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Future Shock Re-assessed

Richard A. Slaughter


The 'future shock' thesis offered a popularised version of social and technological change that received wide attention during the 1970s. It provided a number of suggestions under the general heading of 'the strategy of social futurism'. This essay both critiques the thesis and assesses it in terms of constituting a stimulus to the development of Futures Studies as an applied discipline.


The notion of ‘future shock’ attracted widespread attention in the early 1970s but never
became intellectually respectable. What it did do was to help express widely felt concerns about the nature of ‘changing times’. For many people the revolutions and changes of the early 20th century overturned their sense of ‘normalcy’, of a predictable and settled social order. Instability became the norm in many domains of social and economic life.

Consequently ‘the future’ no longer appeared normal and natural. It increasingly looked more like some kind of artefact - a consequence of what people did or failed to do. It was this sense of continuing transformation, existential threat and the intuition that the future would be very, very different, that Alvin Toffler expressed in Future Shock. Published in 1970, it became an instant best seller. It drew together many of the threads of these challenges and transformations and suggested ways of dealing with them.

The 'future shock' thesis

Writing during the late 1960s Toffler summarised this thesis thus: in three short decades between now and the turn of the next millennium, millions of psychologically normal people will experience an abrupt collision with the future. Affluent, educated citizens of the world’s richest and most technically advanced nations, they will fall victim to tomorrow’s most menacing malady: the disease of change. Unable to keep up with the
supercharged pace of change, brought to the edge of breakdown by incessant demands to adapt to novelty, many will plunge into future shock. For them the future will have arrived too soon. (1)

He argued that a new force had entered history, what he called ‘the accelerative thrust’. Furthermore he argued that individuals, organisations, society and the entire world were completely unprepared for dealing with it. This led to a ‘sharp break with previous experience’. We were now living in times that were ‘no longer normal’. At the physical level we were ‘tampering with the chemical and biological stability of the human race’, while at the psychological level we were subjecting whole populations to various forms of over-stimulation via ‘sensory, cognitive and decision stress’. The main thrust of the argument was that both individuals and societies needed to learn how to adapt to and manage the sources of over-rapid change. In particular this meant bringing technological innovation under some sort of collective control. The bulk of Future Shock is devoted to exploring these themes in different areas of human experience and culture.

The keys to the book, however, lie in the final section devoted to what Toffler termed
‘Strategies for Survival’. Here are four chapters on ‘coping with tomorrow’, ‘education in the future tense’, ‘taming technology’ and ‘the strategy of social futurism’. Here is where Toffler set out his best ideas for responding to the situation he had described. Under ‘coping’ were grouped proposals for ‘personal stability zones’, counselling, half way houses, the creation of ‘enclaves of the past’ and ‘enclaves of the future’ and the deliberate reinvention of coping rituals.

Possibly the best section in the book is that on education. Here he advanced a powerful critique: ‘what passes for education today, even in our ‘best’ schools and colleges, is a hopeless anachronism.’ He then added: for all this rhetoric about the future, our schools face backwards towards a dying system, rather than forwards to an emerging new society. Their vastenergies are applied to cranking out Industrial Men - people tooled for survival in a system that will be dead before they are. (2) The thesis was then advanced that the prime objective of education should be to ‘increase the individual’s ‘cope-ability’ - the speed and economy with which he can adapt to continual change.’ (3) Central to this was ‘the habit of anticipation’. Assumptions, projections, images of futures would need to become part and parcel of every individual’s school experience. Learning contracts would be needed, along with mentors from the adult population. The student’s ‘future-focused role image’ (ie his or her view of their future self) would be nourished along with these capabilities. A democratic ‘council for the future’ was needed in every school. Science fiction was an appropriate form of literature to encourage these capacities.

Regarding technology, Toffler put forward the view that a ‘powerful strategy in the battle to prevent mass future shock ... involves the conscious regulation of scientific advance’. 

