September 14, 2010

Stross: Future Shock Now

Charlie Stross recently returned from the Australian Singularity Summit and had an epiphany: Alvin Toffler's vision of Future Shock is happening as predicted and we're caught right smack dab in the middle of it:
I don't propose to use this blog entry as a bully pulpit for bashing the intolerant religious...Rather, I'd just like to note that the past decade or so seems to have been marked by a worldwide upwelling of bigotry and intolerance. And it's not only the extremist fringes of every religious creed that are to blame here, although they're part of the picture (and no religion seems to be free of turbulent loons around the edges). We have extremist, eliminationist rhetoric in American political discourse, combined with a hair-raising outbreak of ethnophobia directed at muslims. We have France and Italy deporting Roma (illegally; they're EU citizens and have an absolute right of residence), in a move fuelled by a wave of xenophobia that bears unpleasant echoes of 1940-45. A wave of petty authoritarianism in the UK has led to the installation of all the well-oiled machinery of a police state — now in disarray due to an epochal political upset, but deeply alarming to anyone concerned for civil liberties in the past decade. Australia had its great firewall debate. Russia's government is increasingly authoritarian, harking back to the Soviet era in methods and goals (now with less revolutionary ideology).
Stross continues,
The term Future Shock was coined by Alvin and Heidi Toffler in the 1960s to describe a syndrome brought about by the experience of "too much change in too short a period of time". Per Wikipedia (my copy of Future Shock is buried in a heap of books in the room next door) "Toffler argues that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a 'super-industrial society'. This change will overwhelm people, the accelerated rate of technological and social change leaving them disconnected and suffering from 'shattering stress and disorientation' — future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems were symptoms of the future shock. In his discussion of the components of such shock, he also popularized the term information overload."

It's about forty years since "Future Shock" was published, and it seems to have withstood the test of time. More to the point, the Tofflers' predictions for how the symptoms would be manifest appear to be roughly on target. They predicted a growth of cults and religious fundamentalism; rejection of modernism: irrational authoritarianism: and widespread insecurity. They didn't nail the other great source of insecurity today, the hollowing-out of state infrastructure and externally imposed asset-stripping in the name of economic orthodoxy that Naomi Klein highlighted in The Shock Doctrine, but to the extent that Friedmanite disaster capitalism can be seen as a predatory corporate response to massive political and economic change, I'm inclined to put disaster capitalism down as being another facet of the same problem. (And it looks as if the UK and USA are finally on the receiving end of disaster capitalism at home, in the post-2008 banking crisis era.)

My working hypothesis to explain the 21st century is that the Tofflers underestimated how pervasive future shock would be. I think somewhere in the range from 15-30% of our fellow hairless primates are currently in the grip of future shock, to some degree. Symptoms include despair, anxiety, depression, disorientation, paranoia, and a desperate search for certainty in lives that are experiencing unpleasant and uninvited change. It's no surprise that anyone who can offer dogmatic absolute answers is popular, or that the paranoid style is again ascendant in American politics, or that religious certainty is more attractive to many than the nuanced complexities of scientific debate. Climate change is an exceptionally potent trigger for future shock insofar as it promises an unpleasant and unpredictable dose of upcoming instability in the years ahead; denial is an emotionally satisfying response to the threat, if not a sustainable one in the longer term.
I kinda half agree with Stross. There's a lot of truth to what he's saying. What he needs to be more specific about, however, is how different groups are reacting to future shock in different ways, and how that in turns sets off ancillary social stresses; not everyone is reacting to future shock per se.

For example, Islamic fundamentalists are clearly being set-off by future shock (what others might call cultural globalization, or Westernification, or imperialism, or whatever). The reaction to their reaction, particularly by Americans, is not directly caused by future shock. Instead, it's a kind of backlash to those who are future shocked, leading to a rise in populism and an insidious quasi-fascism. But any way you look at it, there's definitely turmoil in the world, and much of it caused by the rapid rate of technological development and spread—and the sociological changes it brings.

