The 1970s were a tumultuous and soul-searching period in our nation’s history. The movement, which had begun in the ‘60s, to extend the rights of previously marginalized groups—women, African-Americans, gays and lesbians—was in full swing, as were the protests against the ongoing war in Vietnam, which by then had extended into Cambodia.
Defending the “old order” was a vigorous “new right,” which sought to defend political conservatism and what they called “traditional family values.” Concurrently, millions of Americans began to lose faith in their government in the wake of the behavior and resignation of President Richard Nixon. With these monumental forces at work, the future direction of our country—politically, socially, and technologically—was very much in doubt.
Back then, as it is today, America was in need of a voice that would make some reassuring sense of what was happening all around us. To our collective rescue came a little known social scientist named Alvin Toffler. Toffler was a scholar and freelance writer who had dedicated five years of his life studying the causes of social upheaval, which he clearly saw engulfing not only the United States but also the world. His groundbreaking first work, “Future Shock,” was a mesmerizing study of how the union of science, capital and communication was producing change so rapidly that an entirely new society was destined to emerge. These themes were repeated in two later works: “The Third Wave” and “Powershift.” Although he published 13 books in all, the three listed herein are his famous “trilogy.”
Alvin Toffler passed away last week at the age of 87. Forty-six years ago, I read his book in one sitting. In preparation for this column, I went back and reread “Future Shock” and was amazed at how applicable his words are today.
His message was unmistakable: we were in for a rough ride. This “new society” was not necessarily going to be an improvement over the old one. The “roaring current of change” was producing, he believed, measurable negative effects in individuals and in their relationship with their families and their communities.
On a scientific level, he correctly foresaw cloning, personal computers, the internet, cable television and telecommuting. He considered himself a “futurist” and described his role succinctly in his main work’s preface: “we who explore the future are like those ancient mapmakers, and it is in this spirit that the concept of future shock and the theory of the adaptive range are presented here-not as a final word, but as a first approximation of the new realities, filled with danger and promise, created by the accelerative thrust.”
Tofler’s proviso that “no serious futurist deals in predictions…these are left for television oracles and newspaper astrologers” is in direct conflict with my favorite “futurist,” Michio Kaku. After interviewing over 300 scientists, this brilliant scientist did not hold back in making countless futuristic predictions in one of my favorite books: “Physics of the Future.” In this scientific masterpiece, Kaku describes our society in the year 2100. For Kaku, the future is bright and exciting: “we will control computers via tiny brain sensors and, like magicians, move objects around with the power of our minds. Artificial intelligence will be dispersed throughout the environment, and internet enabled contact lenses will allow us to access the world’s information base or conjure up any image we desire in the blink of an eye.”
In spite of Dr. Kaku’s optimism, history teaches us that the development of technological advances is never a given nor a straight line. The free market and political forces often play a crucial role in either advancing or stymieing the march of science. I remember being at the AT&T pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. On display was what was called the “television phone,” which would display on a TV screen the person to whom you were talking. Only 100 were ever made (at a cost of $1 million each) and, aside from its presence on a few television shows, they disappeared altogether until the relatively recent emergence of “Facetime.”
The resistance of politicians to acknowledge and intelligently act on the irrefutable scientific evidence of global warming is another example of how a better future is no sure thing. Recently, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued this stern warning: “Global warming is already having significant and harmful effects on our communities, our health and our climate. Sea level rise is accelerating. The number of large wildfires is growing. Dangerous heat waves are becoming more common. Extreme storm events are increasing in many areas. More severe droughts are occurring in others. We must take immediate action to address global warming or these consequences will continue to intensify, grow ever more costly, and increasingly affect the entire planet—including you, your community and your family.” Yet a majority of our leaders in the House of Representatives indicated their opposition to the concept of global warning.
So, where do we go from here? Writer Farhad Manjoo suggests we need to “pick up Alvin Toffler’s torch.” He believes that Toffler had it right, but he also laments our present lack of futuristic vision: “It’s almost as if we have collectively stopped planning for the future. Instead, we all just sort of bounce along in the present, caught in the headlights of a tomorrow…It’s not just future shock; we now have future blindness.” Toffler himself provides a warning that we would be wise to heed: “The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.”
Perhaps the words of Michio Kaku sum it up best: “There are two competing trends in the world today: one is to create a planetary civilization that is tolerant, scientific, and prosperous, but the other glorifies anarchy and ignorance that could rip the fabric of our society.” More optimistic than Toffler, Kaku suggests that “in the future, we will make the transition from being passive observers of the dance of nature, to being the choreographers of nature.” Dr. Kaku’s refrain calls for the wielding of the “sword of science with wisdom and equanimity, taming the barbarism of our ancient past.”
In spite of their differences, Toffler and Kaku agree on two important matters: 1) change is both inevitable and irresistible, and (2) the type of society that will emerge—inclusive or exclusive, just or unjust, intelligent or ignorant—is up to us.
Vote wisely, my friends.
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