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The RoBlog
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Starting Future Shock

Inspired by having finished (at long last) Arthur C. Clarke's Profiles of the Future, I decided to pull another book out of my futures-of-the-past library: Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler, written in 1970.

I’ve been avoiding reading this book for quite some time (although it should be said that I’ve not read ANY book in quite some time) primarily because it seemed to fall into my least favorite of three broad categories of predicting the future.  As I see it, those categories are:
•         Theories and How-Tos about predicting the future
•         Predictions of the SOCIAL future
•         Predictions of the TECHNOLOGICAL future

Future Shock seemed to fall into the category of social future predictions.

Social futurism is much less interesting to me as it tends to be based on how we SHOULD behave and why they way that we DO behave will lead us to overpopulation, mass starvation, environmental collapse, and the like; all this from a heavily moralistic point of view.

It’s not that these aren’t valid, or even interesting problems, and I can easily imagine modern books on these topics being a fascinating read.  It is a peculiarity of what I like to read (books more than 20 years old that attempt to predict the future) that means that most books that I’d pick up about social future predictions are typically written in the 1960’s or ‘70’s, and are very preachy and/or impenetrable.

Based on the book cover summary, this is what I thought I was in for when I finally decided that it was too well known a book to ignore.

I’m happy to say that, SO FAR, I’ve been pleasantly surprised.  I’ll let you know if that changes over time, but here are a couple of things that I thought were interesting:
•         Introduction (p5): “Writers have had a harder and harder time keeping up with reality.  We have not yet learned to conceive, research, write and publish in “real time.””  Perhaps this is now a skill that modern writers may more readily possess?
•         I forget where this was and how specifically he addressed it and how much I just wandered into it myself, but it seems that we should probably get good at making broad predictions as a way to help improve how we get to more specific predictions.  The pace of any technology or field of study does seem to begin with a coarse understanding and get finer as we learn more.  I suppose there’s no reason that making predictions of the future shouldn’t go through this same series of refinements except that it is so much more fun to come up with (and read about) very specific predictions.

Profiles of the Future: The Rest

I started reading Arthur C. Clarke's Profiles of the Future way back in 2003.  I've finally gotten around to finishing it, and wanted to add in some comments to those I originally wrote on earlier chapters.  So, here we go!

P 198
While he’s not making a prediction here, the following comment is amusing for probably self-evident reasons:
“We seldom encounter really impressive feats of memory these days, because there is little need for them in our world of books and documents.”
I wonder if he ever reflected on this in the Google era.

On the same page, and of interest for similar reasons:
“When we discover how the brain manages to filter and store the blizzard of impressions pouring into it during every second of our lives, we may gain conscious or artificial control of memory.  It would no longer be an inefficient, hit-and-miss process; if you wanted to reread a page of a newspaper you had seen at a certain moment thirty years ago, you could do just that, bu stimulation of the proper brain cells.”
While it wouldn’t discount Mr. Clarke’s points about the vividness and completeness of recall that could be accomplished this way, I’ll be curious to see if the Tivo-ing of our lives through external monitoring (always on cameras, microphones, etc) will provide much the same experience (with handy multi-faceted search interface!) sooner than the level of vivid recall that he imagines.  Of course if you could turn on perfect recall 10 years after perfect life Tivo-ing, then you still have the added advantage (on top of the deep immersion) of being able to go back to a time before technology was recording you.  Nonetheless, we could have a lighter version of what Mr. Clarke imagines long before we get the full experience.

P 200
“Yet the mechanical educator – or some technique which performs similar functions – is such an urgent need that civilization cannot continue for many more decades without it.  The knowledge in the world is doubling every ten years – and the rate itself increasing.  Already, twenty years of schooling are insufficient; soon we will have died of old age before we have learned how to live, and our entire culture will have collapsed owing to its incomprehensible complexity.”

P 200 – 201
“It has already been demonstrated that the behavior of animals – and men – can be profoundly modified if minute electrical impulses are fed into certain regions of the cerebral cortex…Electronic possession of human robots controlled from a central broadcasting station is something that even George Orwell never thought of; but it may be technically possible long before 1984”

P 203
“The pilot of an aircraft, fathering data from his scores of dials and gauges…identifies himself with his vehicle, intellectually and perhaps even emotionally.  One day, through telemetering devices, we may be able to do the same with any animal.”
It’s interesting that he doesn’t take the opportunity to apply the telemetering devices to the airplane itself as we have started doing in the last decade.  Of course he may address this later (or did earlier, since it’s been a while since I’ve read the earlier part of the book), but it just struck me how directly he could have gotten there in this passage (despite that what he’s really talking about is connecting to the experiences of other animals directly in our brains).

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