Toffler does get at least one thing right, however, when he points out that it is technology which is the "great, growling engine of change." Some time later we actually do get some rational cause-and-effect analysis:
". . . The pattern, here and in a thousand other statistical series, is absolutely clear and unmistakable. Millennia or centuries go by, and then, in our own times, a sudden bursting of the limits, a fantastic spurt forward.
"The reason for this is that technology feeds on itself. Technology makes more technology possible, as we can see if we look for a moment at the process of innovation. Technological innovation consists of three stages, linked together in a self-reinforcing cycle. First, there is the creative, feasible idea. Second, its practical application. Third, its diffusion through society.
"The process is completed, the loop closed, when the diffusion of technology embodying the new idea, in turn, helps generate new creative ideas. Today there is evidence that the time between each of the steps in the cycle has been shortened."
And off he
goes again into another flawed statistical analysis. I won't burden you
with a detailed quotation or critique. We now have enough of Toffler
for me to get to the point I wish to make.
Prior to the Agricultural Revolution, survival for the average man was somewhat problematic. There was no significant long term storage of food to act as a buffer over any "bad times" which might arise. A hunter-gatherer people survives by hunting and gathering virtually every day of their life. Virtually the totality of available man-hours would thus be required to be devoted to the most basic of survival technology: hunting and gathering.
The essence of the Agricultural Revolution is the decision that hunting and gathering is a waste of time. Why not raise the animals so they will always be there when you need to kill one? Why not grow the plants so that the crop will always arrive "on schedule?" Sure, agriculture involves back-breaking work, especially in the early days of ten millennia ago before mankind invented other labor saving devices and processes. But the amount of required labor was still far less than if you had to maintain mobility to seek new game and find new crops to hunt and gather.
Another aspect of staying in one place is that it became much more feasible to raise large families. A farmer almost always sees children as a source of labor to keep the farm running, with less work on the part of himself. In turn, the farmer is less burdened with the labor to actually feed this family of his, so this begins the process of technology feeding on itself. The human population explosion begins, and that results in even more available man-hours which are in no way required for the production of food and other necessities of life.
These excess man-hours quickly find use in the invention of increasing amounts of other goods and services to serve, motivate, and assist the farmers. The people who are associated with these functions, such as maintaining of a marketplace for the exchange of goods and services, do not need to live on the individual farms themselves, but will set themselves up on nearby land in a (hopefully) convenient location for as many of the farmers as is possible. This results in the formation of the first villages, and from the village, the town is born, then the city, the nation, and finally, the Culture and its eventual end result, Civilization.
The fundamental cause-and-effect relationship in this whole scenario is the first technology frees man-hours from basic survival activities which may then be used for the invention of increasing amounts of technology. There is obviously an efficiency factor involved here, or else the Greeks would have invented cellular telephones more than two thousand years ago. When the goal of the Culture or the Civilization is to see how many corrupt civil servants can be supported by a given number of farmers, the progress of that Culture or Civilization will be measured in very small quantities indeed.
The one fact which distinguishes Western Civilization from all of its predecessor civilizations is the fact that, 200 to 300 years ago, we happened upon the next major technological breakthrough after the invention of agriculture itself, and that was the start of the Industrial Revolution. Again, virtually any civilization could have hit upon that very piece of technology, or perhaps others did, but it arrived at the "wrong time," culturally speaking, so it did not foster the truly significant changes which we have seen during those few centuries.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, virtually everything was hand-crafted by some master craftsman, with or without his apprentices working at his side or under his supervision. Thus it was that the production of goods was extremely labor intensive. Once the Industrial Revolution hit, the number of man-hours required to produce any given quantity of goods took a dramatic drop. But still, there were increasing amounts of people breeding away and making even more people. As industry was created, huge amounts of goods began to stream forth from them, enriching all mankind, down to the most lowly of us all.
