Sunday, July 01, 2012

Future Shock

I spent two years off and on trying to read this book. It was published in 1970. Sure, it's a bit dated, but it has some fun aspects. The beginning and middle of the book are interesting from an anthropological standpoint - watching what the author got right about society today and what he got horribly wrong. More personally relevant to me, though, was the end of the book, when Toffler gets on his high horse and starts making moral proclamations. While Toffler does a lot of "This is obviously wrong and I'm not going to dignify the reasons why it's wrong with page time," but he also does a fair amount of questioning basic societal assumptions.

He's pro-technology, and I have no issue with that. I think he simplifies the pre-tech way of life: "Only romantic fools babble about returning to a 'state of nature.' A state of nature is one in which infants shrivel and die for lack of elementary medical care, in which malnutrition stultifies the brain, in which, as Hobbes reminded us, the typical life is 'poor, nasty, brutish, and short.' To turn our back on technology would be not only stupid but immoral'" (370). But he does caution a sort of noblesse oblige - be responsible with what we do. The book is copyrighted but it is old. I'm gonna quote a few sections and just recommend you to read the last 50-60 pages if you're at all interested.

Toffler talks about how turning back time would be immoral and how we need more and not less technology. But, "at the same time, it is undeniably true that we frequently apply new technology stupidly and selfishly. In our haste to milk technology for immediate economic advantage, we have turned our environment into a physical and social tinderbox." The acceleration of technology and how that affects our social structures, Toffler things, "create a form of psychological pollution," which "is matched by the industrial vomit that fills our skies and seas. Pesticides and herbicides filter into our foods. Twisted automobile carcasses, aluminum cans, non-returnable glass mottles and synthetic plastics form immense kitchen middens in our midst as more and more of our detritus resists decay.... We risk thermopollution of the oceans themselves, overheating them, destroying immeasurable quantities of marine life, perhaps even melting the polar icecaps" (380).

But if you've read me, you know this is nothing new. What I found kind of fun right before this section where Toffler began his tirade was a section on changing education - from something rigid, factory-like, and focused entirely on the past - to something that doesn't ignore the past but also does not hold tradition up as the only thing that matters. Toffler champions something akin to speculative fiction - theorizing about what could happen in the future - imaginitively as well as systematically - to help us figure out how to cope with what is to come. The world really is changing faster and faster all the time. While I'm still (okay, for the last two+ years) the kind of girl who likes to live in the moment, I try not to do so recklessly.

Refusing to look into the future beyond tomorrow is what's wrong with our economic and social systems today, I believe. So many companies look only to the bottom line in the next year or five and refuse to see the externalities and hidden costs. A new factory may cause an economic boom in the short run but in the long run it may kill jobs, ruin the economic livelihoods of townspeople, and belch poison into the local (and greater) environment.

Isn't 'conservatism' supposed to be about 'conserv'ation?... Not that many liberals are much better. Being stewards of the earth - not just because it's right but because if we don't, pragmatically the place won't be inhabitable by humans - shouldn't and I don't think *is* a partisan issue, actually. Because the two parties, despite huge differences in social issues and civil liberties, are really not so different when it comes to money and values. The economy is its own god, and GDP is all that matters.

"So long as an industrializing nation is poor, it tends to welcome without argument any technical innoation that promises to improve economic output or material welfare. This is, in fact, a tacit technological policy, and it can make for extremely rapid economic growth" (383). Good in the short run, potentially devastating in the long run.

On the one hand, Toffler advocates for being more careful with how we apply technology. Yay for science - don't stop learning - but be more thoughtful in how you apply what you learn. Don't be so myopic (406). You can't count on Jesus coming tomorrow and saving you from yourself. Respect the earth and its inhabitants while you're here.

Toffler also advocates for democracy. Elitism - rule by those who know best over those who don't care - does seem attractive and it's what we (the West) tend to default to, but Toffler argues that "as interdependency grows [and it does in a society that changes and communicates faster and faster], smaller and smaller groups within society achieve greater and greater power for  critical disruption.... [Speaking only pragmatically, again,] this suggests that the best way to deal with angry or recalcitrant minorities is to open the system further, bringing them in as full partners, permitting them to participate in social goal-setting, rather than attempting to ostracize or isolate them" (422). This seems to hold true, at least anecdotally, for troubled teens and many ex-convicts. Give them a part in something positive to work toward instead of only telling them what's wrong.

Identifying problems is, indeed, important, but we remain impotent until we figure out what to *do* about it. What to do instead of the broken way things are. Toffler asks a great question: "What kind of a world do you want ten, twenty, or thirty years from now?" Hell, this is a question my minister was wonderful to ask and and push the Board of Trustees to answer at last summer's board retreat. It's something vital. Relaxation is good. Reflection, meditation, just 'being' are all good things. But those rejuvenative activities are not the same as being idle, listless, apathetic, sullen without purpose. What *are* we living for? What do we want for ourselves, our neighbors, our children? Even for me this isn't an easy answer.

I want to be around people I love. (Check.) I want to feel like I'm making a difference. (I do, sometimes.) I want people to live without fear. I want to stop driving over bridges that boast beautiful creeks only to see dry land flowing below. I want to see the huge divide between the billions of people who are starving and the thousands who have private jets disappear. But there I am being negative again....

I want people to live in joy. I want them to be thoughtful, loving neighbors, people who can be proud of what they do. I want flowing water and fresh, clean, safe, and abundant food for all. Idealistic, eh?

This book, as Toffler wraps it up himself, is mostly an exercise in diagnosing a potential problem in our society and our lives. He puts forth some ideas for how to fix, ameliorate, or mitigate rapid change and its rabid results. But more hopefully he recognizes that neither he nor anyone has all the answers. Kumbaya, but we do have to work together to see and effect a better tomorrow.

This hasn't been a great book report - there are some interesting points about some of the "symptoms" society is showing in our struggle to deal healthily with rapid change. Fascinating stuff (between Toffler's sometimes hilariously 'off' and sometimes angrifyingly small-minded proclamations). But I've read enough about the problems. Understanding the breadth of nuance of how the world, its people, its other creatures, and its resources are affected is important, but other books and venues do it well or better. Toffler ends with a call for action. Work together, make it better. Groovy.

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