There is one more aspect of Toffler's thesis which deserves some special mention, so I have saved it for here. It is a concept which Toffler calls transience:
"THE CONCEPT OF TRANSIENCE
"Much of our theorizing about social and psychological change presents a valid picture of man in relatively static societies - but a distorted and incomplete picture of the truly contemporary man. It misses a critical difference between the men of the past or present and the men of the future. This difference is summed up in the word `transience.'
"The concept of transience provides a long-missing link between psychological theories of change and the psychology of individual human beings. Integrating both, it permits us to analyze the problems of high-speed change in a new way. And, as we shall see, it gives us a method - crude but powerful - to measure inferentially the rate of situation flow.43
"Transience is the new `temporariness' in everyday life. It results in a mood, a feeling of impermanence. Philosophers and theologians, of course, have always been aware that man is ephemeral. In this grand sense, transience has always been a part of life. But today the feeling of impermanence is more acute and intimate. Thus Edward Albee's character, Jerry, in The Zoo Story, characterizes himself as a `permanent transient.' And critic Harold Clurman, commenting on Albee, writes: `None of us occupy abodes of safety - true homes. We are all the same "people in all the rooming houses everywhere," desperately and savagely trying to effect soul-satisfying connections with our neighbors.'44 We are, in fact, all citizens of the Age of Transience.
"It is, however, not only our relationships with people that seem increasingly fragile or impermanent. If we divide up man's experience of the world outside himself, we can identify certain classes of relationships. Thus, in addition to his links with other people, we may speak of the individual's relationship with things. We can single out for examination his relationships with places. We can analyze his ties to the institutional or organizational environment around him. We can even study his relationship to certain ideas or to the information flow in society.
"These five relationships - plus time - form the fabric of social experience. This is why, as suggested earlier, things, places, people, organizations, and ideas are the basic components of all situations. It is the individual's distinctive relationship to each of these components that structures the situation.
"And it is precisely these relationships that, as acceleration occurs in society, become foreshortened, telescoped in time. Relationships that once endured for long spans of time now have shorter life expectancies. It is this abbreviation, this compression, that gives rise to the almost tangible feeling that we live, rootless and uncertain, among sifting dunes.
"Transience, indeed, can be defined quite specifically in terms of the rate at which our relationships turn over. While it may be difficult to prove that situations, as such, take less time to pass through our experience than before, it is possible to break them down into their components, and to measure the rate at which these components move into and out of our lives - to measure, in other words, the duration of relationships.
"It will help us to understand the concept of transience if we think in terms of the idea of `turnover.' In a grocery store, for example, milk turns over more rapidly than, say, canned asparagus. It is sold and replaced more rapidly. The `through-put' is faster. The alert businessman knows the turnover rate for each of the items he sells, and the general rate for the entire store. He knows, in fact, that his turnover rate is a key indicator of the health of the enterprise.45
"We can, by analogy, think of transience as the rate of turnover of the different kinds of relationships in an individual's life. Moreover, each of us can be characterized in terms of this rate. For some, life is marked by a much slower rate of turnover than for others. The people of the past and present lead lives of relatively `low transience' - their relationships tend to be long-lasting. But the people of the future live in a condition of `high transience' - a condition in which the duration of relationships is cut short, the through-put of relationships is extremely rapid. In their lives, things, places, people, ideas, and organizational structures all get `used up' more quickly.46
"This affects tremendously the way they experience reality, their sense of commitment, and their ability - or inability - to cope. It is this fast through-put, combined with increasing newness and complexity in the environment, that strains the capacity to adapt and creates the danger of future shock.
proceeds, through the next few chapters, to elucidate examples of how
the new relationships which mankind has with "things, places, people,
organizations, and ideas" are being created and discarded at a much
more rapid rate than before. There is, of course, a kernel of truth in
his assertions: technology DOES make possible a more
rapid turnover of these relationships than ever before. But my key
counter-point is that most of this turnover is VOLUNTARY!
The jet airplane allows us to experience many places around the world in a given human lifetime, but the vast majority of these trips are taken voluntarily, either as tourists or as business people motivated by potential financial gain. Even military people, who might be involuntarily ordered to take a trip overseas, are now primarily volunteers for military service, and they volunteer in part out of a desire to occasionally take such trips.