Along with the Industrial Revolution, the owners of the industries came to the conclusion that their workers needed to be better educated in order to perform their tasks within the industrial processes. Since they had no particular desire to pay for this level of education themselves, they used their political connections to get tax supported schools started, and made education mandatory for all. The concept of a universal education led to a tremendous increase in the number of advanced scientific mind which the society produced, because no matter the origins of the individuals, if they had a bent for science, a way was almost always there for them to reach the highest realms of intellect.
So, the acceleration which Toffler notes as the fundamental aspect of his "future shock" syndrome is actually the consequence of universal education and the Industrial Revolution. The former provided an increasing abundance of talented and trained minds to perform the first two steps of the technology cycle (creation and application), while the general prosperity which the latter fostered would provide the resources necessary to increase the speed of technological diffusion, which is the third step of the cycle. Of course, the consequential fostering of additional technological change is a natural effect of that diffusion into a much larger pool of talented and trained minds.
But the essence of this change is the same as was the essence of the Agricultural Revolution roughly ten thousand years ago: fewer man-hours needed for the production of goods and services leads to more time for mankind to devote to non-material pursuits, including the advancement of science and technology.
Toffler is extremely wrong to focus myopically on the explosive growth in technology since World War II. In fact, the rate of technological growth increased about 300 years ago, and has seemingly remained more or less the same since that time. The effects which Toffler notes as incidents of increased acceleration are actually only the result of the compounding of this increased rate of change, when compared with all which had occurred prior to about 300 years ago.
For example, many people cite computers as being a perfect example of rapid change. But computers were conceptually invented more than 200 years ago, and the rate of technological progress in the computer and electronics field has remained more or less constant for the last 30 years. The consequence is that you can more or less count on a doubling of speed and capacity every three to five years, on average, and yet the price in real terms will be roughly cut in half (for equivalent functionality) during approximately that same time frame. Recently, prices have temporarily stabilized a bit, but that is due to the infusion of costly new peripherals, such as 4x CD-ROM drives and music synthesizer cards (all of which add to the retail cost), as more-or-less "standard" features.
Furthermore, the technological diffusion of computer technology has been very slow! Personal computers were first available in about 1975. Two decades later, only about one family in ten has a "personal computer" at home. That proportion will certainly increase over the next ten years, but I do not expect that the rate of diffusion will change much. It is just that, as the absolute numbers get increasingly large, the percentages of market penetration change even more dramatically, giving a false impression of increasingly rapid change. It is the old first derivative/second derivative issue which I discussed earlier in this Section. Toffler falls into this trap, but I refuse to.
Another major criticism which I have of Toffler's thesis is a failure to distinguish between "revolutionary" changes and "evolutionary" changes. The former may easily be seen as leading to "future shock," but the latter will usually not.
As one example of this distinction, I would cite the invention of radio as one of the few "revolutionary" changes, while the invention of television is "evolutionary" in nature. Why? Because it was radio that caused mankind to alter long set patterns of life, and to gather in the home to listen to the radio as the "usual" evening's entertainment. The later invention of television merely enhanced and made more desirable the generic box in the home which provided entertainment. Color television was even less of a change, in spite of the fact that it required major advances in radio technology to implement. From the perspective of the average citizen, his or her life is not altered very much by a change from an old black-and-white television to a newer color set.
I will repeat because the point is important: only "revolutionary" changes have the capability to cause a significant amount of "future shock" in the population!
Evolutionary change has no such impact because the naive user of the technology sees it as something equivalent to a change of fashion, something which everyone expects to happen on a regular basis. Whether it is a color set or a black-and-white one, it is still a television, and it does the things which one expects of a television set. Still to this day, those who prefer not to change to a color set have not been forced to do so.41
However, buying a home computer and hooking it to the Internet42 would clearly be a "revolutionary" change because, once again, it will dramatically alter our patterns of social interaction. That action, in turn, is a mere precursor of the full effect of eventual implementation of the full potential of the "information superhighway" to our homes. When that occurs, and it is a mere matter of a small number of years away, it will be yet another "evolutionary" change (unless you chose to ignore the revolution), because each function which will be performed in that eventual place and time will be a direct analog of a similar function now performed by some other means. For example, if you have a satellite television receiver, you can receive virtually all of the video functions and features which will be available over the "information superhighway." So, for those who gain familiarity with those functions now, there will be no "future shock" later. Others, however, who choose to postpone their "day of reckoning," are also choosing to leave themselves open to "future shock."
