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Future Shock Realized

Photo by Samson on Unsplash

 

As a kid in the early 1970’s, I remember my dad showing us a film based on the book “Future Shock.” Since he was a professor at the local college in those days, he was able to borrow a large movie projector and any available film owned by the university, and so this is when Future Shock made its way into our living room. I also remember not really understanding what the movie was about, although the concepts it presented were rolled out in a very dramatic fashion. Despite this drama, there was no real action happening in the movie. It all seemed very theoretical to me as a kid, and it boiled down to one thing: there was this barrage of change that was going to be headed toward us. The concept just seemed very abstract, and, looking back, I think this is still very true today, even though as a society, we are basically living in a state of Future Shock.

Future Shock Today

As Alvin Toffler described it in 1970, “Future shock is a time phenomenon, a product of the greatly accelerated rate of change in society. It arises from the superimposition of a new culture on an old one.” Mr. Toffler expands the scope of this contemplated phenomenon further: “…imagine…an entire society, an entire generation — including its weakest, least intelligent, and most irrational members — suddenly transported into the new world. the result is mass disorientation….”

This clearly is the world that we have been moving toward for several decades now. Mr. Toffler correctly predicted it would be a world where “machines and men both, instead of being concentrated in gigantic factories and factory cities, (would) be scattered across the globe, linked together by amazingly sensitive, near-instantaneous communications.” This was an surprisingly accurate prediction made almost 50 years ago, but it now seems trivial as we sit squarely in the middle of such a world. OK, but what are we really in the middle of? Mr. Toffler cites Ralph Lapp, a “scientist-turned-writer,” whose take is that “We are aboard a train which is gathering speed, racing down a track on which there are an unknown number of switches leading to unknown destinations. No single scientist is in the engine cab and there may be demons at the switch. Most of society is in the caboose looking backward.”

For those of you who haven’t been living underneath a rock over the last 50 or so years, this all seems pretty familiar; but is there any doubt in your mind that the current pace of change in our society is unsustainable for many human beings, if not the majority of the human population?

Bring the Past Back, Please

Certainly, it’s true that many modern nation states are teetering on the brink of some kind of failure, and you could make a pretty compelling argument that this is due to the stress of the modern world’s reaction to the nature and pace of these continual change cycles. In the western world, in 2016, this became even more clear — if it wasn’t already clear enough — with a divisive Presidential election and an anti-globalist movement in the United States and the United Kingdom, respectfully, that was indisputably about a fearful reaction to an unknown and rapidly evolving future.

In the United States, there was a very clear reference to going back to an imagined better era: “Make America Great Again.” There was little else in the way of substance behind this campaign, except the time-tested political tactic of divide and conquer. Still, this advertisement for the future caught on with many of the people who are most fearful about massive changes that seem to be happening in the world.

In the United Kingdom, it was a similar drumbeat, with some portions of the population believing they could go back to a time when entire industries could be resurrected.

As Jon Cassidy writes in his piece about the Sunderland Ship Buildingtrade and Brexit, a once thriving shipbuilding city in Northeast England had experienced a significant economic downturn and by “the nineteen-eighties, the shipyards had already experienced decades of decline, much of it borne of foreign competition. Many of the yards had been closed, and those that were still operating had been placed under public ownership.“ The reaction of local residents really makes me think of the “caboose” Mr. Lapp referenced in his Future Shock analogy:

Although the jobless rate isn’t as bad as it was in the eighties, it’s still high relative to the rest of Britain, and in last week’s Brexit referendum more than sixty per cent of Sunderland’s inhabitants, who have traditionally supported the Labour Party, voted to leave the European Union. When a New York Times reporter, Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, visited the city to find out why, she emerged with some quotes that sounded eerily familiar to me. "All the industries, everything, has gone,” Michael Wake, a fifty-five-year-old forklift operator, said. “We were powerful, strong. But Brussels and the government, they’ve taken it all away.”

