Knowing and the Paradox of Uncertainty
Seeing isn’t knowing…or understanding
I don’t recall exactly when I felt that first ripple of awareness that we—all of us—were changing in ways that would be at once profound and irrevocable. “The Winds of Change,” kept repeating itself over and over, in the back of my mind. Anyone who grew up as I did on the Great Central Plain knows change is always borne on the winds. Changes in weather—changes in season.
I’m sure this phrase isn’t original to me, though the litany played in the back of my head long before the Scorpions recorded their lovely and hopeful 1990 tune. Not that it matters. I don’t own the phrase or any variant thereof. My point is I’ve long believed we as one of Earth’s species are undergoing multiple, concurrent shifts in consciousness. Shifts that will alter—for better or worse—who we are and what we become.
And while I don’t remember when “the winds of change” became a sort of soundtrack to my life, I remember my first sense of validation for this vague feeling that just wouldn’t go away. It was in 1970, when Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock hit the bookstores. A sophomore in college, I heard someone enthusing about it and bought a copy. I read it during my long nights working in a gas station on the interstate—usually as a break from statistics or a deep dive into some particularly obscure bit of knowledge I might or might not use or even remember.
For the benefit of those who haven’t read it, I’ll summarize my takeaway. Let me hasten to add a caveat. It was a long time ago and as a product of my environment and experiences, my takeaway may not be yours, if have already read it or—as I suggest—you read it in response to my observations. This is just what I took from it and (admittedly) may even be guilty of interpolating some of my own thoughts, rather than accurately remembering a particular passage that “stuck.”
A 150 word-or-less summary of the nearly 600 pages of Future Shock as I received it follows. The acceleration of knowledge acquisition, coupled with information technology and instantaneous global communications would accelerate both the rate of change and (perhaps more importantly) how we experience it. It would, Toffler warned, transform our lives—and not always in ways we would welcome.
This acceleration of the rate of change would sweep away many of social norms that have long acted as frames of reference. Eventually, Toffler went on to explain the rate of change would outstrip the ability of many of us to process it constructively. This would result in “future shock,” which the book defined as:
“The shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” (Future Shock, Alvin Toffler 1970, Random House).
Why Future Shock Still Matters (IMHO)
Fifty plus years later, I still believe Future Shock remains one of the best non-fiction works of our time. Someone reading this now is likely to be muttering under his/her breath, “You should get out more.” Maybe. A lot has happened since Future Shock was published. Not only is there a voluminous body of thoughtful (and valid) criticism of specific predictions in Future Shock, but there’s a new generation of futurists with a lot of valuable observations based on more current information.
All that acknowledged, while I don’t necessarily view later works as derivative, I have read no book since whose overarching vision of our tomorrow seems more faithfully mirrors the stark realities of our today. An argument could be made that nowhere is this truer than the United States, but we are missing the point if we think we’re unique. The manifestations of future shock in the U.S. may be unique, but the phenomenon is global.
Future shock really isn’t new, when we think about it wholistically. The most obvious precursor and probable catalyst to our current bout of future shock was surely the Industrial Revolution. Is there not an argument that what Brzezinski called the Technetronic Age does not happen without the Industrial Revolution? Then as now, the sweeping changes brought on by the technological advances were tectonic. Arguably, all that is different is the pace and (possibly) the magnitude of the challenges we face today.
The Wreckage of Legacy
In the third decade of the 21st Century, something Toffler predicted in Future Shock really stands out. It didn’t register with nearly the sense of epiphany, as it does today.
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn…” Toffler in Future Shock, emphasis mine.
Does any single line written in the last fifty years summarize better the social, political and economic churn we’re experiencing today? Collectively, humans as a self-aware species of will are highly adaptable. But individually, there is a high degree of variance in how (and to what degree) that adaptability is manifested. As Toffler also observed in Future Shock:
“Every person carries in his head a mental model of the world — a subjective representation of eternal reality.”
Some adapt by seeing the world through relatively objective eyes, recognizing a need to evolve and make the effort to do so cooperatively and constructively. Others, less willing or able to adapt drop anchor. As the irresistible pressures of ideas whose time has come overwhelm them, the less-adaptable push back, lash out violently, or revolt. (Or all the above).
And therein lies the problem. We are evolving at different paces, based on a variety of factors of which many of aren’t even aware and (probably) couldn’t control even if we were. Some of these factors are environmental—as in, what is the prevailing collective interpretation of the changes we see? What has our upbringing predisposed us to accept or reject? Some of it is educational. How much have we been exposed to ideas that successfully challenge our world view and our view of ourselves? Part of it is native. Does our native intelligence and imagination (or lack thereof) drive us to wonder or are we predisposed to take our local observation as the only reality that matters?
And my point is...?
Funny you should ask. I have one. As an author of fiction, I have come to incorporate my observations about the world and our place in all my writings. Whether I’m writing an entertaining story of adventure, romance, eroticism or all the above, my characters move through this oddly sub-divided world. No more than we can the characters in my stories escape their times. It is my hope that all of us can learn from their experiences, observations and draw hope from them. We are in this togeher. And we are one. Everyone one of us.