Have you ever wondered why Alvin Toffler’s writings seem so strange today? Intellectually you can recognize that he saw a lot of things coming. But somehow, he imagined the future in future-unfamiliar terms. So it appears strange to us. Because we are experiencing a lot of what he saw coming, translated into terms that would actually have been completely familiar to him.
His writings seem unreal partly because they are impoverished imaginings of things that did not exist back then, but also partly because his writing seems to be informed by the idea that the future would define itself. He speaks of future-concepts like (say) modular housing in terms that make sense with respect to those concepts.
When the future actually arrived, in the form of couchsurfing and Airbnb, it arrived translated into a crazed-familiarity. Toffler sort of got the basic idea that mobility would change our sense of home. His failure was not in failing to predict how housing might evolve. His failure was in failing to predict that we would comprehend it in terms of “Bed and Breakfast” metaphors.
This is not an indictment of Toffler’s skill as a futurist, but of the very methods of futurism. We build conceptual models of the world as it exists today, posit laws of transformation and change, simulate possible futures, and cherry-pick interesting and likely-sounding elements that appear robustly across many simulations and appear feasible.
And then we stop. We do not transform the end-state conceptual models into the behavioral terms we use to actually engage and understand reality-in-use, as opposed to reality-in-contemplation. We forget to do the most important part of a futurist prediction: predicting how user experience might evolve to normalize the future-unfamiliar.
- Venkatesh Rao, Welcome to the Future Nauseous
At core, Toffler’s spin on futures is poorly conceived: we aren’t ‘shocked’ by the future. As Rao points out in his (wonderful) essay, we learn to accomodate technological changes because the ones that are successful are those that are most accessible: the ones that disrupt our weltanshauung least.
Toffler seems to only get excited by innovations that will abruptly change everything all at once, but innovations like today’s smartphones are incrementalist: they are like cell phones only smarter (smart meaning more capable). And cell phones are like phones, only mobile. We don’t jump from smoke signals to iPhones, we climbs six thousand stairs to get there.
The future isn’t like being sucked into a turbine and shredded into bits. It’s like eating: people ingest around 2000 lbs of food each year, and 98% of our atoms are exchanged. But we continue to look like and act like our old selves, even though we are almost completely new, at the atomic level.
We ingest the future, and it remakes us, foundationally: below most people’s awareness.
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Web anthropologist, futurist, author. My focus is the future, and the tectonic forces pushing business, media, and society into an unclear and accelerating future. more.
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GigaOM Research analyst and curator.
Also writing beaconstreets.com.
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