Future Shock: Alvin Toffler’s Study Of Information Overload

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The fear of technological progress, end times panic and Orson Welles’ apocalyptic documentary films.

We live in apocalyptic times, with predictions and protests about the end of the world being omnipresent and ever more hysterical. We’re in the end days, if the voices of doom – religious and secular – are to be believed.

If Extinction Rebellion and their ilk have you unable to sleep at night, it might be reassuring to know that we’ve been through all this before. Or it might not. Because while predictions of a new ice age have been replaced with gobal warming, much of what we were told were the end of times back in the past is not that far from our modern fears. A fear of technological advancement and what it might do to us has long been instinctual for many people, whether that fear is of the destruction of the world or simply its reshaping into something dark and scary and unrecognisable.

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Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock (co-written with frequently uncredited wife Heidi) is a study of the way rapid change displaces and unbalances us – a changing world rather than an ending one – but nevertheless, the book is a classic example of social angst arising from the fear of progress and suspicion of the future – too much change coming too quickly. The term ‘future shock’ – later popularised for a new generation by 2000AD – refers to how individuals are overwhelmed by the rapid speed of change, leading to ‘information overload’ as people become overwhelmed and disconnected by the way society, culture and technology outstrips our ability to keep up. But the idea of technological and social displacement is, in many ways, as apocalyptic as anything else – the fear of the future all too often connects with a fear of scientific and technological developments, often viewed with suspicion by those who see a simpler, more natural past with a sense of idealism. Essentially, it’s a fear of progress, and while an interesting read, Toffler’s book – both in its accuracies and wildly hysterical false predictions – often feels like the fretting of a luddite.

The 1972 documentary version of Future Shock feels rather more doom laden than the book, perhaps because it is narrated by Orson Welles, who would later have form in actual end of the world movies, having also voiced The Late Great Planet Earth in 1979 and The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (about Nostradamus) in 1981. If it’s any consolation, the Biblical and visionary predictions of those films failed to come to pass, so fingers crossed that the latest bunch of apocalyptic claims will also turn out to be wrong.

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