Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Shockingly, The Future Ain't What It Used To Be

The future ain't what it used to be, or so Marshall McLuhan quipped. 

Traditionally, the future seemed remote, a distant, undiscovered country, be it the afterlife, or a return to Eden, or some utopia or dystopia or time of wonders.

Modernity brought the future closer and closer, and we can actually study the history of the future, that is, the history of conceptions of the future, which would include assorted science fiction scenarios.

During the sixties, things seemed to be changing so rapidly that there was a sense that the future was collapsing in upon the present.  Alvin Toffler famously wrote about "future shock," which took the concept of "culture shock," which is based on traveling in space, and substituted time in its place, so that the future suddenly appearing in the present results in an effect similar to culture shock, a sense of alienation and disorientation.

Neil Postman, in his book of essays entitled Conscientious Objections, claimed to have coined the phrase, and perhaps Toffler took it from Neil, although it is also possible that he arrived at it independently.  Whatever the case may be, Toffler was the one who ran with the concept in his book of the same name:

I remember when this book came out in 1970, it appeared in paperback in four different colors, which I had never seen before.  That actually illustrated one of the trends contributing to future shock that Toffler identified, overchoice.

I remember being really wowed by this book when I was in high school, and seeing a film about it in my freshman Introduction to Communication Theory class.  When I got to graduate school, though, Toffler was dismissed as a derivative popularizer, in contrast to genuine seminal thinkers like McLuhan, Innis, Mumford, Ellul, Fuller, etc.  I haven't thought about it very much since, although I didn't forget that this book had an effect on me early on, and inspired me to continue to study media and technology, and time.

And I was delighted to see one of my friends on Twitter mention it today, and discover that that movie that was shown in my freshman class back in the fall of 1974 is on YouTube.  What's especially cool, and something I had forgotten over the decades, is that Orson Welles narrates and appears in the film.  Here's the write-up on YouTube:

This is a little known documentary based on the book Future Shock by Alvin Toffler.

See review here:

This movie came out in 1972 and features Orson Welles as the narrator. I was most amused by the high amount of paranoia in regards to the future... some of the segments (like people choosing their own skin color) are downright hilarious. Worth a look - at the very least for its historical value.

As far as I can tell, this documentary is in the public domain.

 It's carved up into five parts to fit YouTubes arbitrary limitations, but here it is, for you to view:

And there you have it, the shocking truth about the future, or the future past, or the past future, or the future that never was, or maybe it's Postman's other coinage, future schlock


Bruce I. Kodish said...

Speaking of future schlock, perhaps you remember Ed Wood's delightful Plan 9 from Outer Space, where Criswell, the well-known Hollywood TV psychic, immortalized the movies opening segment this way:

"Greeting my friends, we are all interested in the future because that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future!"

Lance Strate said...

I most certainly do remember! What a hoot!