A Brief History of the Future

By | 2016-11-04T16:57:09+00:00 June 3, 2015|Insights, Technology, Viewpoints|

In the summer of 1965 Alvin Toffler wrote a magazine article titled The Future as a Way of Life. Toffler foresaw a future in which accelerated technological change would result in social disorientation, producing a psychological state of information overload that would literally burn out society’s collective circuitry. Toffler wrote about “the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future.” His theory was so widely embraced that he spun off the best-selling book, Future Shock.

Toffler’s prediction that a relentless tidal wave of information would create a depressed population, cut off from intimate relationships, was partially correct at best. But when Future Shock was published forty-five years ago, even Toffler couldn’t imagine the complexities of today’s information delivery systems, their seamless integration into social media networks, and the resulting explosive expansion of relationships and access to information.

The feeling that we are living in the future is creeping into our collective psyche. With few exceptions, almost anything we think can be done “someday” already has been done in one sense or another, or is at least under development. We are indeed often dealing with a sense of Toffler’s “dizzying disorientation.” Whereas flying cars once held the public’s imagination as an iconic representation of a wondrous future, we can now Google “flying cars” and discover a CNN article with the title “Flying car companies aim for takeoff in 2017.” If cars can fly as well as drive themselves, we wonder, what else is there left to do? If 3D printers can manufacture bionic ears and functioning bladders, how much of a leap is it to envision a complete array of off-the-shelf body parts? And how can the concept of time survive in its traditional sense when people have become as comfortable with virtual environments as with real life?

Have we seen, as Toffler predicted, “the premature arrival of the future?” Has the future become a way of life? The future is solely dependent on our imagination—the ability to picture something that is not real—yet the relentless introduction of new technological achievements is reshaping our very concept of imagination. The problem is that technical and scientific achievements have become so ubiquitous in the information age that not much is left to the imagination. When we’re culturally and emotionally conditioned to think that we already know much of what the future will hold, we lose the capacity to imagine what it can hold.

Consider that Millennials now make up the majority of the U.S. population and its workforce and this phenomenon makes much more sense. Millennials have never known a world without high technology. Search engines have replaced the need to actually remember the past, calling up bits and pieces as we need them, and those small fragments of information are by definition devoid of context. The contextual complexity of the past is lost without a narrative thread. George Orwell’s 1984 pictured a dystopian future in which “who controls the past controls the future

[and] who controls the present controls the past.” Whereas Orwell envisioned that the past could be manipulated as a set of conditions that can shape the future, a deteriorated understanding of the past can be just as detrimental in forming a sense of the future. If the past is indeed prologue, then this degraded sense of the past doesn’t make appreciation of the future any easier.

An article in Harvard Magazine provides research around the “Google phenomenon” and how it’s changing the way our memory works. Social psychologist Daniel Wegner’s study titled Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Facts at Our Fingertips, shows that when people have access to search engines, they remember fewer facts and less information because they know they can rely on “search” as a readily available shortcut. It’s worth a read.

Psychophysics, the branch of experimental psychology focused on sensation and perception, sheds some light on why we may feel that the future has become a way of life. The Weber-Fechner Law posits that the more intense a sensation is, the more of a change is needed to notice the difference. The intense velocity of technological change makes us less capable of perceiving where the present leaves off and the future begins.

However, while we can’t control the future there are ways we can control how we think about the future. When we take the time to appreciate the present as separate from our understanding of the past and our vision of the future, we can regain a sense of control. It’s a universal truth that we simply don’t appreciate how good things are in comparison to the past. We also tend to assume that today’s technology is driving the future along a linear path, when in fact that is most often not the case. There’s a lot to be left to the imagination. As PayPal’s co-founder Peter Thiel famously said, we wanted flying cars but got 140 characters instead—an asymmetrical evolution if ever there was one.

In his book The Art of Stillness, the essayist and frequent TED speaker Pico Iyer promotes a philosophy that opens up a way of living to counter the mad rush of modern life. The world, he contends, doesn’t have to be experienced as a series of jarring cultural mashups. It’s OK to periodically unplug, to still the present and free up time to imagine the future. Iyer writes about the value of “clearing the head and stilling the emotions. We have the sense, too often, of running at top speed and never being able to catch up.” This isn’t New Age wishful thinking; it goes back to the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome. It’s recognition of an age-old, hard-wired need to imagine a future that’s different and distinct from the present.

About the Author:

Robert Palmer
EVP, Digital Innovation Officer

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