Present Shock
June 29, 2016 1:57 PM   Subscribe

Seminal author and futurist, Alvin Toffler, passed away at age 87. Mr. Toffler popularized the phrase β€œinformation overload.”
posted by infini (51 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Smart Dalek at 2:08 PM on June 29, 2016

Enjoy the fourth wave, Alvin.
posted by sourwookie at 2:11 PM on June 29, 2016

[Nixed pdf link; linking to stuff about the Future Shock seems like a great idea so feel free to do so, but literally a ripped copy of the text not so much.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 2:23 PM on June 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

posted by Splunge at 2:23 PM on June 29, 2016

It was sloggy and needlessly intimidating but Future Shock could be good shorthand for awhile there.

posted by petebest at 2:25 PM on June 29, 2016

Well fuck.
posted by Artw at 2:29 PM on June 29, 2016

Hell of a time to leave us.

posted by Artw at 2:29 PM on June 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

I worked for him for years. It was a hell of an experience.

posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 2:39 PM on June 29, 2016 [14 favorites]

Aw! I loved future shock and the third wave back when I was a nigh impressionable git in need of some acculturation.
posted by Annika Cicada at 2:41 PM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

@notmyselfrightnow: hugs
posted by Annika Cicada at 2:42 PM on June 29, 2016

From what I remember of reading his books Future Shock and Third Wave before the turn of the century, while his terms might not have been what are used these days, his ideas were often surprisingly in the neighborhood.
posted by qcubed at 2:56 PM on June 29, 2016

posted by Flashman at 2:58 PM on June 29, 2016

posted by ocschwar at 3:08 PM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Anyone care to talk about Future Shock and the cultural context it came out in? All I know it from is every used book store and thrift store ever. Seemed neat, from the cover, but looked impenetrable while paging through. This was in the 90s and 2000s.
posted by kittensofthenight at 3:30 PM on June 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

posted by Thorzdad at 3:40 PM on June 29, 2016

Anyone care to talk about Future Shock and the cultural context it came out in?

The 1970's were basically the triple point for optimism, anxiety, and pseudoscience. The oil shock and the ongoing reality of the Cold War were getting the message across that the future wasn't going to be Golden Age SF. But you still had this kind of OMNI Magazine optimistic cultural energy, sure that huge breakthroughs were just around the corner. Early PC hobbyist culture, solar energy, and other pretty much revolutionary technologies were in fact arriving. Now at the same time, the public awareness of and acceptance of fringe science, paranormal beliefs, the Bermuda Triangle, est seminars, Eastern religions of all descriptions, pop psychology etc was higher than ever. The idea that decent people are open minded about more or less any explanatory system whatever was growing.

Toffler, I suppose (I never read the book!) managed to put together a popular theory to explain what living in this sociological stew was all about, and he seemingly hit on a void that people didn't even know was there. I think he hit the sweet spot where it became a book that people felt they should have, in order to signal that they were with the times, too - a lot more people probably bought it than read it. Like "A Brief History Of Time", which showed everyone that you were no peasant!

Also, that was sort of the great era of the bestseller. Like a book, "Jaws", or "Fear of Flying" or "I'm OK, You're OK"
or "Airport", would become The Thing and a huge, must-have, part of pop culture, in a way that a few books still do. There were far fewer choices for media entertainment then, and a popular book had a proportionally larger impact.
posted by thelonius at 3:51 PM on June 29, 2016 [21 favorites]

I read Future Shock thirty years ago. I seem to recall that the premise was, in the future, change would accelerate so rapidly, and we would all be so overwhelmed with so much media, that you wouldn't be able to accurately know what was happening in it's totality, and you might find yourself abruptly caught unawares by some bizarre phenomena that dramatically up-ends everything you thought you knew, before: Shocked, by the Future!

I think of Futureshock as being kind of a synthesis of McLuhan, Kurzweil, & Moore.

I probably have a copy somewhere...
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 3:53 PM on June 29, 2016 [11 favorites]

I think thelonius and littlejohnnyjewel both gave good answers to that question.

Some things that I'll always remember from working with him:

He was probably the largest individual purchaser of filing cabinets in California. The man kept every piece of research, every interesting article, everything that might be a source for his next piece, and it was amazingly well organized.

He aggressively pushed for Heidi (his wife) to get full credit alongside him for everything he did. He'd stop and correct anyone who said that he wrote the books and didn't mention her. He believed very strongly that women didn't get enough credit for their contributions, and he wasn't going to be part of the problem.

A lot of the news reports will talk about how FutureShock was the number 2 best seller in China for a period, and talk about how impressive that is. What they'll leave out is that the book wasn't officially available in China - it was a black market translation and publication. Al thought that was hysterical.

We had a lot of fun introducing new employees to them. Al was very gracious. Heidi was/is feisty. Her first question to any new employee was, "Have you read the books?" She'd then quiz you. We learned early on to send any new hires copies of the book shortly after they accepted, and to push them to read them before they met the Tofflers.

