The Man Who Saw The Future

Alvin Toffler, the author who put into words the anxieties of so many people about the pace of technological change in the late twentieth century, has died at the age of eighty-seven.

Toffler’s most famous book was called Future Shock (1970).  I read it back then, and it is one of the few books my father has read with enjoyment.  With it, Toffler not only captured our doubts and fears about where our society of computers, mass communications, and mass consumerism was headed, he also helped to invent a new field of thought:  futurology.  Futurists (or futurologists, as many of them prefer) examine trends in present-day society and from those trends try to predict future consequences of sociopolitical or biological events, and what the shape of potential futures might be.  In the broad sense of this definition, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Arthur C. Clarke, and Carl Sagan were all futurists.  George Gilder, Buckminster Fuller, Grace Hopper, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Hazel Henderson, James Lovecock, Neal Stephenson, Richard Feynman, and Walt Disney are futurists in a more contemporary sense of the term because their work incorporates a consideration of economics in human affairs.

One of the beliefs that animated Toffler’s work and that of his wife, Heidi, who collaborated with him, was that the pundits and economists had got it all wrong:  technological advance and economic prosperity were tied together, and prosperity could be sustained as long as human creativity could be encouraged.  The same belief system may be found in George Gilder’s economic study, Wealth and Poverty (1981), which emerged just as President Reagan was taking office for his first term; and in his later, cheerleading book for the Internet culture, Telecosm (2000).  We’ve pulled back a little from the enthusiasms Gilder and Toffler and Clarke showed for the future.  We know now too much about the dangers of the technology they wrote about to be as cheerful about it as they.

But make no mistake:  Toffler was right about the breakneck pace of change, and the technological world that he and his colleagues prepared us for is here in full force.  It is useful, prudent, and sometimes fun to dwell for a bit on the dangers and annoyances of technology, whether it’s Internet servers getting hacked, our Roomba robot that broke down last week, or the remote that just won’t record our favorite show the way it’s supposed to.  But it’s also helpful (and psychologically healthy) to remember that most of the gadgets and gizmos around which we build and organize our lives were not invented by a mad scientist in a lightning-crowned laboratory somewhere.  Rather, they were invented in a nice, clean workspace, or in the garage of some guy who just wanted to see if he could tinker around and maybe make a buck or two.  In other words, for all our misgivings about the machines around us, the fairest thing we can say is that the futurists were right:  the world is, in large measure, a far better, cleaner, healthier, and more interesting place than it was a hundred years ago, and the odds are that, because of human foresight and ingenuity, it will be even more interesting for our children and grandchildren a hundred years from now.

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