Death of Alvin Toffler: Get set for further future shocks

Kyran Fitzgerald discusses the legacy of the late Alvin Toffler, the social futurist and business forecaster who died last month.

How many of us are able to hazard an informed guess about what is coming next? Not that many, if truth be told.

A fortnight ago, America lost one of its leading thinkers following the death in his sleep of a man at the age of 87 who during his life rarely rested.

Alvin Toffler was one of a very small group of people who possessed formidable predictive powers and, above all, was able to make sense of those predictions.

It should be added that all his working life, he worked in tandem with his wife, Heidi.

The Tofflers produced several best-selling books, the best known being Future Shock. Published in 1970, it has never been out of print.

With the publication of ‘Future Shock’, Alvin established himself as a leading American social commentator.

Described as one of the first futurists, Mr Toffler famously warned that the accelerating pace of technological change was making us all sick.

He described what he regarded as a real psychological malady, “the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future.”

Mr Toffler warned that unless intelligent steps were taken to combat this, people would become “progressively incompetent to deal with their environments”.

In a recent tribute, New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo, concludes that Mr Toffler’s analysis has “largely panned out, with local and global crises arising from our collective inability to deal with ever faster change”.

“Inequality, driven in part by techno-abetted globalisation, has created economic panic across much of the western world,” he wrote.

And such panic, one might add, helps to explain the rise of Mr Trump and other populists, not to mention the recent British referendum result, driven in large part by a sense of insecurity among the less well off.

Among the Tofflers’ predictions were the following: The rise of the Internet and Youtube.

The emergence of cloning and the replacement of blue collar manufacturing by a “third wave” of knowledge workers. The pair also cottoned on to another emerging phenomenon: The instant celebrity--“swiftly fabricated and ruthlessly destroyed.”

Heidi had one of two wobbly moments suggesting that disposable paper clothes would take off like Kleenex.

In 2010, on the 40th anniversary of the publication of Future Shock, Alvin and Heidi were asked to come up with some more predictions.

Among their conclusions were that crowd-sourcing becomes ubiquitous; that answer seekers will link up with problem solvers across the globe; the philanthropic capitalists such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates accumulate wealth, networks and resources which increasingly exceed those of nation states.

One can quibble at some of the findings. for example, the new breed of global capitalist will continue to rely on powerful nation states for the security that guarantees an environment in which to operate.

The atrocities of ISIS and the fierce drone-led response are a reminder that national governments continue to serve a purpose.

But the Tofflers once again were on the mark in foreseeing the evolution of a form of radical transparency.

In the intervening period, we have had the Snowden and Manning leaks along with the ‘Panama Papers’, driven by the emergence of a new form of global investigative journalism.

The Tofflers set up their own consultancy two decades ago. Its managing partner, Deborah Westphal, has talked of the huge vulnerabilities that come from this acceleration in the pace of change, with the prospects of sensors being put into food and the clogging up of data systems with obsolete knowledge, or ‘Obsoledge’.

Ms Westphal talks of how “business, government and organisational structures need to be looked at and redone”.

At the time, ‘Future Shock’ was published, much attention was paid to planning for the future at the heart of the American establishment.

In 1972, a new Office of Technology Assessment was established in Washington. There was a genuine interest among members of Congress in making lawmaking more anticipatory.

The concern is that with the advent of Reaganism and the growing attacks on central government, on its role and its size, led in particular by the Tea Party faction in the Republican party, interest in future planning has waned, at a time when technological change itself appears to be accelerating.

The writer Amy Webb has expressed concern at the fact that the US no longer has an office dedicated to rigorous, non-partisan research about the future.

At the same time, technology companies, ever more wealthy and powerful, invest untold millions in lobbying activities which by their very nature are dictated by self-interest.

At times, the Toffers emerge as optimists, certainly when compared to a generation of novelists from HG Wells to JG Ballard, whose vision of the future is altogether more chilling.

Back in 1962, Mr Ballard’s novel, ‘The Drowned World’, emerged into the light of day. The book is set in 2145, in a post-apocalyptic, flooded London with tropical temperatures.

TAs if to cheer us up more, Mr Ballard also later released ‘The Burning World’. Here, the setting is a barren landscape caused by a massive chemical chain reaction triggered by industrial pollution which dramatically altered the climate.

Mr Ballard has his share of emulators, the latest being the Canadian Emily St John Mantel, whose post-apocalypse novel is set in the near future in a world reduced to near nomadic state after a swine flu pandemic.

Yet what the 20th century presented us with, at times, put into the shade even the grimmest predictions of the great novelists of that era. The future is fond of tripping us up. Take care. It could be dangerous out there.


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