Back to the ‘Future Shock’

Bruce Wilson writes.

Almost 50 years ago, Alvin Toffler disturbed and challenged the world with his classic work Future Shock. Toffler predicted that the biggest issue facing future generations would be our ability to adapt to the accelerating pace of change. Does the modern world embody many of Toffler’s ideas?

Toffler predicted that environmental overstimulation would not only impact our physical and social worlds, but also our psyche. We have seen the results of overstimulation in survivors of war and natural disasters like earthquakes and floods. The psychologically overwhelmed are marked by confusion, anxiety, irritability, and withdrawal into apathy. Today, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting some 40 million adults.  

Toffler predicted that people will attempt to cope with accelerated change through denial, specialism, reversion, and simplification.

Outright denial blocks out an unwelcome reality. Today’s examples for some might include climate change, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and genomics. The person in denial is not able to accept changes and believes that all evidence of change is incomplete and superficial. The Denier, according to Toffler, sets themselves up for personal catastrophe because they will ultimately be forced to adapt to the denied change, which may be in the form of a massive life crisis.

Toffler described the Specialist as someone who avoids change by becoming very insular within their profession or social passion. Ultra-conservative political advocates continue to lobby for the fossil fuel industry despite newer technology that appears to be a much better option. The Specialist is rigid and closed to change, which makes them especially vulnerable in an accelerated world.

Revisionists are attempting to cope with change by seeking out past modes of action that may no longer be appropriate. Returning to the glories of yesteryear is the way they respond to rapid change. Authoritarian regimes, terrorist groups, white supremacists and some religious groups are examples of revisionist thinking according to Toffler.

The Super-Simplifier, according to Toffler, is someone who copes with change by oversimplifying anything perceived as too complex. Individuals who turn to addictive pastimes or violence may be subject to this type of coping mechanism.

Are you coming across such styles in coping with change, in your research or practice? Are we creating a world obsessed with increased novelty and accelerated change? In my private practice over the past 25 years, I have found that the term coined by Linda Stone in 1998, Continuous Partial Attention, is alive and well in most of my clientele. This fragments cognitive engagement, as we’re in a perpetual battle to keep up with everything that is going on, to not miss out on anything that might be important.

Perhaps we should also ask which way of dealing with ‘Future Shock’ the discipline of psychology itself has adopted…

Bruce Wilson, PhD
Mind Health Care
Geelong, Victoria, Australia

Illustration: Tim Sanders

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