Explores the Impact of Change Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Heidi and Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock provided a comprehensive diagnosis of widespread trauma in response to accelerated change in all dimensions of human life.

Summary of Event

Alvin Toffler, working collaboratively with his wife Heidi, wrote Future Shock. The book represented the result of more than five years of the Tofflers’ research and observations during the 1960’s, one of the most turbulent decades the United States had ever experienced. During this period, a number of popular and influential authors wrote books in which they attempted to explain the rapid changes taking place in society and to describe the profound effects of technology on human life. Inventor R. Buckminster Fuller, who was one of the earliest of these futurist authors, emphasized the interdependence of systems. One of his most well-known works, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, was published in 1963. Marshall McLuhan, coming from a background in literature, had become fascinated with the significance of electronic communications as an alternative to the printed word. His Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man was published in 1964. Future Shock (Toffler and Toffler) [kw]Future Shock Explores the Impact of Change (July, 1970) [kw]Change, Future Shock Explores the Impact of (July, 1970) Future Shock (Toffler and Toffler) [g]North America;July, 1970: Future Shock Explores the Impact of Change[10860] [g]United States;July, 1970: Future Shock Explores the Impact of Change[10860] [c]Publishing and journalism;July, 1970: Future Shock Explores the Impact of Change[10860] [c]Sociology;July, 1970: Future Shock Explores the Impact of Change[10860] Toffler, Alvin Toffler, Heidi Fuller, R. Buckminster McLuhan, Marshall

In the same decade, Alvin Toffler rose to prominence as an author who had broadened his academic perspective by working as a laborer in factories. His interest in labor had led him to work as a journalist, writing about labor, management, politics, and related topics. His wife and intellectual partner, Heidi, who had also worked in factories as a way of studying labor, was employed for a time at a Washington, D.C., behavioral science and business library. Alvin Toffler’s first book, The Culture Consumers, Culture Consumers, The (Toffler) was first published in 1964. Even in this early work, Toffler described significant transformations in society, particularly the arts. He documented the changes in the ways the arts were supported and experienced, and he explained how the nonuniformity of art balanced the uniformity of industrial production. His book took on new significance with the emergence of the 1960’s counterculture just two or three years after its publication.

At around this time, the Tofflers began to work on another book, one much broader in scope than The Culture Consumers. “Culture shock” was an existing term applied to the effects of geographic displacement. Alvin conceived of “future shock” as the temporal equivalent of culture shock; he introduced the term in a 1965 article, “The Future as a Way of Life,” "Future as a Way of Life, The" (Toffler)[Future as a Way of Life] in Horizon magazine. His work on the new book included conversations with hundreds of experts in the natural and social sciences, government agencies, and people from a wide variety of social environments. The research was facilitated by his continued work as a journalist and consultant. Some of the most significant of Toffler’s engagements were with technology companies such as International Business Machines (IBM) and Xerox. His contact with some of the world’s leading scientists put Toffler in a unique position to assess coming changes in technology. Although she was not listed as a coauthor in their early publications, Heidi was credited by her husband in the acknowledgments section of Future Shock as contributing significantly to the work through their constant discussions, as well as editing all the book’s content.

Published in 1970, Future Shock became a best seller worldwide. Within its pages, Toffler discussed the impact of profound, accelerated change in many dimensions of human life, including technology, information, business, family life, and education. Increased levels of transience, disposability, information overload, and novelty, he argued, contributed to increased levels of personal and social stress. While previous futurist authors were often enthusiastic about the possibilities for technology, Toffler was one of the first of his generation to take into account the physical and psychological limits of humanity’s adaptability and the possibility that change could be traumatic. His work thus echoed the many writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—including Charles Baudelaire, Georg Simmel, and Walter Benjamin—who explicitly described modernity Modernity as inherently traumatic.

The Tofflers’ writing style reflected a careful balance between popular journalistic and academic writing. On the academic side, they included detailed references and a bibliography, backing up their points with solid data and documentation. On the popular side, their language was very straightforward and free of disciplinary jargon. They used examples that could touch people on a personal, emotional level. Rather than put forward an apocalyptic or utopian vision, the Tofflers adopted the calm but authoritative tone of a therapist, with an emphasis on diagnosis. By describing “future shock” as a social syndrome, they conveyed the sense that the phenomenon must first be understood before it could be cured.

Like Fuller and McLuhan before him, Toffler introduced new concepts and phrases, including the book’s title, which entered the popular lexicon, and he even introduced a new word, “ad-hocracy,” describing a more flexible and responsive system of organization that could be applied in both the public and the private sectors. Although Future Shock did not offer detailed descriptions of alternatives, the Tofflers described what they saw as the profound inadequacy of existing structures, including the education system, which was viewed as being based on industrial models of uniformity and rigidity. On its release, Future Shock was praised by Marshall McLuhan, Betty Friedan, and other prominent writers.

Significance

Future Shock continued to influence readers worldwide long after its initial publication. Many of the concepts introduced in this work entered common use. In subsequent decades, key figures in the rapidly developing “new media” and computer-technology fields cited the book as having kindled their interest in change and innovation. Along with personalities such as media mogul Ted Turner, the Tofflers’ influential admirers also included prominent politicians such as Al Gore, vice president of the United States from 1992 to 2000, and Newt Gingrich Gingrich, Newt , speaker of the House of Representatives from 1995 to 1998. Gingrich wrote the foreword to the Tofflers’ 1995 book, Creating a New Civilization.

Although some of the changes anticipated in Future Shock did not come to pass within the time frames or in the same manner predicted, many of the major events and trends in the years following the book’s publication had obvious connections to the theories it expressed. For example, the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to confirm the Tofflers’ earlier economic and social pronouncements, and the increasing popularity of the Internet at the turn of the century verified their prediction that everyday life in the “super industrial” stage of society would be profoundly affected by personal computers.

Alvin and Heidi Toffler wrote many more books, building on the themes and concepts introduced in Future Shock, and traveled frequently to give presentations. They also continued to serve as consultants and appeared in many interviews, both in print and on the Internet. Works subsequent to Future Shock formalized their theories and included more specific policy recommendations. The Third Wave Third Wave, The (Toffler and Toffler) (1980) used the concept of three “waves” to describe changes in societies, which were described as progressing from agricultural to industrial to “super industrial,” a stage originally described in Future Shock that corresponded to the “information age” described by other theorists. Future Shock (Toffler and Toffler)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Finley, Michael. “Toffler’s Waves—Why Alvin Toffler’s Third Wave Matters.” In Mike Finley’s Future Shoes. Louisville, Ky.: BrownHerron, 2002. Analytic article examines continued relevance of the Tofflers’ concepts, including those presented in Future Shock.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gillespie, Nick. “The Future Is Now.” The New York Times, May 14, 2006. Review of Revolutionary Wealth (2006) that provides an overview of the Tofflers’ other work and its influence, including Future Shock.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Toffler, Alvin. Previews and Premises: An Interview with the Author of “Future Shock” and “The Third Wave.” New York: Morrow, 1983. Lengthy, 230-page discussion by Toffler of his work. Index.

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