Alvin Toffler, Future Shock

Where are the Alvin Tofflers of Today? A case for why we need a new wave of futurists for the 21st Century

Alvin Toffler, one of the world’s foremost futurists passed away this summer at the age of 87. He was widely regarded for his thoughts about the impacts of modern technologies on cultures, many of which have manifested themselves since he wrote his first book, Future Shock in 1970. It became a worldwide best-seller and has sold over 6 million copies, not only reminding us of our inability to deal with new things but also of our deeper inability to plan for – or even shape - the future.

New York Times author, Farhad Manjoo rightly calls attention to a man who deserves his own 'futurespective' in his recent New York Times article. As local and global crises continue to lurch our world into more complex and ever-faster change, we are beguiled with increasing short-sightedness in our political processes, financial systems and consumer markets that reward maximizing our return on life today. This leaves our society more and more vulnerable at a time when foresight is needed most. As Toffler put it, “Change is avalanching upon our heads and most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope with it.”

Manjoo writes, “We all just sort of bounce along in the present, caught in the headlights of a tomorrow pushed by a few large corporations and shaped by the inescapable logic of hyper-efficiency — a future heading straight for us. It’s not just future shock; we now have future blindness.”

While Alvin Toffler’s predictions have largely come true, in some ways a new wave of even larger technological changes are only now emerging. Artificial intelligence, genomics, drones, virtual reality and autonomous vehicles present transformative forces that will shape the future for us if we don’t develop powerful ways, as a society, to shape the future today.

Yet, Futurism is no longer in vogue among influential decision makers. In its early years, academics and researchers were hired by the private and public sectors to perform deep, dedicated research on how technological movements would shape the social and cultural fabric of our world. Manjoo quotes current practitioner and founder of the Future Today Institute, Amy Webb who says, “‘Futurist’ always sounded like this weird, made-up, science-fiction term [to many]…I don’t know of many people anymore whose day-to-day pursuit is the academic study of the future.”

This is profoundly disturbing. Without a dedicated class of futurists charged with thinking systematically about the future, as Manjoo writes, we risk designing an entire world of unintended consequences that could conceivably shock the Anthropocene out of existence. Toffler warned, “Millions of human beings will find themselves increasingly disoriented, progressively incompetent to deal rationally with their environments.”

Not only do we need a dedicated class of professionals thinking about this, we need new tools and skills sets that help us all re-imagine the edges of the possible and engage in more critical dialogue about the world we want to create. Though often relegated in the margins, artists and designers are beginning to fill the void, creating compelling scenarios about future dystopian and utopian visions in tangible ways. As Manjoo posits the needs for a new wave of futurism, we call upon artists and designers to pick up Alvin Toffler’s torch and help us all intentionally shape the consequences we want to carry into tomorrow.  

Click here to read the full article at The New York Times.

Photo Credit: Bettman