I dedicate this post to the late Alvin Toffler, who helped to popularize the phrase “future shock”. By the end of this post, you will either despise or adore the phrase.
What is “future shock“? In simple terms, it’s what happens to a person when the rate of sci-tech development outstrips their mental ability to handle it. Mr. Toffler defined it as “too much change in too little time”. Though that is a fine description, I feel it also presents a tinge of vagueness. If I were to change houses fifty times in a month, would the weariness and anxiety of all the change be considered future shock? Not at all. As a phrase, it’s always been used to describe our response to sci-tech, and that’s how Mr. Toffler meant for it to be regarded.
The damnedest irony of it is that Mr. Toffler popularized the phrase in 1970, a phrase that had already been floating around for roughly a decade by that point. Yet when I think of that time period, I think of an almost laughably primitive state of technology— with all its cathode ray-tube TVs, Kodak cameras, and rotary phones. This stems from my privilege of living in the Future™*, having reasonably fast internet in my pocket and all. With this in mind, it becomes amazing to think that people in the 1960s— the early ’60s at that— were experiencing future shock.
What happened in the early ’60s that beckoned sci-tech anxiety? We experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis, which threatened all of human civilization thanks to the existence of atomic weaponry…. The world’s first industrial robot, Unimate, was unveiled…. We created the first supercomputer, the CDC 6600 (whose top performance was 500 kiloFLOPS)— my IoT-capable washing machine is thousands of times more powerful than that thing…
So from my perspective, the 1960s were a hellish time to be a futurist. The idea that you could be overwhelmed by the technology of the day sounds comical, and yet as I mentioned, I’m coming from an era where washing machines are orders of magnitude more powerful than the era’s top supercomputer.
I want to go on about this, about how my imagining of the ’60s and ’70s paint them as the last ‘Luddite’ decades due to them possessing so little computing power across so few computers. But I won’t. That isn’t what this post is about.
No. I want to raise the point that the fact people were shocked by sci-tech in the early ’60s only means we are going to be in for a hell of a time in the coming years.
It used to be that a person experienced such great changes in their lives only ever so often, even as late as the ’70s. Nowadays, we’ve turned it into a meme. The iPhone 30SE -1000 is the latest hot thing— now it’s the iPhone 95DR006. You blinked, and now we’re all using the Samsung Omniverse ∞. Last year, we were into 3D TVs. This year, the Oculus Rift is the hot new thing. But you’d better hurry, because cortical modems are on their way. And now you’re a ball of pure super sapient energy.
This shocking rate of change can prove to be too much for some people.
I know people who are still living in 2006. No, no, they haven’t invented time travel— they just don’t care enough about the latest gadgets to keep up with them. While futurists like myself are jizzing over augmented reality glasses and domestic robots, they’re not even aware that 3D TVs are a thing. Some may have only recently upgraded to Blu-Ray, and that’s considering they’ve not yet noticed that Blockbusters and Hollywood Videos are extinct.
Should you present them with something like, say, the Guinness Book of World Records: 2006, and flip to its technology section, they would be impressed by developments from over 10 years ago.
The last time I was impressed by ASIMO was in 2014, and that was only because I was a Born-Again Singularitarian.
Such technologically retarded people have been sheltered by the relative inability of truly futuristic sci-tech to penetrate the mainstream. They’re not shocked by the iPhone nor are they exceptionally interested in social media. These things came gradually, more as conveniences than shocks.
This won’t last. We’ve begun seeing virtual reality headsets infiltrate the shelves of warehouse stores across America, and Aldebaran’s social droid, Pepper, is about to go on sale across the world. Passenger drones and hyperloops are being teased by companies and governments, while augmented reality glasses are drowning in investor money. All of these things are coming all at once, and they’re merely the first wave of a massive sea change in the mainstream.
Not to mention the stupidly fast progress in the field of artificial intelligence. Billions are being poured into this industry, keeping it in a perpetual AI Spring. Once upon a time, the best AI could not so much as navigate a 2D maze. Now, they’re defeating humans in games we’ve dominated for millennia.
The biggest limiting factor for utility droids has been the ability to navigate 3D space autonomously. This is why ASIMO rediscovered gravity back in 2008 while attempting to walk up stairs, despite all the progress the robot had made in its previous 20 years. Now that we have the proper algorithms and sufficient computing power, this isn’t a problem anymore— all we have left to do is to fuse the likes of Google DeepMind with a robot like Boston Dynamic’s Atlas or Honda’s ASIMO.
What happens when all of these things converge on the common man, something that most expect to occur sometime between 2018 and 2022?
Future shock. The world’s most sweeping and intense case of future shock is upon us. Not only that, but I feel that there will be a trigger for this grand cybernetic anxiety, and it involves the world’s biggest sporting event.
In 2020, Tokyo will hold the Olympics. As you may know, Japan is commonly considered to be the most technophilic country on Earth, and their love for the synthetic and digital is not hampered by Western notions of creepiness— hence why Japanese news sites never have to bring up the likes of Terminator even when discussing humanoid droids, whereas American ones will eagerly call a medieval suit of armor a ‘Terminator.’ Prime Minister Abe isn’t holding back punches— his exact words were “I want a Robot Olympics.” Likewise, Tokyo 2020 is fast developing into a spectacle of advanced technology rather than a mere contest between the world’s finest athletes. It is where and when most average people will first see autonomous vehicles and personal robots in action.
If that isn’t enough, also consider that the World Expo 2020 will be held in Dubai, which is perhaps the world’s most futurism-obsessed city-state that has based its whole tourism industry off being our closest replica of a cyberpunk cityscape.
Never mind the very sound of the year being futuristic— “2020” is usually seen as being far in the future, not three and a half years away. One of my favorite video games, 2000’s Perfect Dark for the Nintendo 64, was set in 2023. We’re closer to the year it’s set than its release! As time continues its relentless forward march, as children grow into adults and adults into geriatrics, we will be ever more reminded by how quickly things are changing.
One day— one day soon— we will grow used to the sight of utility droids, passenger drones, and cyborgs, and then some of us will wonder “When did the Future™ arrive?”
Such changes will have come so quickly that there will be people in need of medical attention in order to cope. People who need to be institutionalized, or at the very least need a counselor. Some will desire the old world, a world before all of these changes. Some will experience an intense hiraeth for the old days, not understanding change was always happening even when they weren’t paying attention.
We’re transitioning from a Post-Industrial Society to a Singularity Society. This period we’re living in right now, codified by the existence of strong-Narrow AI and social media, can best be described as “Pre-Singularity Society”. All of these societal shifts bring with them psychological upheaval. However, never have these changes been so rapid. They’re coming so fast that we’re becoming blind to them, or perhaps we’re coping by entering a delusional state where we believe nothing has changed in years. Clearly life now and life in 1996 are not the same, but we’re willfully blind as to how and why, thus inflicting upon ourselves the illusion of stagnation.
It won’t last. It won’t last at all. As I’ve said, future shock will smack us all some time within the next 5 years, and I will put money down that it will be in 2o2o. After 2020, the concept of people needing mental help to cope with rapid sci-tech change will become more and more common.
*The Future™ is a term describing the commonly accepted tropes of what a sci-fi future is supposed to look like; i.e. flying cars, robot butlers, AI, techno music, space colonies, starscrapers, etc.