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Future shock, revisited: Expert says we're adapting to increasing pace of change

By: Steve Rabey Religion Correspondent
January 1, 2016
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photo - House Speaker Newt Gingrich talks with best-seller author Alvin Toffler and Toffler’s wife Heidi prior to addressing the conservative Progress and Freedom Foundation in Washington, Jan. 10, 1994. Gingrich likes to talk abut the emerging third wave. Addressing the conference in a speech titled “Virtuality and Reality,” he stressed how he is trying to make Congress more accessible to people. (AP Photo/Joe Marquette)
House Speaker Newt Gingrich talks with best-seller author Alvin Toffler and Toffler’s wife Heidi prior to addressing the conservative Progress and Freedom Foundation in Washington, Jan. 10, 1994. Gingrich likes to talk abut the emerging third wave. Addressing the conference in a speech titled “Virtuality and Reality,” he stressed how he is trying to make Congress more accessible to people. (AP Photo/Joe Marquette) 

The future becomes the present every second and every year, and people who worry this transformation happens too quickly suffer from "future shock," a condition Alvin Toffler first diagnosed half a century ago, describing it as the "shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time."

In his best-selling 1970 book, "Future Shock," Toffler said this malady is a "real sickness from which increasingly large numbers already suffer," and he predicted things would get worse.

"Unless man quickly learns to control the rate of change in his personal affairs as well as in society at large, we are doomed to a massive adaptational breakdown," he wrote.

Toffler was a hero for futurist Thomas Frey of Westminster's DaVinci Institute, but Frey says the adaptational Armageddon that Toffler prophesied has failed to materialize.

"Some things we are adapting to quite quickly," Frey said in a phone interview a day after addressing thousands of educators in Mexico, "but there are some things we still have a hard time getting our minds around."

Increasing pace of change

Most people can adapt to incremental change, but Toffler warned the increasing pace of change was a major cause of future shock.

And, if anything, that pace has only quickened in the past few decades.

"Look at the adoption speed of new business models," Frey said. After the invention of radio, it took 38 years for the technology to reach 5 million users. TV needed only 13 years to reach that number. The Internet reached that mark in four years. Twitter took only nine months, and the Angry Birds game reached 5 million in five weeks.

"We're at the point where a new startup business can come out of the woodwork and reach 50 million users in less than week," Frey said. "Everything is moving exponentially."

This dynamism is great for entrepreneurs who are creating technologies and corporate empires, but it brings anxiety for the workers worried about keeping up.

"I don't know anybody who doesn't have anxiety," Frey said. "People wonder, 'What should I be paying attention to? Do I need to know about social media programs like Instagram or Vine?'

"There's job anxiety, too. People are asking, 'Is my job still going to be around 5-10 years from now? How should I be re-skilling myself?'"

Expect such job anxiety to continue. Frey says more than 2 billion jobs will evaporate worldwide by 2030, many of them lost to sophisticated machines and others lost to "disruptive companies" such as Uber that overturn traditional business models.

"This is not intended to be doom and gloom," said Frey, a fan of Uber, "but is intended to be a wakeup call. There are no safe industries anymore."

Wins and losses

Overall, Frey is upbeat about our ability to embrace tomorrow's brave new worlds.

"I think we've done a fairly remarkable job adapting to most of this," he said.

Billions reap the benefits of the Internet, a technology Frey says has helped increase our IQs and our connectedness to the wider world.

"The Internet is a sophisticated communication tool that is increasing our awareness of the world in vast and different ways, giving us perspectives no one has ever had before," he said.

On the other hand, we're increasingly distracted and vulnerable to something Frey calls the "bright shiny objects syndrome."

"Smart phones have taken over our lives," said Frey, "but our lives tend to be such a blur we don't have time to pay attention even to our kids anymore."

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