Monday, July 4, 2016

Toffler’s Future

Last week we lost Alvin Toffler. A sociologist and economist, Toffler is best remembered as the author of the bestseller Future Shock, which was simultaneously a celebration of change and a warning about what can happen to people if change proceeds unchecked. Toffler was a futurist who considered the consequences of current actions in terms of their impact on a future that, before anyone sets about intentionally changing it, is already destined to be different from the present and the past. This focus on the future is still a radical departure in a world where official plans are still based on a view of the world that may be ten or twenty years or a lifetime out of date, like generals aiming bombs where the enemy positions were in the last war.

Reading Future Shock as a pre-teen forever changed the way I thought about my own life and the events of the world. Aiming my work toward the future became second nature. This was a necessity when I began writing computer books. Writing an up-to-date computer book is harder than it looks because of the book industry’s insistence that everything be planned two years in advance. The two-year planning horizon is long enough for the computer industry to be turned on its head. How do you stay relevant in a tech world where your product may be obsolete before the public gets to see it? My future orientation and assessment of trends were capable enough to allow three of my many tech book releases to look like the next big thing a full two years after I had originally written them.

Toffler coined hundreds of words, but prosumer comes to mind as his billion-dollar word. Toffler originally coined the word to highlight the blurring economic lines between the producer and consumer of a product. The word soon came to identify an product level that might be used by one of Toffler’s prosumers. The prosumer audio equipment that I work with every day produces professional-quality results but may lack the sturdiness, ease of use, or other qualities that would be assumed in pro equipment costing twice as much.

Toffler warned against linear thinking. The future, he said, will not unfold smoothly in the direction we have come to expect. Trends can get out of sync leading to reversals that last for decades. Prediction is difficult, and Toffler specifically warned (ten years ago) against the overconfidence of oil-funded governments and others whose planning depended too heavily on any single trend. It is not enough, he said, to look for the single most obvious recent trend and take it into account:

It is useful to reserve at least a speck of mind space for thinking the unthinkable, for history is little more than a sequence of high-impact events that began as utterly improbable and exploded into actuality.

That is a point well taken on Independence Day. It is because the Declaration of Independence was so improbable that it is remembered centuries later. The future will take us by surprise again no matter how well we prepare for it.