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 third installment of my condensation of favorite sections and passages. –SB

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


THE STRATEGY OF SOCIAL FUTURISM:  Can one live in a society that is out of control?   That is the question posed for us by the concept of future shock. For that is the situation we find ourselves in.  If it were technology alone that had broken loose, our problems would be serious enough.  The deadly fact is, however, that many other social processes have also begun to run free, oscillating wildly, resisting our best efforts to guide them.

. . .

How can we prevent mass future shock, selectively adjusting the tempos of change, raising or lowering levels of stimulation, when governments—including those with the best intentions—seem unable even to point change in the right direction?

. . . Raymond Fletcher, a frustrated Member of Parliament in Britain, recently complained: “Society’s gone random!”

If random means a literal absence of pattern, he is, of course, overstating the case.  But if random means that the outcomes of social policy have become erratic and hard to predict, he is right on target.  Here, then, is the political meaning of future shock.  For just as individual future shock results from an inability to keep pace with the rate of change, governments, too, suffer from a kind of collective future shock—a breakdown of their decisional processes.

With chilling clarity, Sir Geoffrey Vickers, the eminent British social scientist, has identified the issue:  “The rate of change increases at an accelerating speed, without a corresponding acceleration in the rate at which further responses can be made; and this brings us nearer the threshold beyond which control is lost.”


What we are witnessing is the beginning of the final breakup of industrialism and, with it, the collapse of technocratic planning.  By technocratic planning, I do not mean only the centralized national planning that has, until recently, characterized the USSR, but also the less formal, more dispersed attempts at systematic change management that occur in all the high technology nations, regardless of their political persuasion.  Michael Harrington, the socialist critic, arguing that we have rejected planning, has termed ours the “accidental century.”  Yet, as Galbraith demonstrates, even within the context of a capitalist economy, the great corporations go to enormous lengths to rationalize production and distribution, to plan their future as best they can.  Governments, too, are deep into the planning business.  The Keynesian manipulation of post-war economics may be inadequate, but it is not a matter of accident.  In France, Le Plan has become a regular feature of national life.  In Sweden, Italy, Germany and Japan, governments actively intervene in the economic sector to protect certain industries, to capitalize others, and to accelerate growth.  In the United States and Britain, even local governments come equipped with what are at least called planning departments.

First, technocratic planning, itself a product of industrialism, reflects the values of that fast-vanishing era.  In both its capitalist and communist variants, industrialism was a system focused on the maximization of material welfare.  Thus, for the technocrat, in Detroit as well as Kiev, economic advance is the primary aim; technology the primary tool.  The fact that in one case the advance redounds to private advantage and in the other, theoretically, to the public good does not alter the core assumptions common to both.  Technocratic planning is econocentric.

Second, technocratic planning reflects the time-bias of industrialism.  Struggling to free itself from the stifling past-orientation of previous societies, industrialism focused heavily on the present.  This meant, in practice, that its planning dealt with futures near at hand.  The idea of a five-year plan struck the world as insanely futuristic when it was first put forward by the Soviets in the 1920’s.  Even today, except in the most advanced organizations on both sides of the ideological curtain, one- or two-year forecasts are regarded as “long-range planning.”  A handful of corporations and government agencies, as we shall see, have begun to concern themselves with horizons then, twenty, even fifty years in the future.  The majority, however, remain blindly biased toward next Monday.  Technocratic planning is short-range.

Third, reflecting the bureaucratic organization of industrialism, technocratic planning was premised on hierarchy.  The world was divided into manager and worker, planner and plannee, with decisions made by one for the other.  This system, adequate while change unfolds at an industrial tempo, breaks down as the pace reaches super-industrial speeds.  The increasingly unstable environment demands more and more non-programmed decisions down below; the need for instant feedback blurs the distinction between line and staff; and hierarchy totters.  Planners are too remote, too ignorant of local conditions, too slow in responding to change.  As suspicion spreads that top-down controls are unworkable, plannees begin clamoring for the right to participate in the decision-making.  Planners, however, resist.  For like the bureaucratic system it mirrors, technocratic planning is essentially undemocratic.

The forces sweeping us toward super-industrialism can no longer be channeled by these bankrupt industrial-era methods.  For a time they may continue to work in backward, slowly moving industries or communities.  But their misapplication in advanced industries, in universities, in cities—wherever change is swift—cannot but intensify the instability, leading to wilder and wilder swings and lurches.  Moreover, as the evidences of failure pile up, dangerous political, cultural and psychological currents are set loose.

One response to the loss of control, for example, is a revulsion against intelligence.  Science first gave man a sense of mastery over his environment, and hence over the future.  By making the future seem malleable, instead of immutable, it shattered the opiate religions that preached passivity and mysticism.  Today, mounting evidence that society is out of control breeds disillusionment with science.  In consequence, we witness a garish revival of mysticism.  Suddenly astrology is the rage.  Zen, yoga, séances, and witchcraft become popular pastimes.  Cults form around the search for Dionysian experience, for non-verbal and supposedly non-linear communication.  We are told it is more important to “feel” than to “think,” as though there were a contradiction between the two.  Existentialist oracles join Catholic mystics, Jungian psychoanalysts, and Hindu gurus in exalting the mystical and emotional against the scientific and rational.

This reversion to pre-scientific attitudes is accompanied, not surprisingly, by a tremendous wave of nostalgia in the society.  Antique furniture, posters from a bygone era, games based on remembrance of yesterday’s trivia, the revival of Art Nouveau, the spread of Edwardian styles, the rediscovery of such faded pop-cult celebrities as Humphrey Bogart or W. C. Fields, all mirror a psychological lust for the simpler, less turbulent past.  Powerful fad machines spring into action to capitalize on this hunger.  The nostalgia business becomes a booming industry.