They got a lot of things right when it came to predicting the future. They also got some things really wrong (we are not, and probably never will, wear paper clothing). I think the "rights" outnumber the "wrongs" by a vast quantity. I still can't use an ATM or a self checkout without thinking of his concept of "prosumerism."

They wrote a lot of books, a lot of articles, and gave a lot of speeches. I don't know if anyone ever explicitly asked Al what the most important single idea he had was, but I think I know what his answer would have been: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 4:41 PM on June 29, 2016 [78 favorites]


Future Shock inspired John Brunner's excellent SF novel The Shockwave Rider, which is still worth reading.

It's interesting how close and how far off Toffler and Brunner's predictions about the 21st century turned out being.
posted by monotreme at 4:43 PM on June 29, 2016 [10 favorites]

Wow. So I think I was in 5th grade when I first read future shock at the recommendation of my teacher. (He also was the first adult to constructively describe me as blunt and direct). I think I reread that book twice as well as three the third wave and power shift in there. He was as much my foundation of my interest in scientific and sociological knowledge as Carl Sagan and James Burke. As a 5th grader, I remember struggling through the text. I remember working hard with my teacher to understand not only what some of meant, but as well as what it meant for my future.

It spurred an interest in everything PBS, and in politics and how we disseminate information and knowledge. My 5th grade teacher challenged me to question the world (with my bluntness).
In subsequent years so many people have critiqued Toffler's theories and observations, calling in to question whether he was just a stopped clock (which is especially interesting given his subject matter). The thing is - whether he was right, wrong, or completely off base with his assessment doesn't matter. He started a discussion for me at a young age - broke me from accepting the status quo - and for that, I thank him.

Also, I just found out that apparently I no longer own any of his books... Something that I had not thought of over several decades of life.

Mr. Toffler, I hope the future you found was as eye opening to you as it has been to me.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:03 PM on June 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

posted by drezdn at 5:11 PM on June 29, 2016

I always called the essence of Cyberpunk "applied future shock". It wasn't the technology per se that was important, but the bewildering kaleidoscope of impressions of future culture that made the books, and that was very Toffler derived.
posted by happyroach at 5:25 PM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Twiggy And The K-Mesons.
posted by ovvl at 5:34 PM on June 29, 2016

posted by b1tr0t at 5:38 PM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Did Toffler coin "producer"? Wow.
posted by GuyZero at 5:42 PM on June 29, 2016

posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 5:44 PM on June 29, 2016

I remember taking a summer school class on "what and how future societies might be like" in summer school when I was in 8th grade. This was in California, before the passage of Proposition 13, when school districts had enough money to offer summer school courses that delivered actual enrichment to students. It was a fun class, and at least half of it was devoted to studying Future Shock, both the book and the movie. Watching movie was a real trip at the time. Some of it was terribly boring (I think the segment about studying galvanic skin response lasts about three weeks, if memory serves), but other aspects were absolutely mind blowing.

One memory that sticks in my mind: the brief vignette that stated that in the future, there would be same sex marriages. Although the male/male wedding depicted in the movie is embarrassingly campy, the matter-of-fact statement that, "hey, folks, in the future this is going to happen" was just so shocking that it really blew my mind. As a 14 year old cis het male, this went way beyond what my own limited concept of "the future" held. At the time, I think my friends and I dismissed it with a snort and a laugh. But I've never forgotten that I heard it from Toffler (or Welles, his narrator) first, and it turned out to be an amazingly prescient call. Seeing (most of) our society spin 180Β° on this issue in the last 10 years has been very gratifying, and equally mind blowing. Toffler wasn't always right in FS, but he definitely batted well above average.

posted by mosk at 5:55 PM on June 29, 2016 [8 favorites]

posted by 1970s Antihero at 6:11 PM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I read Future Shock – or rather, read about 40% of it – when I was maybe 13. I couldn't make my way through it, which I attributed at the time to it being over my head. I see from the experiences of others above that maybe it is just not that well-written.

In any event, I will say that despite the huge amounts of science fiction I was plowing through at that age, Toffler was the first one to suggest to me that the future might be far stranger than I could imagine, and not merely 1962 with protein pills and commutes to the moon.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:43 PM on June 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


posted by clavdivs at 6:50 PM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

damnit autocorrect, I meant "prosumer". If so, he was way ahead of his time.
posted by GuyZero at 7:05 PM on June 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Bought the paperback. Read the paperback. Finally threw away the paperback when the pages turned all brown and brittle and it fell apart.

His take on the future was scary. Probably not nearly as scary as it's going to be.

posted by BlueHorse at 7:07 PM on June 29, 2016

My parents (far from the trendiest people of their generation), had Future Shock on their shelf. Around age 11, I tried to read it because the title sounded cool. I don't remember much else about it.
posted by jonmc at 7:17 PM on June 29, 2016

I always thought as a youth that being a Toffler prosumer was the goal. Having attained a fair semblance of the notion (really, in late-stage capitalism fair semblance translates to more-comfortable house slave of course), it's still a pretty neat concept, though not practically attainable in the world of the .01%. Or really even in the world of lucre.

posted by riverlife at 7:45 PM on June 29, 2016


Aw, hell.