(4) For Toffler ‘the horrifying truth is that, so far as much technology is concerned, no one is in charge.’ Hence what was needed ‘far more sophisticated criteria for choosing among technologies.’ (5) The option of what was later to be called an ‘expert system’ named OLIVER was canvassed. Perhaps this would help diminish the demands on people? Overall, serious efforts needed to be devoted to anticipating the consequences of technological developments. Referring to changes in sexual habits consequent upon the contraceptive pill he asserted that: We can no longer afford to let such secondary social effects just ‘happen’.

We must attempt to anticipate them in advance, estimating, to the degree possible, their nature, strength and timing. Where these effects are likely to be seriously damaging we must also be prepared to block the new technology. It is as simple as that. Technology cannot be permitted to rampage through the society. (6) The writer concluded that ‘a machinery for screening machines’ was needed. This could be created by appointing a ‘technology ombudsman’ as part of an ‘environmental screen’ for protecting society from untoward effects. The culmination of Future Shock is a long final chapter on ‘the strategy of social futurism.’ It begins with a rhetorical flourish - ‘can one live in a society that is out of control?’ - and then goes on to outline some of the social innovations needed to ameliorate change. There is an emphatic call for social indicators: a sensitive system of indicators geared to measuring the achievement of social and cultural goals, and integrated with economic indicators, is part of the technical equipment that any society needs before it can successfully reach the next stage of eco-technological development. It is an absolute pre-requisite for post-technocratic planning and change management. (7)

A Council of Social Advisers could be created to complement an existing Council of Economic Advisers. The ‘proliferation of organisations devoted to the study of the future’ is noted and their long-term time horizons commented on with approval. ‘Scientific futurists’ would work hand-in-hand with them to explore possible, probable and preferable futures. In Toffler’s view the utopian impulse could be ‘used as a tool rather than an escape’ and used to stimulate the social imagination in pursuit of better futures. But this would need institutional support: scientific futurist institutes must be spotted like nodes in a loose network throughout the entire governmental structure ... so that in every department, local or national, some staff devotes itself to scanning the probable long-term future in its assigned field. (8)

In addition ‘we need to train thousands of young people in the perspectives andtechniques of scientific futurism, inviting them to share in the exciting venture of
mapping probable futures.’ (9) In what was, perhaps, an unconscious echo of Wells’ notion of a ‘global brain’, Toffler suggested that ‘as the globe is itself dotted with future-sensors, we might consider creating a great international institute, a world futures data bank.’ (10) This, in turn, would support what Toffler termed ‘anticipatory democracy.’ The latter would set up ‘a continuing plebiscite on the future’, simulations of various kinds and ‘social futures assemblies’, all designed to encourage wide participation in social decision making. 

Toward the end of the chapter Toffler summarised his position thus: this, then, is the ultimate objective of social futurism, not merely the
transcendence of technocracy and the substitution of more humane, far-sighted, more democratic planning, but the subjugation of the process of evolution itself to conscious human guidance. (11) He added, for this is the supreme instant, the turning point in history at which man either vanquishes the process of change or vanishes, at which, from being the unconscious puppet of evolution he becomes either its victim or its master.

(12) 'Future shock' 30 years on Three decades later the underpinnings of many of the ideas advanced in Future Shock remain problematic. There is no doubt, however, that the thesis focused many peoples’ attention on futures-related concerns. These included: the difficulties of understanding and complex processes of change; issues of human and environmental adaptation to unprecedented rates of change; the problem of subjecting ever more powerful technologies to some form of effective social control; and, overall, the problem of how to come to terms with the wide range of futures clearly implied by the all above.

Like others before and since, Toffler rightly argued that these transformations in the
conditions of human life were unprecedented in human history. His work aligned with that of countless other people in many countries to help stimulate a range of social responses. Among them were the development of Futures Studies, the application of futures approaches in education and the growth of future oriented NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations). As noted above, the Future Shock thesis portrayed people as being ‘overwhelmed’ by change to a point of widespread dysfunctionality that might prefigure widespread social breakdown. But ‘change’ was seen as a wholly external force, rather than something that worked through specific social formations and through the structures and processes that maintain their interests. 

Such a diagnosis placed the onus for response rather heavily upon these decontextualised and ‘shocked’ individuals. It overlooked the social entities that were (and remain) complicit in generating and sustaining ‘change’. Overall, this was a disempowering approach that displaced autonomy from individuals and groups into poorly defined and shadowy social locations that could neither be readily located nor challenged.

