Thursday, December 6, 2007

Future Shock

I've been rereading Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, and it seems odd how much of it is still relevant and how much falls flat. This won't be a critique of the predictions made by a book that's now 37 years old*, don't worry about that. What interests me more is how little of the future it was actually possible to see from the past. Of course, my real interest lies in finding out how to mitigate those problems when looking at our own future. There are all sorts of predictions which come out every year that are just plain wrong, and I think we can pretty safely ignore them, but the ones that come close to revealing the truth might offer some real insight.

Toffler talks a lot about the throwaway society; most of the things we have get replaced at a rapid rate. He's not just talking about material goods, although he makes that case too. He's talking about friendships, jobs, and culture. Starting with the automobile making its entrance into the mass market, humans became more geographically independent. We no longer had to stay in one place if we didn't want to. This meant a lot not only for tourism, but for moving; if you were tired of the city that you were living in, or ostracized by your community, you could simply leave with a minimum of hassle.

On top of this geographical freedom came occupational freedom; the trends started moving towards jobs that lasted years instead of a lifetime. The average time for a programmer to work at any given place in Silicon Valley is now eighteen months. People started to go back to school, or change their careers in the middle of their lives. We were no longer defined by what work we did. Of course, we often choose to define ourselves by what we do, so long as we enjoy our occupation. And in the year 2007, education defines most occupations, because new technology comes down the line that improves efficiency at the cost of training and implementation. This is true even for the most basic of jobs; farms now use multi-million dollar equipment, the service industry uses computer interfaces, and most manufacturing jobs have been revolutionized if not outright replaced.

Geographical and occupational freedom had a major impact on both family and friendship. Friendships that happen over a distance inevitably break down, so the people who aren't tied down to any given place aren't tied down to any given friendship. Friendships are more transitory, with more friends at the cost individual friendship depth. This is common criticism of American culture, a society which has perhaps the greatest geographical and occupational freedom of any (mostly due to our size, rather any superior form of government).

Viewing these arguments in light of the Internet is confusing to say the least. Here we have a system of friendship which is completely independent of geographical location, on top of institutions and possessions which are also independent of geography. My Gmail account, for example, can be used from any computer which has an internet connection. It's outlasted my first computer and will probably outlast my second one too. I still agree that friendships depend on proximity to an extent, but not nearly as much as they used to. As audio, video, and later haptics come onto the scene, physical proximity will mean less and less as virtual proximity comes closer and closer to "the real scene".

Lastly, my favorite chapter on rereading Future Shock was the one on the "adhocracy". This is closely related to the concept of Web 2.0, and it's such a catchy phrase that I'm not sure why it hasn't caught on. People organize into organic structures of control, from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. While I have my criticisms of Wikipedia, that's generally how it works over there. The amount of volunteer work that goes into the internet in general in terms of moderation, tagging, and free content is astounding. On top of that, the internet is itself ad hoc organized with an organic structure; while an individual website might have hierarchical page structure, the system of links creates a very messy structure.

Messy, but it gets you to the right place most of the time.

*Future Shock was published in 1970 for those without strong math.

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