Social Evolution and Technological Change

by Bob Hughes on July 1, 2016

Bob Hughes · Social Trends Technology · July 01, 2016

Pendulum in Action, technological change, information overloadIf you’ve ever used the phrase “information overload,” you have the social scientist Alvin Toffler to thank. The social scientist died recently at the age of 87. His landmark book, Future Shock, showed how society is coping with accelerating technological change.

As a freelance writer in the 1960s, Toffler decided to focus his energies and write a book. He buckled down to study what he saw as that decade’s continuing social upheaval (a little like what Michael R. Drew and Roy H. Williams did in their book Pendulum and its exploration of social shifts through the millennia). The result was Future Shock, which was published in 1970 and went on to become a global success, selling many millions. It’s still in print.

In Future Shock, according to an interesting obituary of Toffler in the New York Times, “he concluded that the convergence of science, capital and communications was producing such swift change that it was creating an entirely new kind of society. His predictions about the consequences to culture, the family, government and the economy were remarkably accurate. He foresaw the development of cloning, the popularity and influence of personal computers and the invention of the internet, cable television and telecommuting.”

I remember reading the book when I was in grade school. I don’t know how much I understood at the age of 13 or 14, but I was fascinated – like many others – by how technology was shaping our present and affecting the course of our future. Toffler, optimistic despite worrying about a rise in crime or drug use in future societies, was early to realize that it was knowledge that would become the most importance economic resource in advanced societies.

Toffler was smart, and realistic, about what he could or could not predict. “No serious futurist deals in ‘predictions,’” he writes in the introduction to Future Shock. “These are left for television oracles and newspaper astrologers.”

He instead emphasized that “the rate of change has implications quite apart from, and sometimes more important than, the directions of change.”

Something to keep in mind over 40 years later, when the shock of the future is here, and we’re still changing at a rapid pace.


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