With the 45th anniversary of this 1970 book approaching in 2015, it would be good to review the book’s still-intact relevanceIt remains today on my top-ten list of essential reads.  The following is the first installment of my condensation of favorite sections and passages. –SB

Toffler, Alvin.  Future Shock.  Random House, 1970.


INTRODUCTION:  This is a book about what happens to people when they are overwhelmed by change.  It is about the ways in which we adapt—or fail to adapt—to the future.

. . . for the most part, books about the world to come sound a harsh metallic note.  These pages, by contrast, concern themselves with the “soft” or human side of tomorrow. . . . they concern themselves with the steps by which we are likely to reach tomorrow. They deal with common, everyday matters—the products we buy and the discard, the places we leave behind, the corporations we inhabit, the people who pass at an ever faster clip through our lives.  The future of friendship and family life is probed.  Strange new subcultures and life styles are investigated, along with an array of other subjects from politics and playgrounds to skydiving and sex.

What joins all these—in the book as in life—is the roaring current of change, a current so powerful today that it overturns institutions, shifts our values and shrivels our roots.  Change is the process by which the future invades our lives, and it is important to look at it closely, not merely from the grand perspectives of history, but also from the vantage point of the living, breathing individuals who experience it.

The acceleration of change in our time is, itself, an elemental force.  This accelerative thrust has personal and psychological, as well as sociological, consequences.  In the pages ahead, these effects of acceleration are . . . systematically explored.  The book argues forcefully . . . that, unless man quickly learns to control the rate of change in his personal affairs as well as in society at large, we are doomed to a massive adaptational breakdown.

In 1965, in an article in Horizon, I coined the term “future shock” to describe the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.  Fascinated by this concept, I spent the next five years visiting scores of universities, research centers, laboratories, and government agencies, reading countless articles and scientific papers and interviewing literally hundreds of experts on different aspects of change, coping behavior, and the future.  Nobel prizewinners, hippies, psychiatrists, physicians, businessmen, professional futurists philosophers, and educators gave voice to their concern over change, their anxieties about adaptation, their fears about the future.  I came away from this experience with two disturbing convictions.

First, it became clear that future shock is no longer a distantly potential danger, but a real sickness from which increasingly large numbers already suffer.  This psycho-biological condition can be described in medical and psychiatric terms.  It is the disease of change.

Second, I gradually came to be appalled by how little is actually known about adaptivity, either by those who call for and create vast changes in our society, or by those who supposedly prepare us to cope with those changes.  Earnest intellectuals talk bravely about “educating for change” or “preparing people for the future.”  But we know virtually nothing about how to do it.  In the most rapidly changing environment to which man has ever been exposed, we remain pitifully ignorant of how the human animal copes.

Our psychologists and politicians alike are puzzled by the seemingly irrational resistance to change exhibited by certain individuals and groups.  The corporation head who wants to reorganize a department, the educator who wants to introduce a new teaching method, the mayor who wants to achieve peaceful integration of the races in his city—all, at one time or another, face this blind resistance.  Yet we know little about its sources.  By the same token, why do some men hunger, even rage for change, doing all in their power to create it, while others flee from it?  I not only found no ready answers to such questions, but discovered that we lack even an adequate theory of adaptation, without which it is extremely unlikely that we will ever find the answers.

The purpose of this book, therefore, is to help us come to terms with the future—to help us cope more effectively with both personal and social change by deepening our understanding of how men respond to it.  Toward this end, it puts forward a broad new theory of adaptation.

It also calls attention to an important, though often overlooked, distinction.  Almost invariably, research into the effects of change concentrate on the destinations toward which change carries us, rather than the speed of the journey.  In this book, I try to show that the rate of change has implications quite apart from, and sometimes more important than, the directions of change.  No attempt to understand adaptivity can succeed until this fact is grasped.  Any attempt to define the “content” of change must include the consequences of pace itself as part of that content.

William Ogburn, with his celebrated theory of cultural lag, pointed out how social stresses arise out of the uneven rates of change in different sectors of society. The concept of future shock—and the theory of adaptation that derives from it—strongly suggest that there must be balance, not merely between rates of change in different sectors, but between the pace of environmental change and the limited pace of human response. For future shock grows out of the increasing lag between the two.

The book is intended to do more than present a theory, however. It is also intended to demonstrate a method. Previously, men studied the past to shed light on the present. I have turned the time-mirror around, convinced that a coherent image of the future can also shower us with valuable insights into today. We shall find it increasingly difficult to understand our personal and public problems without making use of the future as a intellectual tool. . . . I deliberately exploit this tool to show what it can do.

Finally, and by no means least important, the book sets out to change the reader in a subtle yet significant sense. For reasons that will become clear . . . successful coping with rapid change will require most of us to adopt a new stance toward the future, a new sensitive awareness of the role it plays in the present. This book is designed to increase the future-consciousness of its reader. The degree to which the reader, after finishing the book, finds himself thinking about speculating about, or trying to anticipate future events, will provide one measure of its effectiveness.

With these ends stated, several reservations are in order.  One has to do with the perishability of fact.  Every seasoned reporter has had the experience of working on a fast-breaking story.  It is inevitable, therefore, in a book written over the course of several years that some of its facts will have been superseded between the time of research and writing and the time of publication.  Professors identified with University A move, in the interim, to University B.  Politicians identified with Position X shift, in the meantime, to Position Y. . . .

. . . The obsolescence of data has a special significance here, however, serving as it does to verify the book’s own these about the rapidity of change.  Writers have a harder and harder time keeping up with reality.  We have not yet learned to conceive, research, write and publish in “real time.” . . .

Another reservation has to do with the verb “will.”  No serious futurist deals in “predictions.” . . .  In those deliciously iconic words purported to be a Chinese proverb:  “To prophesy is extremely difficult—especially with respect to the future.”

. . .

. . . I have taken the liberty of speaking firmly, without hesitation, trusting that the intelligent reader will understand the stylistic problem. . . .

The inability to speak with precision and certainty about the future, however, is no excuse for silence. . . .

. . .

We who explore the future are like . . . ancient mapmakers, and it is in this spirit that the concept of future shock and the theory of the adaptive range are presented here—not as final word, but as a first approximation of the new realities, filled with danger and promise, created by the accelerative thrust.

Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock:” The Strategy of Social Futurism  31 October 2014

Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock:” The 800th Lifetime  28 October 2014

All photos by S.A. Bort