So it happens that, at least in the case of places, technology gives each individual access to so many places with which they would have had no relationship at all. Five centuries ago, most people would never have heard of a city which was the capital of a country which did not border their own. Technology now allows us to learn about almost any city on the face of the planet, at least through a book or pamphlet of some sort. Most larger cities have tourist videos available, from some commercial source if not for free.
But our ancestors of thousands or millions of years ago began as nomads. It would be incorrect to assert that mankind has always psychologically rooted himself to the same place or area. Throughout history, men and women have traveled to far distant places. It is just that technology makes the pace of travel more rapid and it also makes it available to a larger percentage of the population.
But it is just as true that the souls of some people are rooted to specific plots of land. For those people, it is psychologically wrenching to be separated from the land of their forefathers. A certain portion of the Arab-Israeli dispute is over which descendants of which forefather get control of which plots of land. Many American Indian tribes are up in arms about land taken from them in one way or another. But while the United States promotes the fiction of the family farm handed down generation after generation, in point of fact, the vast majority of farms are somewhat ephemeral in ownership.
So, as Toffler suggests: "For some, life is marked by a much slower rate of turnover than for others." But people of both types have always existed, for about as long as we have had "people." I would expect people of both types to continue to exist in the future, just as they have existed in the past and exist now in our own present. The choice of which type of person an individual is going to be is personal, and is rooted deep within the psychology (or genes?) of each individual. Some Indians, with generations of experience living on their native land, will still voluntarily choose to move to a city and assimilate into modern society. Some city dwellers, with generations of fast-paced city life in their backgrounds, will choose to move to the country and take up farming.
It is by our own voluntary surrender to impulses of this sort that mankind avoids psychological damage to ourselves. As long as our marketplace economy gives each individual the freedom to make the choices which he or she feels compelled to make, the rate of change for that individual will always be in the safe zone.
The basis of many such choices is economic. We voluntarily choose a more or less permanent product based upon our individual perceptions of the price and permanence of the object. This kind of choice does NOT always lead to the choice of the less permanent product. Just ask the automobile manufacturers about this one. One of the great changes in the last 25 years was the migration of a large part of the car-buying public to Japanese automobiles because they perceived them to be more permanent, and thus a better value. In order to recover some part of their lost market share, the United States automobile makers had to design and build automobiles which would create that same impression of greater permanence. The price of automobiles has gone up dramatically in real terms, but so has the value of the automobiles which consumers buy because they last longer.
One example of transience which Toffler cites is a trend towards paper clothes, even including paper wedding gowns. From a perspective of 25 years later, it is easy to say that this was just a fad that didn't catch on. While there are clearly some uses for paper clothing still today, essentially "emergency" uses, people simply never did perceive sufficient value in them for "normal" uses to give paper clothes a significant share of the clothing market.
It may well be that the whole concept of "fads" was itself just a fad. Toffler believed that:
"A well-oiled machinery for the creation and diffusion of fads is now an entrenched part of the modern economy. Its methods will increasingly be adopted by others as they recognize the inevitability of the ever-shorter product cycle. The line between `fad' and ordinary product will progressively blur. We are moving swiftly into the era of the temporary product, made by temporary methods, to serve temporary needs.
"The turnover of things in our lives thus grows even more frenetic. We face a rising flood of throw-away items, impermanent architecture, mobile and modular products, rented goods and commodities designed for almost instant death. From all these directions, strong pressures converge toward the same end: the inescapable ephemeralization of the man-thing relationship."
Yes, perhaps, and then we screamed: STOP!
It was Sir Isaac Newton who observed that every action created an equal and opposite reaction. Newton was thinking of physical objects and the forces acting upon them, but some have extended that assertion into the realms of psychology.
