Thursday, November 21, 2013

Getting Past the Future

The books on the shelves of my home library are not so numerous as to need Melvil Dewey’s organizational help. There are enough, however, for something simpler to be useful. Fiction (all types and genres) is alphabetical by author, history is roughly chronological by subject matter, and all the other nonfiction is packed together – a rough and ready arrangement, but good enough. Even so, I occasionally misfile something, effectively making the book invisible until I stumble on it by accident. This happened the other day: when putting away some Jim Thompson, I noticed Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock on the shelf below. I don’t think I was being intentionally ironic when I long ago misfiled it amid the fiction.

I read Future Shock when it was first published in 1970. It was inspired by the technological revolution of the 20th century and the social revolution that accompanied it. Indeed it had been a remarkable 70 years. I often think about the changes my grandparents experienced in their lifetimes. All were born in or before 1900, and they witnessed a horse-and-buggy world transform into one with satellite communications, jetports, superhighways, consumer electronics, frozen foods, television, and space flight. My paternal grandfather left Austria-Hungary in a horse-drawn hay rick and revisited Budapest in a Boeing 707.

We often hear how in the 21st century “technological change is accelerating.” It really isn’t. I’m not casually dismissing the internet and cell phones, though mobile phones existed as early as 1946; they just were in cars because the power sources were too clunky to carry around. The significance of present-day communications and computing power is enormous. Nevertheless, someone who fell asleep in 1970 and woke up in 2013 would not be astonished at the way we live. If anything, he’d be disappointed there are no moon bases and sentient computers as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A single day of instruction could get him functional (not proficient, but functional) on a PC and cell phone, neither of which is difficult to learn to use. Otherwise, daily life is just not that different from 1970 -- mine isn't, even though I now write for a blog site instead of (as in that year) a school newspaper. A Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep in 1900 and woke up in 1970, on the other hand, would have been awestruck and would have taken months to get up to speed.

So, 1970 was a ripe time for folks to feel shocked by the onrushing future, and Toffler caught the vibe. Many of the points Toffler made are still valid. The nature and pace of modern life, being so at variance with the life for which humans evolved, evoke a constant sense of angst in us. We are likely to interact, however fleetingly, in an average week (sometimes in a day) with more strangers than a Paleo human would have seen in a lifetime. Our friends and family scatter over thousands of miles – often around the globe. We are surrounded by an immense wealth of packaged foods and manufactured goods, even though a diminishing proportion of us is engaged in their production; most of the modern workforce is in services. Impermanence is the hallmark of contemporary life. Change itself – in jobs, homes, partners, property, location, and technology– is the only certainty. Toffler wasn’t describing all this as a problem to be fixed, but as an inevitability to which we must adapt.

People often react to impermanence by trying to anchor themselves to some tradition. They substitute the Rotary Club for a clan, since a club meeting in Phoenix is much like one in Manchester. They retain long distance friendships. They opt for faux traditional architecture. None of this quite dispels the sense that everything is provisional and temporary.

In a life where nothing lasts, we often are exhorted to “embrace change.” Like most facile advice (“straighten up and fly right”; “buck up, kiddo”; “eat less and exercise more”) this is more annoying than useful. We know full well we should do those things; if it were as easy as saying them, we’d already be doing them. Following such nagging advice runs up against some the very same ingrained primate predilections that cause our angst in the first place. However, whether or not we like change, it helps a little to be unsurprised by it – to accept, at least intellectually, that it is inevitable. Besides, for all the angst of modern life, it still beats hunting mammoths with a spear.

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