Future Shock: Alvin Toffler’s Vintage Techno-Paranoia, Narrated by Orson Welles
What the dawn of computing has to do with Herbie Hancock and humanoid robotics.
By Maria Popova
In 1970, sociologist and futurist Alvin Toffler, the Ray Kurzweil of his day, wrote a book entitled Future Shock, which proposed a certain distressing psychological state , induced by change so rapid the human mind can’t digest it, and introduced the notion of “information overload” for the first time. In 1972, the book, already a bestseller, was adapted into a little-known documentary of the same name, narrated by Orson Welles. Exploring the shift from industrial society to what Toffler calls “super-industrial society,” the film tackles notions of consumerism and information overload — think BBC’s The Century of the Self meets Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows.
The film is now available on YouTube in five parts, offering a fascinating glimpse of a conflicted society on the brink of a new information era, the very cultural landscape we now inhabit.
What do we buy, where do we go, what shoud we think? The make, the model, the price… Buy now! Keep up with the latest! Don’t fall behind! The pre-cooked, pre-packaged, plastic-wrapped instant society. We’re faced with so many choices, so many decisions. We have to make them so quickly. None of us can escape the pressures. That’s what Future Shock is all about.”
A chemistry professor recently stated that he couldn’t pass today’s examinations because at least two thirds of the questions require knowledge that didn’t exist when he graduated from Oxford in the early 30s.”
So wide-spanning was the influence of Toffler’s work that it inspired an entire Curtis Mayfield album, the title track of which was even famously covered by Herbie Hancock.
The rate of change reflecting the fact that where we live means less and less as we breed a new race of nomads. Few suspect how massive, wide-spread and uprooting these migrations are.”
As the pace of technology accelerates, as the pieces are laid into place, the pattern seems clear: We might create an artificial man. As work proceeds on the brain, it may one day be possible to combine all the elements into a life-like duplication of flesh and blood. The momentum is established, but the direction is up to us. Is there danger in the path we are taking? What happens to the definition of man, who is he? What is he?”
Considering present scientific knowledge, we may soon be able to create carbon copies of human beings. Imagine the implications — to duplicate a human being, genetically, down to the last detail.”
Our children. Will we save them from future shock, or are they destined to suffer the same illness that rocks today’s society? The directions we choose have consequences not merely for us. The choices we make will determine the nature of their world. There is still time.”
The film, darkly dystopian and oozing techno-paranoia, is a valuable reminder that — as our friend Nick Bilton keenly points out — societies have always feared new technology but ultimately adapted to it. Or, better yet, adapted it to their needs. Future Shock is an excellent companion to contemporary books tackling the same issue, such as Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, putting our modern fears in perspective and grounding our present techno-paranoia in its proper historical context.
Published January 12, 2011