Mar
16

The Shocking Speed of Change

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” ~Alvin Toffler

Suddenly it’s feeling like spring here in Chicago, and I am reminded of my own commitment to be the driver — and not just passive passenger — of change this year.  But, wooosh. They say the older you get, the faster time goes, and perhaps that can partly explain it, but am I just imagining that the future has been coming at me at an increased speed? Do you also feel the acceleration of information, the more frequent gusts of change, the increased number of difficult but more urgent choices that need to be made in this new decade?

I was perusing my father’s bookshelf recently and came upon Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock — ah, that could be it, I thought. I may be suffering from this kind of shock, which Toffler explained as the physical and psychological reaction to “too much change in too short a period of time,” “the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future.” I opened the book and out dropped a folded memorandum on mimeographed wax paper, addressed to my father from his boss in 1971. Read this book, his boss commanded, and “consider how the points raised apply to you,” the company and “your subordinates.” My father remembered it being helpful at the time in setting some new directions for the company. I frankly haven’t heard anyone mention this once seminal book in recent memory.

Can Toffler’s insights be helpful to us, today, 40 years later? Well, as I gulped down the multitude of forecasts in this gem of a book, I realized that the dizzy spin of change Toffler captures so well has been around for much longer than I realized. While he made some interestingly inaccurate predictions — from the advent of licensed professional parents to living on the sea to group marriages — he also nailed some realities then that have proven unshakeable. His three main factors of change, as relevant as ever:

*Transience: Less and less is permanent, from material items to jobs to relationships to the family unit. Tofflers describes a “short-order culture,” a “throw-away society,” the increase of temporary work and the decrease of loyalty to organizations. He notes an emerging group of people who live at a faster pace — “the earliest citizens of the world-wide super-industrial society now in the throes of birth.” “To survive,” he writes, “the individual must become infinitely more adaptable and capable than ever before. He must search out totally new ways to anchor himself.”

*Novelty: From technology to fertility, he describes the constant adjustment to the new, which we certainly see in technology today (though our social revolution seems a bit less novelty-producing than in Toffler’s less disillusioned time). He was amazingly prescient about what we now call the “experience economy,” that people will seek more “psychic fulfillment” and vicarious experiences as part of consumption in an affluent society. “As we hurtle into tomorrow,” he nevertheless warned, “millions of men and women will face emotion-packed options so unfamiliar, so untested, that past experience will offer little clue to wisdom.”

*Diversity: Every day we’re bombarded by “a paralyzing surfeit” of overchoice — too many variations, decisions and options–as well as “information overload” (Yes, Toffler coined that dandy). We may not have the same enduring relationships, he writes, but at least we are offered more varied life niches, more freedom to move in and out, and to create our own niches. But he doubts whether humans can actually cope with that much “freedom.”

As this now-campy 1972 documentary about “Future Shock” (hosted by Orson Welles!) asked (Click here for video, the final part of a five-part series), can people really handle the shock of these changes? Are we powerless to do anything about them? I wonder now, how have we fared after all this time? And are we less sane because of it?

If we agree that the pace of change has continued to accelerate, and that we must embrace the realities of transience, novelty and diversity, then we are left with the undeniable need to change ourselves. What else can we do? The central task of education, Toffler explained, is to expand man’s adaptive capacities. It seems we have no choice but to become more creative people.

Want more from Adam: See his Innovation on my Mind blog.

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