Out of the "throw-away society" arose a reaction in the form of an environmental movement that, among other things, presses to reduce the quantity of trash we spew forth into the environment. The first few marketed fads were "cute," but attempts at follow-ups fell on somewhat deafened ears. It has been a long time now since we has as useless, and yet pervasive, a fad as, say, the "pet rock." I would tend to believe that people finally discovered that these fads were simply methods of separating them from excess money they thought they had. When it became obvious to the population at large that the value of the product was not worth anywhere near the price, people stopped buying. And they not only stopped buying "pet rocks," but virtually all types of similarly useless fad products en masse. Fads still exist in our society, but their effect has been attenuated from what it was 25 years ago, and those which remain must be perceived to have value.
The concept of "fashion" has also dramatically altered in the last 25 years. It was popular back then for a woman to discard her entire wardrobe each year in order to replace it with clothes which were "in fashion." While the fashion industry does still exist, it appears to have much less relevance to what people actually wear. The vast majority of clothing purchases for adults will include some consideration of how well the selected items will wear and look over a period of years. We now buy more for permanence in our clothes than we did 25 years ago. Is that a reaction to transience or a search for better value? Take your choice on that one.
Products are still designed to be repaired, but the dividing line between repairable and discardable remains rationally related to the economic trade-offs for the consumer. Cheap television sets will be difficult to find a repair shop for, but very expensive ones will have repair shops available wherever they are sold. The dividing line will be closely related to the typical flat labor rate plus the average parts cost. This is a purely rational process, based upon hard economic facts!
What we should not lose sight of is the fact that so many products are now so well designed that they can easily last past their point of obsolescence. This is particularly true in the personal computer market. I have a perfectly good 13" color monitor sitting in my attic because I refuse to throw it away. But I replaced it with a 17" monitor which I liked enough better than the 13" monitor to make the replacement worthwhile. It is now not at all unusual for a television set to last ten years without any repair. But in 1997, when the conversion to High Definition Television (HDTV) occurs, all current television models will be instantly obsolete, although they will remain useful for so long as existing signals are still broadcast. How many will still be in perfect working order when the last signal that they can receive is finally turned off? My guess would be: an awful lot of them.
But I think it is important to note that the decision as to when the old-style signals will be turned off is a political decision, not a market decision. Thus, when the people find out that their perfectly good televisions are no longer useful for anything at all, the dislocation that they feel as a consequence will have been inflicted by the government out of its own self-interest.
So, my final point on this topic would be to note that a free market will never be the cause of "future shock." If people feel too much dislocation in their lives, they will not voluntarily choose to engage in the behavior patterns which increase their own feelings of dislocation. In a free market, people will tend to maintain their existing relationships with "things, places, people, organizations, and ideas" if changing those relationships will be uncomfortable to them.
43 I do not know enough of the field of psychology to comment on the usefulness of "transience" in the manner suggested by Toffler in this paragraph. I do know that there is little or no relation between the actual examples of "transience" which he cites later in his book and any measure of "situation flow." Thus, I challenge the validity of his inferences in this regard.
44 Again, this analogy lacks true historical perspective. "rooming houses" were a common form of abode in London over ten centuries ago. There are those who assert that many common surnames come from the signs over the doors of these rooming houses oh so long ago. The identification of "Robert at the Swan" became contracted to "Robert Swan," and so forth. So, while there may be some truth in the assertion that many of the things in our lives are transient, there is really no evidence at all that such transience is truly different now as opposed to many centuries ago. Furthermore (and this is my key point on this subject), when people do make changes, those changes are usually voluntary and in response to some economic incentive which makes the change a more attractive option than having things remain as they have been.
45 There are two ways businessmen measure "turnover rate." The first, unit sales, is appropriate for individual items which are at least comparable (i. e., two different brands of toilet paper). The second, monetary volume, is a useful measure for many purposes related to the profitability of the business. Turnover rate has a direct relationship with "return on investment," at least to the extent which the inventory represents part of the "investment." If the turnover rate is too high, you could be experiencing periodic shortages which reduce sales, but short of that problem, the higher the turnover rate, the more profit goes into the pocket of the businessman.
46 This distinction between people of the past, present, and future is what I find to be most offensive in Toffler's thesis. It is entirely unsupported by fact. Toffler treats "fad" phenomena as examples of increased transience, and the historical record of the past 25 years demonstrates that his examples are mere passing fads or failed marketing efforts. My assertion, which I will explain later, is that the true "people of the future" will have MORE permanence in their relationships, not less.
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