Be sure to read Stross's entire article, it's a good one.


twhair said...

George you nailed it on the head. America and Europe reacting to Islamic fundamentalism is not future shock. Islamic fundamentalism is future shock. The reaction of the West is blow back to a culture that cannot adapt.

CS McClellan/Catana said...

Two additional contributing pressures, which are rarely noted in this context are the decline in education and growing population. People are less capable of coping rationally with change because they have less real knowledge (despite information overload). They are also increasingly frustrated by the increase of automated or scripted procedures which leave no room for the personal in addressing problems.

samantha said...

Attributing pretty much everything disturbing to Future Shock did not impress me in the early 70s and does not impress me much now. I am more than a bit tired of the assumptions of everyone including myself that does who disagree about this or that issue are likely all nitwits or suffering from "future shock" or some other malady. I hope that our AI evolutionary successors have a better go at it.

Anonymous said...

@twhair: "Islamic terrorism" may be due in part to culture shock, but it's a wee bit more complicated than that. It's like, since the 1950s various outside powers (mainly the US and Russia, but also occasionally some European countries and China) have been forcing puppet governments on various Middle Eastern countries until they manage to produce their own "legit" governments which serve the interests of said outside powers above that of their own people. So they tend to be more than a little ticked off at both their own governments and the outside powers which meddled with the situation.

There is an element of future shock to it too, I won't deny that. But that's only part of the story.

Ken said...

Or it could be that people get pissed and out of sorts when they don't have jobs, their government is spending money that no one will ever have, much less pay back, and their military is running around the world doing everything but protecting their own borders.

the term "future shock" is a nice conceit for the comfortable. It allows them to dismiss the concerns of other people who just aren't as cool/smart/creative/open minded/pick-your-ego-trip as the rest of us.


twhair said...

So it's a wee bit more complicated you know how childish that sounds? With or without US/Russian/European intervention in the internal affairs of other nations do you think the Taliban or some other degenerate system (think anything associated with Sharia)is going to deliver us to the transhuman future we talk about on this website? That last question was not conceit Ken...just an attempt to get you to understand that the long range future of humanity and it's AI progeny is in the hands of Western liberal democracies and not those you so easily make excuses for.

twhair said...

"Islamic fundamentalists are clearly being set-off by future shock (what others might call cultural globalization, or Westernification, or imperialism, or whatever). The reaction to their reaction, particularly by Americans, is not directly caused by future shock. Instead, it's a kind of backlash to those who are future shocked, leading to a rise in populism and an insidious quasi-fascism."

Not complicated at all...just backlash guys. You hit me, I hit you 10 times harder so you don't do it again. Worked with Japan and Germany 65 years ago, should work the same today.

Islam's 1000 year system is being destroyed in the blink of an eye by globalization and instant info access. That's why their controllers are freaking out. Christianity's 2000 year system hopefully only has two blinks left. It pains me to say this but I'd live under Emperor Palin long before I would live under a Draconian system like that found in Saudi Arabia or Iran.

Anonymous said...

@twhair: Okay. You try replacing the U.S. president with a military dictator who serves the interests of Chinese businesses and government above that of the US people. If the wannabe minuteman-type militias don't start getting serious and blowing stuff up for real, I'll concede that argument. (Or, if you're not an American, insert the name of your country and whatever local anti-government types you have.)

Ed Keller said...

John Brunner's fabulous hard scifi 'Shockwave Rider' was published in the mid 70's and directly acknowledges the influence the Tofflers had on it. Highly recommended.

twhair said...

Fallingupthesky, I am an American and a live and let live libertarian. If Adam and Steve want to get married and they're my friends, I'll be there to wish them well. But if Jihadist Luddites want to blow up their wedding and kill a bunch of us infidels, then I say send in the Predator UAV. I don't want to pick a fight...I just want the crazies to leave Steve, Adam, and me alone so we can hoist a beer to the long-term future of humanity.