Linked with this is the way that Toffler ascribed the prime responsibility for ‘rapid change’ to ‘technology’ - not to the agencies and powers that have the ability to define, focus, develop, market and apply it. The effect was mystificatory in effect, though not, I am sure, in intent. While Toffler sought to encourage ‘social futurism’ and ‘anticipatory democracy’ he did so in a way that completely overlooked the difficulties people face in (a) understanding and (b) attempting to intervene in their historical context.

In summary, the Future Shock thesis can be seen as an expression of a journalistic view
of macro-change from a very particular viewpoint in space and time. It foregrounds the habits of perception that are characteristic of that time and attempts to universalise them.

As noted, this framework certainly provided some useful suggestions for possible ways forward. But as an interpretive agenda it was unworkable in practice. Conspicuously lacking were ways of understanding, and coming to grips with, other dysfunctional imbalances in culture. ‘Change’ is only one of them. Meaninglessness, lack of purpose, hyper-materialism, technological narcissism and spiritual hunger are a few of the others that might be encompassed within a wider view. But ‘Future Shock’ was silent upon them all.

'Future shock' as a stimulus to social innovation. Despite the drawbacks outlined above, the ‘future shock’ thesis did help to stimulate a number of constructive social responses.

Toffler was dissatisfied with what he regarded as ‘technocratic’ forms of decision making and social administration. PPBS (planning, programming, budgeting systems) and a president’s council set up by Nixon fell a long way short. Rather, he called for a ‘revolution’ in the way long term social goals were formulated. What he wanted was a ‘continuing plebiscite on the future’. To this end he proposed the creation of what he called ‘social futures assemblies’ throughout America, coupled with a range of social simulation exercises in schools.

Yet Toffler’s vivid social imagination exceeded his practical grasp of what would be needed to enable such innovations. To read Future Shock 30 years on is to be struck by the disjuncture between the power of the vision and the poverty of means. The vision stimulated a number of attempts to set up such assemblies. For example, in Hawaii citizens were polled as to how they saw likely and desired futures. The results were summarised as scenarios in a newsletter and acted out on tv. A televote then followed. A book on Anticipatory Democracy provided a showcase for ideas and experiments of this kind. (13) So there is no doubt that Future Shock stimulated the social imagination. But most of Toffler’s ideas needed a lot more work before they could be put into practice.

Part of the explanation lies in Toffler’s journalistic penchant for privileging aspects of the outer empirical world (facts, trends, change processes) and overlooking the inner interpretive one (worldviews, paradigms, social interests). In subsequent years i t became clear that to carry futures proposals from the realm of ideas into social action requires far more than a description of the organisational forms they might take. What Toffler, and indeed many futurists, overlooked was that the futures domain is primarily a symbolic one. To operate successfully within it requires a working familiarity with the language, concepts, frameworks that support future-oriented modes of enquiry and action. While Toffler’s research had provided him with numerous indicators and examples from which emerged a rich store of futures-related ideas and proposals, most of those read ing his work were unable to translate his proposals into action for one simple reason. They did not have the means to cross this symbolic gulf. To move from ideas to action in fact requires progress though several ‘layers of capability’ which had not yet been described at that time. (14) Hence, the main drawback of the ‘future shock’ thesis was that it did not help people find their way into that domain and hence discover the deeper sources of understanding and insight that Toffler had himself overlooked.

Toffler was equally adamant about the need for technology assessment - and in principle he was right. In the chapter on ‘Taming Technology’ he put forward the notion of a ‘technology ombudsman’, a ‘public agency’ that would investigate complaints about irresponsible applications of various technologies. Closely related to this was the idea of an ‘environmental screen’ that would assess the impacts of technologies before they were adopted. Companies would employ their own ‘consequence analysis staff’ to carry out this kind of work. In both cases it is possible to see one of the starting points of the OTA (Office of Technology Assessment) that was established some years later (only to be axed by Reagan). Similarly the ‘environmental screen’ may be seen as a precursor of ‘environmental impact statements’ which later became common practice. In these cases a generous interpretation of the role of Future Shock would see it as helping to popularise the need for such arrangements in a rapidly changing society.