In reality, Brussels had little or nothing to do with Sunderland’s decline. According to the data Web site Statista, the five biggest shipbuilding nations are now China, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan. The only European country in the top ten is Germany, and its industry is tiny compared with those of the big Asian producers. But in the minds of many inhabitants of Sunderland and places like it, Brussels and Westminster represent the political face of an economic system that has ignored them. As Wake told de Freytas-Tamura, the Brexit referendum enabled disgruntled voters to “poke the eye” of the political establishment.

Where are we Headed?

For many of us, it is the overall sense that we don’t know where our future livelihoods are headed that weighs most heavily on us. Could it be, for example, that all of the mass division in modern society is due to the fear that we don’t even know if we’ll be able to work in jobs that will adequately support our families? Is that such a crazy idea when we look at the way work and jobs are transforming?

In an example of the potential reality of this fear, an August 2016 Los Angeles Times article (Reality check: Manufacturers returning to U.S. may mean jobs for robots, not people) points out that the return of manufacturing operations from China to the US was “….precisely the kind of thing that both Clinton and Trump, with varying degrees of emphasis and policy prescriptions, have pledged to accelerate as a way to cure America’s blue-collar woes. Using tougher trade policies with China and others to restore the nation’s manufacturing sector will bring home jobs, the theory goes.” Unfortunately, the private Michigan company, Ranir, brought one “catch” into the mix:

Thanks to the new robotic manufacturing process that Ranir adopted, it takes only four workers at the American plant to do the same job that almost certainly required dozens more in China.

In another example of the way the structure of work could be transforming. One of our longest held assumptions of the last few decades — that computers would never be able to take over real “thinking” tasks — may turn out to be a false. Back in my collegiate days a book entitled Mind over Machine was one of the most compelling reads on this topic ; but it turns out the assumptions behind this book may have been desperately hopeful and simply wrong.

James Somers's December 2018 article How the Artificial-Intelligence Program AlphaZero Mastered Its Games in the New Yorker seems to capture the counter narrative to Mind Over Machine quite effectively:

A few weeks ago, a group of researchers from Google’s artificial-intelligence subsidiary, DeepMind, published a paper in the journal Science that described an A.I. for playing games. While their system is general-purpose enough to work for many two-person games, the researchers had adapted it specifically for Go, chess, and shogi (“Japanese chess”); it was given no knowledge beyond the rules of each game. At first it made random moves. Then it started learning through self-play. Over the course of nine hours, the chess version of the program played forty-four million games against itself on a massive cluster of specialized Google hardware. After two hours, it began performing better than human players; after four, it was beating the best chess engine in the world.

Gian-Carlo Pascutto, a computer programmer who works at the Mozilla Corporation, had a track record of building competitive game engines, first in chess, then in Go. He followed the latest research. As the combination of Monte Carlo Tree Search and a neural network became the state of the art in Go A.I.s, Pascutto built the world’s most successful open-source Go engines—first Leela, then LeelaZero—which mirrored the advances made by DeepMind. The trouble was that DeepMind had access to Google’s vast cloud and Pascutto didn’t. To train its Go engine, DeepMind used five thousand of Google’s “Tensor Processing Units”—chips specifically designed for neural-network calculations—for thirteen days. To do the same work on his desktop system, Pascutto would have to run it for seventeen hundred years.

Counteracting the Shock

So if you are overwhelmed by all of this change — and if you are, you are not alone — what are some ways to counteract these feelings. Alvin Toffler had some ideas, and honestly many of them are still applicable to us almost fifty years after Future Shock was written. Here are some of the most applicable categories of ideas described in Future Shock:

  • Personal Stability Zones
  • Situational Grouping
  • Counseling
  • Meaningful Rituals
  • A More Agile Approach

Personal Stability Zones

As Toffler puts it:

...even the most gregarious person sometimes feels anti-social and refuses invitations to parties or other events that call for social interaction. We consciously disconnect. In the same way, we can minimize travel. We can resist pointless reorganizations in our company, church, fraternal, or community groups. In making important decisions, we can consciously weigh the hidden costs of change against the benefits.

And so we find a way, when we can, to pick and choose the change that we let directly impact us. When we going through a divorce or dealing with some kind of personal legal matter, for example, it may not be a great time to re-think our career and go in an entirely different employment direction.