There are two final (and related) points which I need to make. First, education will ameliorate the effects of "future shock" because education provides a gradual exposure to the new technology in a controlled and familiar environment. Our school children are the perfect targets for this kind of educational exposure. Most of them come into a classroom unburdened with any psychological predisposition for or against the particular technology in question. Kids are the perfect target market for any "revolutionary" changes.
With that said, we return to one final error which I feel that Toffler made, and which I mentioned earlier. That is the use of the lifetime of a person as the measuring rod for the effects of change. During the education of our children, which can now take more than two and a half decades if they achieve an advanced degree, they are more or less impervious to change because change is their life. The entire process of education is a process of change; for so long as a person is open to further education, that person is also open to change. At the other end of life, even revolutionary change rarely has any real impact on people over 50 years of age. Older people are natural experts at resisting any real change, and our society expects this and therefore makes no real efforts to impose it upon older people. Virtually all revolutionary changes are optional for the individuals involved and occur over a period of time which approximates the useful working life of each individual, i. e., about 15 to 25 years. Those who are ready for the change, or even are seeking it out, will voluntarily adopt the change as soon as it is economically practical to do so. Those who are not ready will resist, perhaps for the remainder of their life, but will usually cease to be a significant factor in resistance to the change after about age 50.
This all means that any "generations of change" will tend to be about 25 years in duration; about the length of a generation in human reproduction. The time when change has its most potent effects on the individual is roughly from age 25 to roughly age 50. Before or after those ages, change is either automatically accepted as a "natural" event or automatically rejected as "unnatural," according to the predisposition of the individual.
Putting all of this together in a final thought, I would assert that "future shock" becomes a problem only when two or more revolutionary changes occur in more or less the same field of endeavor within a period of less than about 25 years. As noted earlier, evolutionary changes, where people can see the changes as mere changes in fashion, will not have the same psychological impact on the individual because these sorts of changes are more-or-less expected. The net result of all this is that, while I believe there is some significant danger from a "future shock" syndrome, particularly if the psychological effects of forced change are not ameliorated in some way, there is little opportunity for any such "future shock," even in our rapidly changing modern life, because so very few of the changes we see are actually revolutionary in nature.
Accordingly, while we ought to never forget the warning given by Toffler, it is clear that he has way overblown the dangers, and in most instances in our present lives, there is nothing at all to worry about as a consequence of any "future shock" syndrome. To the extent which Toffler cites things like violence in our cities as an alleged effect of "future shock," I believe that the true cause is the disintegration of our Civilization, as predicted by Spengler, and NOT as any consequence of anything predicted by Toffler.
41 This will change in the next five to fifteen years, as the government will mandate that all broadcast television stations change to the new HDTV format at some point within that time period.
42 But merely buying a home computer may be merely "evolutionary" because, for most people, the only real function that device performs is as an intelligent typewriter. In that instance, it does not make any significant alternation to our perception of it as a device; to our most basic psychological perceptions, we have an enhanced "typewriter," NOT a "computer." Using a new home computer for computer games would be "evolutionary" if you previously had familiarity with a Nintendo system, but would be "revolutionary" if you did not. Thus, a computer is not so much a device as it is a latent capability; and the psychological impact (in the form of "future shock" or whatever) of purchasing a computer will vary in accordance with the particular capabilities which are implemented on each particular computer, as compared with the equivalent capabilities with which the purchaser had some amount of previous familiarity.
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