Like Nanukthedog, I read Future Shock when I was an sf-reading kid. It was rich, challenging, frustrating, exhilarating, alienating. I still remember sections.

Around 19 I saw Third Wave and devoured it. Pre-Gingrich, it was very exciting, and helped kick my thinking around in all kinds of ways. I was at university, and it was a fine addition to that intellectual ferment.

Then a couple of decades went by, as parts of the world gradually picked up Tofflerian themes. After my first two professional jobs, I started a third: as a futurist. Toffler lurked in the back of my mind. Only now am I catching up with him.

Another time: .
posted by doctornemo at 7:45 PM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

posted by ZeusHumms at 7:46 PM on June 29, 2016

One of the interesting spurs of Toffler's influence is on dance music. Future Shock and The Third Wave were direct inspirations on Juan Atkins, one of the three originators of (Detroit) Techno music. The name "techno" itself comes from Toffler's use of the term "techno rebels" in The Third Wave, the name of Atkins' first band, Cybotron, is a Toffler word, and the name of his label, Metroplex, comes from Toffler's "Metrocomplex."

While the texts may be dated in themselves, which comes as no surprise when writing about the future, the books hit bullseyes for a lot of people, not the least black people, who have found commentary and inspiration in his assessments of modes of production and the roles of science and technology in lifting people into new ways of living and participating in society, not to mention tools for interpreting the present.

From People Magazine, of all places, in 1975:
Do you have any observations on America's Bicentennial?

Jefferson and Madison were futurists, and we have been coasting on their ideas for 200 years. It's time we came up with some original ideas of our own. I propose we draw up 50 alternatives for a new constitution. That's a lot better than settling for garish posters and plastic statuettes of Washington.
Hindsight tells us that the books may have substantially composed of ore, but the gold and diamonds within have been spalled for the continued benefit of many people. Which is more than can be said for, say, Erich von Daniken.

posted by rhizome at 7:51 PM on June 29, 2016 [11 favorites]

posted by adrienneleigh at 8:27 PM on June 29, 2016

Though it came much later than Shockwave Rider, which as monotreme mentioned is strongly influenced by Toffler, I think that Max Headroom carries a bit of that DNA as well. Blipverts seemed to me a literal instance of Future Shock: too much, too quickly.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:47 PM on June 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

Hell, half the time, gigantic developments in science, geopolitics, the humanities, ecology, etc blip by my attention window with barely a notice as I focus on whatever today's panic or personal crisis is. It seems more and more we're living in the world he, or they, predicted.

posted by newdaddy at 8:57 PM on June 29, 2016

One of my favorite thinkers and personal heroes, I devoured his work, they were some of the most influential books in my life. A truly brilliant and prescient futurist. This passing really hurts.

RIP, good sir.

posted by dbiedny at 9:26 PM on June 29, 2016

posted by Autumn Leaf at 10:29 PM on June 29, 2016

I read Future Shock in its first paperback edition while I was still in high school. I agreed with just under 50% of what it had to say (which was well above average for me and 'non-fiction'), but I'd hate to go back and see how much that the world has diverged from his Future (and especially how much of what he incorrectly predicted was what I agreed with).

It's been a lot of years since the Future has Shocked me.
but no longer Shocked.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:00 PM on June 29, 2016

posted by lmfsilva at 12:04 AM on June 30, 2016

"Future shock" was an analogy to "culture shock." The idea is that one's own culture was changing so rapidly that you would experience culture shock in your own changed culture.
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:13 AM on June 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

posted by crocomancer at 4:03 AM on June 30, 2016

One of the interesting spurs of Toffler's influence is on dance music.

That article mentioned James Brown, who briefly had a Soul Train-like showed called Future Shock. I'm not sure what that all means, but there has to be some significance there.
posted by TedW at 7:51 AM on June 30, 2016

Future Shock inspired John Brunner's excellent SF novel The Shockwave Rider, which is still worth reading.

And it and The Third Wave were of course Cyberpunk bibles. The thing to remember about them is that both were as much propaganda as prediction, an attack on the "obsolete" values of social democracy and the welfare state by arguing that change was inevitable and could only go in a particular direction, while anybody who objected to this was just a stick in the mud.

Despite that there was still value in both these books and they did identify genuine trends; the Tofflers' later work is less impressive as they became enamoured of Gingrich Republicanism.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:11 PM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

posted by radwolf76 at 8:04 AM on July 1, 2016

Pat Mills, the editor who oversaw the creation of 2000AD and Judge Dredd, was a bit of a fan, and so it;s probably thanks to him that "Future Shocks" are the name 2000AD gives its the short one-off twist ending tstories and that Judge Dredd features "futsies", citizens unable to keep up with the pace of change who go on violent rampages.
posted by Artw at 2:25 PM on July 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

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