On the other hand, since Toffler did not attempt a deeper analysis of the worldviews, presuppositions, ideologies and embedded interests that were driving (and continue to drive) the global system, he was in a weak position to call into question the apparent inevitability of technological advance or to propose means of dealing with it at a constitutive level. Hence his well-meaning suggestions were, and are, outstripped by vastly more powerful forces.

Legend has it that in 1966 Toffler was involved in one of the first high school courses in Futures Studies. What is certainly the case is that a few years later he edited a wide-ranging book called Learning for Tomorrow in which he collected together articles by many future-oriented educators in the USA. (15) Here were displayed some of the early formulations of theory, practice and self understanding that later were incorporated into more durable approaches to futures education. While the book was by no means as successful as the earlier one, it achieved a significant readership in the USA and elsewhere.. Toffler’s ideas about future-oriented education provided a valuable stimulus to this hitherto neglected area. But, over time, it became increasingly clear that the foundations of futures in education were shaky. A close look at American classrooms during the 1970s and 1980s made it clear that innovative futures work had been widely successful in practical terms. But a search for durable underpinnings was fruitless for one very simple reason: there were none. The pop-psychology approach taken by Toffler served to initiate, and perhaps to inspire up to a point. But it could not nourish and support. Thus during the time of Reagan and Thatcher futures education initiatives were perceived to be inessential and were widely discarded. It would be some years before a more durable foundation would be constructed and a new wave of future-oriented educational work taken up by other hands and minds elsewhere. (16)

Thus the 'future shock' thesis provided a particular sort of thesis about social change,
economic development, the role of technology and, overall, the ways that organisations and individuals might begin to come to grips with them. But it did so in ways that failed to enable the very category of human agency that it sought to assist. Toffler went on to other work on other projects (The Third Wave, Powershift, War and Anti-War) including the diminutive but characteristically ambitious paperback Creating a New Civilisation. (17)

A significant outcome of all this activity was to establish Toffler, and as time went by his wife Heidi also, as highly 'mediagenic' futurists. They not only earned a handsome living with their speculations and proposals, but also were sought out and promoted by politicians such as Newt Gingrich, one-time leader of the US House of Representatives.

Apart from occasional 'guest of honour' appearances, the Tofflers now have little or nothing to do with Futures Studies per se. Like many others they have moved away from public engagement, social innovation and discipline building to private consulting. This may well be one reason why the progress of Futures Studies toward full legitimation and wider public acceptance has taken so long to occur.


1. Toffler, A. quoted in Cross, N. (ed) Man Made Futures, London, Hutchinson, 1974.

2. Toffler, A. Future Shock, Pan Books, London, 1972, p 202.

3. Ibid p 364.

4. Ibid p 387.

5. Ibid p 391.

6. Ibid p 396.

7. Ibid p 413.

8. Ibid p 423.

9. Ibid p 423

10. Ibid p 424.

11. Ibid p 438-9.

12. Ibid p 439.

13. Bezold, C. (ed) Anticipatory Democracy, Vintage, 1978.

14. 18. Slaughter, R. Futures Studies: From Individual to Social Capacity, Futures, 28, 8,

1996, p 751-762.

15. . Toffler, A. (ed) Learning for Tomorrow, Vintage, 1974.

16. 1920. Hicks, D. & Slaughter, R. (eds) Futures Education, World Yearbook of

Education, London, Kogan Page.

17. Toffler, A. & H., Creating a New Civilisation, Turner Publishing, Atlanta, 1994.

(3353 words)

This paper was first published in the WFSF Bulletin 27, 1, 2002 4-7.

Copyright © Richard A. Slaughter, 2002

All rights reserved

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Prof. Richard A. Slaughter can be reached at the Australian Foresight Institute, SwinburneUniversity of Technology, John Street, Hawthorn, Vic 3122.

Tel: 61+3 9214 5982  Fax: 61+3 9214 5985  Mob: 041 913 4900

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