threat, if not a sustainable one in the longer term.
Certainly, some religious fundamentalists and people in especially backward parts of the world might still be suffering from future shock, says Rushkoff. But he adds, "I think fundamentalists who don't believe in evolution or tolerance or any of that stuff have bigger problems than future shock."
What form would future shock take today?
So maybe future shock is a concept that's best left in the 1970s — or maybe Stross' "working hypothesis" is right, and it's actually fairly common. In any case, what would future shock look like today? How would you identify a failure to cope with rapid technological and social change amongst your fellow humans?
One key way is by looking at the concept of "information overload" — this phrase was one of the most influential notions that the Tofflers unveiled in Future Shock, where they write: "If overstimulation at the sensory level increases the distortion with which we perceive reality, cognitive overstimulation interferes with our ability to 'think.'"
At this point, "information overload" has become common currency, and most of us talk about getting overloaded with input — any time you hear someone talk about "inbox zero," or shutting off Facebook updates, or whatever, in some sense they're talking about "information overload." And Essig point out that lots of people have written about the present-day hollowing out of our attention span due to too much input, including Maggie Jackson, Nicholas Carr and Sherry Turkle.
Essig himself has coined a couple of phrases to describe people who have extreme reactions to our futuristic present: "simulation avoidance" and "simulation entrapment." In "simulation avoidance," people shy away from new methods of interaction because they're too strange or virtual. In "simulation entrapment," people get so drawn into virtual interactions, they start blurring the lines a bit too much — think Manti Te'o.
Writing in his column for Forbes, Essig explains the concept of simulation avoidance, and it's worth quoting in full:
It starts with a pre-cognitive, visceral rejection when encountering a near but not near enough simulation of human relationality. It is similar to the uncanny discomfort people experience when encountering near but not near enough humanoid robots or computer renderings. That experience-a sharp decline in acceptance as humanoid robots become human-ish-goes by the name "the uncanny valley." The "uncanny valley" provides a useful analogy for simulation avoidance...
Simulation avoidance is present when one chooses not to participate in a potentially useful or gratifying "screen relation" because the tech-mediated experience is "just not the same." It is a pre-cognitive visceral reaction. As a consequence, it becomes impossible to see what could be gained from the experience.
Meanwhile, with simulation entrapment, writes Essig, "one is momentarily unable to make the technology opaque to the experience; you can't see the limits."
Three recent theories that could be relevant
No psychologists or sociologists are studying "future shock" per se — but there are a few phenomena that people are studying currently, which could be relevant, according to Jennifer Whitson, a professor of Management at University of Texas, Austin:
1) The effect of culture shock on creativity
You have to assume that culture shock is related to future shock, at least to some extent — and there is a large body of recent work that shows that people who have faced, and overcome, culture shock are more creative and adaptable than other people. In particular, William Maddux and Adam Galinsky have done a ton of work showing that people who had a "multicultural experience" — such as living in a foreign country for several months — score higher on various tests of creativity. You could assume that people who have overcome future shock would similarly score higher on those tests.
2) The effect of mobility on relationships
This is both mobility in the physical sense, but also in the cultural sense — people who move around to lots of different contexts are likelier to have "duty-free" friendships, ones which come with no obligations, according to the research of Shigehiro Oishi with the University of Virginia and others. Highly mobile people tend to have more relationships, which are more narrowly defined and might be based on doing one activity together, instead of a few broadly defined relationships. Oishi also wrote about the idea that greater mobility is partly responsible for the rise in the number of chain stores — no matter where you go, you see the same handful of shops and restaurants, and it's reassuring in this age where everybody moves around a lot. (See a great write-up of this idea in The Atlantic.)
3) Openness to experience
This is a huge buzz phrase in psychology nowadays — "openness to experience" is one of the "big five" dimensions of personality, along with "extraversion" and "agreeableness." (Yes, that is a word.) And to a large extent, the obsession with "openness to experience" has to do with how much people welcome new ideas or new experiences. There is tons of work demonstrating that openness to new experiences is correlated with some measures of intelligence.
And there's the question of people feeling in control of their circumstances, and feeling as though they understand what's going on. Whitson has done a lot of work, with Galinsky and others, showing that people who feel as though their personal control is threatened often take refuge in "defending the legitimacy of the sociopolitical institutions that offer control," and may perceive patterns where none exist. The more information and control someone has, the less they see illusory patterns, according to a paper Whitson and Galinsky wrote for Science in 2008. Also, even more interestingly, the more information a patient was given about the precise details of a medical procedure, the less the patient reported that the procedure hurt, and the faster the patient recovered.
So psychologists are studying questions that are orthogonally related to the idea of future shock — even if they're not studying future shock, as such.
How would you cure future shock?
We asked a ton of people how they would go about curing future shock — and only one person took a stab at answering, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek manner. There are certainly lots of people out there who are such late adopters that they can be said to have future shock, contends Ben Compaine, a senior consultant for the Innovation International Media Consulting Group who directs the Fellows Program at Columbia University's Institute for Tele-Information and lectures at Northeastern University. Until recently, many newspaper publishers refused to acknowledge how much the world had changed — and plenty of people still can't get used to starting their car with a push of a button rather than a key.
So how would Compaine cure future shock? Here's what he told us:
You ask about a cure. I take my cue from "A Clockwork Orange "and "1984." First, we need to add to Obamacare a guarantee that medical insurance will pay for [Future Shock Syndrome] Interventionists. The FSS sufferer is identified and the aspect that would shock them most is identified. A targeted treatment is then designed and implemented.
For example, take FoSP — Fear of SmartPhones, The subject is confined to a comfortable sound proof room with well stocked pantry and refrigerator but deprived of any human contact. They are de-shocked there for several days. Then, one morning, they find an iPhone sitting on the table. At first they are repelled by it. But after another day it buzzes. The subject looks and sees a message on the screen, "Hi. Are you okay?" The subject, grateful for a shred of apparent human contact, doesn't know what to it. They touch the device, brush the screen — and the message slides away. They have no idea how to get back to that screen. The next day, the phone buzzes again. This time the message says "Use your index figure, touch the space below this message." Screwing up their courage they touch the space and a keyboard appears on the screen. It's Qwerty. Just like their Smith Corona. This they recognize. They type "Please hold me" (not experienced with a virtual keyboard, they mistype "help" which auto-correct changes to "hold." But maybe they figure that's just as good).
You can see where this goes. In another day the phone rings. Desperate for a voice, they figure out how to answer it on the fourth attempt. Later, the voice on the other end tells them they can call back by holding the single button on the bottom and saying "Call Friend." By now they are appreciative of the female voice that says back "Calling Friend."
In another day or two they can be released, broken of FSS.
So there you have it. Now we have a cure!