Future Shock at 40: What the Tofflers Got Right (and Wrong)

They predicted the “electronic frontier” of the Internet, Prozac, YouTube, cloning, home-schooling, the self-induced paralysis of too many choices, instant celebrities, and the end of blue-collar manufacturing. Not bad for 1970.

In the opening minutes of Future Shock, a 1972 documentary based on the book of the same name, a bearded, cigar-puffing, world-weary Orson Welles staggers down an airport’s moving walkway, treating the camera like a confidante. “In the course of my work, which has taken me to just about every corner of the globe, I see many aspects of a phenomenon which I’m just beginning to understand,” he says. “Our modern technologies have changed the degree of sophistication beyond our wildest dreams. But this technology has exacted a pretty heavy price. We live in an age of anxiety and time of stress. And with all our sophistication, we are in fact the victims of our own technological strengths –- we are the victims of shock… a future shock.”

Published in 1970, Future Shock made its author Alvin Toffler -- a former student radical, welder, newspaper report and Fortune editor -- a household name. Written with his wife (and uncredited co-author), Heidi Toffler, the book was The World Is Flat of its day, selling 6 million copies and single-handedly inventing futurism. The Third Wave followed a decade later, and a third dispatch from the future a decade after that. On the 40th anniversary of the book’s publication (which I wrote about yesterday), it’s worth asking why the Tofflers’ reputation seems stuck in the 1970s when their prognosis was more accurate than not.

“Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time,” the pair wrote. The accelerating changes they predicted included the “electronic frontier” of the Internet, Prozac, YouTube, cloning, home-schooling, the self-induced paralysis of too many choices, instant celebrities “swiftly fabricated and ruthlessly destroyed,” and the end of blue-collar “second-wave” manufacturing, to be replaced by a “third wave” of knowledge workers. Not bad for 1970.

Their misses included such classic Jetsonian tropes as underwater cities, handing teenagers the keys to the family spaceship, and the doubling of the planet’s population in just 11 years. And don’t ask Heidi Toffler about the paper clothes we’d use once and throwaway like Kleenex. “I was wrong,” she said matter-of-factly at the book’s anniversary conference on Thursday. “But I was trying to make a larger point about a “throw-away society.” How many plastic water bottles did we throw away last year?”

And then there are the Tofflerisms:

  • “Change is not merely necessary to life -- it is life.”
  • “Technology feeds on itself. Technology makes more technology possible.”
  • “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.”
  • And still Heidi’s favorite: “Change is the only constant.” (I bet you’d forgotten who said that. I had.)

Perhaps it says something about the Tofflers’ reputation that while their contemporary Marshall McLuhan was adopted as the “patron saint” of early Wired,, the Toffler’s most ardent admirer among the digerati was AOL founder Steve Case, who read The Third Wave while in college and was captivated by the notion of the “electronic frontier.”

“Back then, nobody had PCs, and everything we take for granted wasn’t there,” Case told me at a dinner for the Tofflers Wednesday night, “but I remember reading it and thinking it was inevitable, and that really inspired me to start what became AOL five years later” in 1985. “There’s no question that was a seminal moment for me.”

But the Tofflers may yet find traction with a new generation of aspiring futurists. Parag Khanna, the 33-year-old author of The Second World and forthcoming How to Run The World has sought the Tofflers for advice and still marvels at their track record. “A few things that Toffler got right in 1970 that are still spot on today,” he said Thursday, “include the transience of our relationships with each other and with things, the prediction that people would become as comfortable with virtual and interactive environments as with real life, the genesis of cyborgs and artificial intelligence, the over-stimulation of children, the rise of ad-hocery -- a term he coined -- in business and horizontal rather than vertical corporate structures, and the prominence of super-empowered individuals. Obviously he didn't pioneer all of these ideas, and of course didn't invent artificial intelligence, but the book really shows an imaginative but grounded sense of what the possibilities for these technologies were and the impact they would have.”

One reason the Tofflers seem stuck in the past is that we have yet to take all of their recommendations. “It really upsets me that people say we have to bring manufacturing back,” Heidi said. “We have to re-train people how to think! We can’t compete with second-wave manufacturing, and China is starting to realize it, too. Future Shock is about the process of change, and The Third Wave is about the structures of change. And so far we’ve proven incapable of designing the systems that prepare us for change.”

In that sense, we’re all still as woozy as Orson Welles.

Previously: Future Shock at 40: The Tofflers Stir Up "Cyberdust" With New Scenarios

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  • Brad Szollose

    The movie and later the book had a profound affect on me as a young man. So much so I put it in my book. When you read it today it is almost shocking how accurate Heidi and Alvin Toffler actually were/are.