Situational Grouping

This is one of the more novel ideas that Toffler applies to Future Shock. He notes that psychologist Dr.Herbert Gerjouy argues for situation groups “...for people who happen to be passing through similar life transitions at the same time.” Quoting Dr. Gerjouy directly: “for families caught up in the upheaval of relocation, for men and women about to be divorced, for people about to lose a parent or a spouse, for those about to gain a child, for men (and women) preparing to switch to a new occupation….for those facing imminent retirement — for anyone, in other words, who faces an important life change” this type of an organization would provide an essential kind of path through the difficulty of this change. Those of you who have experience (directly or indirectly) with such groups as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Al Anon or other such — so called — support groups, can readily speak to the value of this approach. It really makes a difference to have someone who can say “me too” ( I am not referring, here, to the overall Me-to movement). In addition, the concept of partnering with someone who has been down many of the paths that — as you enter the group — you would be about to head down is certainly a valuable part of the whole “situational grouping.”

Counseling

In Future Shock, Mr. Toffler focuses on “crisis counselors,” but, in 1970, there wasn’t really a widespread concept of coaching (other than in sports teams), and although I abhor the faddishness of every fourth person in the US over 40 becoming a “life coach,” it is clear there is lots of room to help those suffering from Future Shock in the generalized area of Counseling. This would be especially true if more people would pick (so-called) Life Coaches that fit tightly around their needs. So that, for example, if the concern of a particular individual is that they don’t have enough of the right kind of skills in an area that they are struggling through, or have a keen interest in area that they want to further develop, then they could find a Life Coach or (using the more general term) Counselor who could help with these specific areas.

Meaningful Rituals

I’ve given a title — Meaningful Rituals — to several closely sealed topics that Mr. Toffler circles around in his early 1970’s (slightly hippie) writing style. If you think about all of those seemingly pointless things you do on a routinized basis to keep from collapsing into a fetal position from too much stress, that’s what would fit into this category. This could include going to church services, even when you are beginning to feel rather agnostic in your tendencies; weekly morning walks with your spouse; etc. As long as the routine has significant meaning to you, and the repetition provides some kind of normalized outlet from the torrent of change rushing at us all.

A More Agile Approach?

Even in 1970, there was the concept of Agile, before it became one of our favorite business and tech buzz-words. As Mr. Toffler articulates, there was already a sense that the “top down” approach of managing change was not going to be very effective moving forward. In fact, Mr. Toffler makes a very prescient observation that seems to predict a flourishing internet as the underlying infrastructure of a less top-down approach :

The encouraging fact is that we now have the potential for achieving tremendous breakthroughs in democratic decision-making.... Thus advanced tele-communications mean that participants in a social future assembly need not literally meet in a single room, but might simple be hooked into a communications net that spans the globe.

So, yes, we now do have a lot of amazing technology that helps to us approach problems in a different way than we have for generations. I would assert that we need to be a bit more bold of where we apply these technologies, while also recognizing their very real limits. We have to decide when an antiquated approach is worth replacement, but this, in itself, represents change that we will need to help people manage through.

A Change Management Future

In general sense, how can each of us as individuals help ourselves and the organizations — public, private, informal, etc. — we work in cope with change? I am going to make an assumption that many of us want some sort of framework or way of thinking about handling change, instead of just a list of practices we can try and leverage, although that list of practices might be a good start.

If that is the case for you, I can only suggest that you take a close look at what is being done around Change Management today. A lot of this work began as a way to address the pitfalls of large change initiatives (usually part of projects) that seemed to keep failing, usually due to organizations and people being ill-prepared for the changes expected. Change Management (or Organizational Change Management, as it is sometimes referred to) provides a formalized framework for planning, addressing, and assisting people to manage through change.

Although applying a systematic method for Change Management has been, up to this point, the province of large business organizations who are attempting difficult change initiatives, perhaps we need to take a more serious look at applying its principles more broadly; because in a rapidly changing world, as Robert Frost once wrote, “the best way out is always through.” Indeed, there is no way to skip over the rapid change we are all experiencing.

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