Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Future Shock

Remember future shock? It's the shock that overcomes you when you can't handle what you perceive as too much change in too little time. The term was coined by futurist Alvin Toffler, and it's the subject of the book that made him famous. If anything, the speed of change has accelerated since the book came out in 1970, and the shock registered by those who can't handle it has become more extreme, to the point of madness. The ultimate expression of that madness is 9/11 — so far. But far more people have come to adapt to the accelerating rate of change; some of us can even be said to surf evolution. The 21st-century world we live in today was nothing but science fiction in the 20th century.

In this entry, I'll be dealing with fiction as well as society. We tell ourselves who we are through the stories we tell.

Though there's few jetpacks, aircars, spaceships, or space colonies yet (and what we have are still relatively primitive), we are now living in the science fiction universe. Here and elsewhere, I've been writing a series of essays on this, and its effect on mainstream fiction. It wasn't 9/11 that changed everything. It was Sputnik. It was that little satellite that launched the world into the future we live in today. Before Sputnik, civilization was predicated on stability, even despite the vast changes that occurred since the Renaissance. After Sputnik, the world began to change in such a way that science fiction became our reality. Future Shock was published early in the transition from the old society based on stability to the new one based on permanent change; we are late in the transition, and the major political upheavals that will complete the transition are now in sight. The biggest factor in the transition turned out to be the Internet, which caught on among the general public around 1992, the year the Mosaic browser first made the Web fashionable.

Amazing technologies are coming right at us: nanotechnology, quantum computers, DNA computing, methods of bringing well-preserved dead bodies back to life, you name it. And yes, there's people doing intensive research on jetpacks, aircars, hoverboards, space stations, and (at least) interplanetary spaceships. Not all the research is going on in the US, of course; that country right now is too mired in imperial decline to bother with many technological advances that aren't strictly military. Most of the rest of the world, though, has no problem. Worldwide (at least outside the more troglodyte reaches of Christendom and Islamdom), the public appetite for the future has become insatiable.

In days of yore, the rate of change was very slow and little (if any) of it reached the common people, most of whom were peasants stuck on the farm for life. Today, constant change is the one constant. The only question is: can you handle it?

How do you know you're suffering from future shock? You feel the world's changing too fast. You're getting hostile to progress. You reject technology, or at least new technology. You reject changing mores and demand a return to traditional social values. You leave the city for the suburbs, or the suburbs for a small town or the countryside. You join a traditionalist or fundamentalist religious group. In short, you become conservative.

In fiction, naturalism is the literature of stasis. The assumption is that things always stay the same or get worse. There is no social evolution in naturalist fiction or its predecessor, the social novel. Much of the naturalist school originally tried to expose social injustice to provoke social reform. Today, though, it is an extremely conservative school, politically as well as literarily; in its current decadent form, naturalism is the literature of complacency.

True, science fiction is a conservative genre, in the sense that it tends to be strongly (even fanatically) attached to its genre conventions, along with some conceptions of science that science itself has long since outgrown. But the most important of its foundational premises is not conservative in the least. Science fiction assumes the reality of evolution, or what Willa in Black Science calls the Law of Evolution. Change is what nature does, and the direction of change tends toward ever greater complexity. Before the Internet gave social evolution a mass market, we who grew up reading science fiction were the best prepared for a world that changes faster, a world based on change. Science fiction was our vaccine against future shock.

Most of us live in cities today. Some of them (like Manhattan, Tokyo, or my own beloved Seattle) would awe the Jetsons; others are pure Dickensian cyberpunk dystopia. The city is where human evolution is occurring, not just social but genetic as well. It's also where the worst cases of future shock are occurring: cults and terrorist organizations take their memberships from the most future-shocked populations. Like science fiction, cities are teaching us how to live in the future, though some are adjusting better than others.

Our ancestors lived in the past; some people (and entire civilizations) still do. The past invaded and oppressed the present. Today, in the twenty-first century, the century of science fiction, we are learning to live in the future — not for it, but in it. The transition from past to future orientation is not yet complete, though.

There's one important difference between future shock and mere culture shock. Culture shock — the shock you feel when you find yourself in an alien culture, the cultural equivalent of jet lag — is something you can get over (again, like jet lag), though there are people so attached to their native cultures that they cannot get over culture shock. But you can't get over future shock — unless you embrace change and learn to live in the future instead of the past.

In my fiction, and above all in Spanner, future-oriented people find themselves under assault from people so future-shocked they've become deranged enough to go reactionary. My heroes are forced to defend the future from the dead hand of the authoritarian past.

Now, as for Future Shock itself: did you know there's a movie? I forget what grade I was in at the time, but one of my class periods was preempted in order to show Future Shock the movie, on 16mm film. As you'll see, people were more scared of less change back in 1972, in the middle of the last period of major social unrest, than we are of much faster change in 2009. If anything, the future is rushing at us much faster now than ever before, and the pace is only accelerating. This film registers the shock people felt when they first realized they were now living in the future. Today we're living in the science-fiction universe. Anyway, here's the review, and here's the movie:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Back to Spanner’s World...

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