The failure of technocratic planning and the consequent sense of lost control also feeds the philosophy of “now-ness.”  Songs and advertisements hail the appearance of the “now generation,” and learned psychiatrists, discoursing on the presumed dangers of repression, warn us not to defer our gratifications.  Acting out and a search of immediate payoff are encouraged.  “We’re more oriented to the present,” says a teen-age girl to a reporter after the mammoth Woodstock rock music festival.  “It’s like do what you want to do now. . . . If you stay anywhere very long you get into a planning thing. . . . So you just move on.”  Spontaneity, the personal equivalent of social planlessness, is elevated into a cardinal psychological virtue.

All this has its political analog in the emergence of a strange coalition of right wingers and New Leftists in support of what can only be termed a “hang loose” approach to the future.  Thus we hear increasing calls for anti-planning or non-planning, sometimes euphemized as “organic growth.”  Among some radicals, this takes on an anarchist coloration.  Not only is it regarded as unnecessary or unwise to make long-range plans for the future of the institution or society they wish to overturn, it is sometimes even regarded as poor taste to plan the next hour and a half of a meeting.  Planlessness is glorified.

Arguing that planning imposes values on the future, the anti-planners overlook the fact that non-planning does so, too—often with far worse consequence.  Angered by the narrow, econocentric character of technocratic planning, they condemn systems analysis, cost benefit accounting, and similar methods, ignoring the fact that, used differently, these very tools might be converted into powerful techniques for humanizing the future.

When critics charge that technocratic planning is anti-human, in the sense that it neglects social, cultural and psychological values in its headlong rush to maximize economic gain, they are usually right.  When they charge that it is shortsighted and undemocratic, they are usually right.  When they charge it is inept, they are usually right.

But when they plunge backward into irrationality, anti-scientific attitudes, a kind of sick nostalgia, and an exaltation of now-ness, they are not only wrong, but dangerous.  Just as, in the main, their alternatives to industrialism call for a return to pre-industrial institutions, their alternative to technocracy is not post-, but pre-technocracy.

. . .

We need not a reversion to the irrationalisms of the past, not a passive acceptance of change, not despair or nihilism.  We need, instead, a strong new strategy.  For reasons that well become clear, I term this strategy “social futurism.”  I am convinced that, armed with this strategy, we can arrive at a new level of competence in the management of change.  We can invent a form of planning more humane, more far-sighted, and more democratic than any so far in use.  In short, we can transcend technocracy.

. . .


. . .

By now the accelerative thrust triggered by man has become the key to the entire evolutionary process on the planet.  The rate and direction of the evolution of other species, their very survival, depends upon decisions made by man.  Yet there is nothing inherent in the evolutionary process to guarantee man’s own survival.

Throughout the past, as successive stages of social evolution unfolded, man’s awareness followed rather than preceded the event.  Because change was slow, he could adapt unconsciously, “organically.”  Today unconscious adaptation is no longer adequate faced with the power to alter the gene, to create new species, to populate the planets or depopulate the earth, man must now assume conscious control of evolution itself.  Avoiding future shock as he rides the waves of change, he must master evolution, shaping tomorrow to human need.  Instead of rising in revolt against it, he must, from this historic moment on, anticipate and design the future.

This, then, is the ultimate objective of social futurism, not merely the transcendence of technocracy and the substitution of more humane, more far-sighted, more democratic planning, but the subjection of the process of evolution itself to conscious human guidance.  For this is the supreme instant, the turning point in history at which man either vanquishes the processes of change or vanishes, at which, from being the unconscious puppet of evolution he becomes either its victim or its master.

A challenge of such proportions demands of us a dramatically new, a more deeply rational response toward change.  This book has had change as its protagonist—first as potential villain and then, it would seem, as potential hero.  In calling for the moderation and regulation of change, it has called for additional revolutionary changes.  This is less paradoxical than it appears.  Change is essential to man, as essential now in our 800th lifetime as it was in our first.  Change is life itself. But change rampant, change unguided and unrestrained, accelerated change overwhelming not only man’s physical defenses but his decisional processes—such change is the enemy of life.

Our first and most pressing need, therefore, before we can begin to gently guide our evolutionary destiny, before we can build a humane future, is to halt the runaway acceleration that is subjecting multitudes to the threat of future shock while, at the very same moment, intensifying all the problems they must deal with—war, ecological incursions, racism, the obscene contrast between rich and poor, the revolt of the young, and the rise of a potentially deadly mass irrationalism.

There is no facile way to treat this wild growth, this cancer in history.  There is no magic medicine, either, for curing the unprecedented disease it bears in its rushing wake:  future shock.  I have suggested palliatives for the change-pressed individual and more radically curative procedures for the society—new social services, a future-facing education system, new ways to regulate technology, and a strategy for capturing control of change.  Other ways must also be found.  Yet the basic thrust of this book is diagnosis.  For diagnosis precedes cure, and we cannot begin to help ourselves until we become sensitively conscious of the problem.

These pages will have served their purpose if, in some measure, they help create the consciousness needed for man to undertake the control of change, the guidance of his evolution.  For, by making imaginative use of change to channel change, we can not only spare ourselves the trauma of future shock, we can reach out and humanize distant tomorrows.

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

Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock:” Introduction  28 October 2014