Future Shock | After Shock

It’s 50 years since Alvin Toffler‘s ‘Future Shock‘ was published in 1970. I remember first reading it some time later, in a battered, orange-coloured paperback edition I acquired at a bargain price from one of the secondhand bookshops in the Charing Cross Road.

The book made a strong impression on me. Partly, I guess, because I was already into technology, back in that era when ‘digital natives’ meant those of us who soldered electronic circuits and assembled home computers, typing in error-strewn code copied from monthly hobbyist magazines – only to find ourselves humiliated by chess programs running in just 1K of memory.

I remember being both surprised and intrigued by the basis of the book. It hadn’t really occurred to me how much the increasingly rapid changes around us might create a sense of shock – ‘future shock’ – for some people. I welcomed progress and the improvements and inevitable change that come with it (and still do). The idea that other people might prefer a slower-moving, more leisurely and predictable world – one where today is much like a re-run of yesterday – seemed alien to me.

I get ‘future shock’ now. Experiencing the disappearance of much of the London I knew when I was younger is one personal reason. While it’s become a better, more open and outward looking city in so many ways, I miss the quirky one-off shops and areas and characters that once typified and enriched it. When I find myself turning onto a familiar street and remembering a now long-vanished place, or recalling the people and friends I once knew there, it’s as if part of my own history and sense of place has been extinguished too.

I also get it at another, more universal and important level. In the way, for example, that technology has challenged many of the institutions on which our society, democracy and freedom are founded. And it’s this more significant theme I explore in ‘After Shock‘ – the book being published to mark the half-century since ‘Future Shock’ appeared.

In my contribution, ‘Our Future State’, I set out my observation that

Government has not aged well over the past 50 years. As Alvin Toffler predicted, its industrial era institutions and practices have proved themselves ill-equipped to cope with the pace of technological change.

And that the

… failure to orchestrate technology as a public good has contributed to a growing sense of alienation and disadvantage. Unable to cope with the fast-paced and unrecognisable world around them, many citizens increasingly seek solace in what Toffler termed “the politics of nostalgia”. 

I’ve long argued that the problem is not technology per se, but the way it has been understood and managed – or perhaps, more accurately, often misunderstood and mismanaged.

As Toffler observed, the problems we need to address are ultimately not scientific or technical but ethical and political. 

My ‘After Shock’ article reflects on Toffler’s 1970 perspective, where we are now and what could come next – for good or ill. It’s part of a larger programme of work that I hope to (finally) distill and share over the coming year, drawing together my experiences, concerns and ideas from working at the intersection of technology, society and public policy.

‘After Shock’ considers the 50 years since ‘Future Shock’ and the 50 yet to come – and what it all means for us and our planet. It’s a timely, thoughtful and thought-inspiring book with articles from a diverse variety of contributors and perspectives.

‘After Shock’ is published February 4th 2020. Available to pre-order now.

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