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Encore: 'Future Shock' 40 Years Later

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Encore: 'Future Shock' 40 Years Later

Pop Culture

Encore: 'Future Shock' 40 Years Later

Encore: 'Future Shock' 40 Years Later

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Future Shock by Alvin Toffler was a huge sensation when it was published in 1970. The book perfectly captured the angst of that time and prepared society for more changes to come. Toffler died on Monday at the age of 87. This story originally aired on July 26, 2010, on All Things Considered.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Writer and futurist Alvin Toffler has died. He was 87. Toffler wrote the book "Future Shock." It came out in 1970, and it envisioned a world in which rapid change made people go insane. The idea struck a nerve, and the book became a huge success.

In remembrance of Toffler, who died on Monday, we're going to revisit a profile that we aired in 2010. NPR's Martin Kaste was marking the 40th anniversary of Toffler's best-selling book.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: In the early '70s, America was gripped by "Future Shock." There was the book, which was a huge bestseller, and the idea, explained here by none other than Orson Welles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FUTURE SHOCK")

ORSON WELLES: Future shock is a sickness which comes from too much change in too short a time. It's the feeling that nothing is permanent anymore.

KASTE: That's from the now long-forgotten movie version of "Future Shock." The movie opens with a young couple walking through a park. It's an idyllic scene, but it's intercut with glimpses of dystopia, urban riots, weird technology and then...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FUTURE SHOCK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Character, screaming).

KASTE: We see the young couple are actually wearing metal masks. Or maybe they're robots or something. Regardless, it's a pretty horrible vision. But here in 2010, things don't seem that bad, at least not at this cafe on Sunset Boulevard, a favorite hangout of futurist Alvin Toffler.

ALVIN TOFFLER: I'll have the Cobb salad.

KASTE: When you're having lunch with an elderly futurist, you just have to ask what surprises him most about how things have turned out.

A. TOFFLER: Us (laughter).

KASTE: By us, Toffler means himself and his wife, Heidi Toffler, and the fact that, well, they ended up rich. The book sold more than 5 million copies just in the U.S. At the Toffler's house, there's a whole bookcase dedicated to the success of "Future Shock."

HEIDI TOFFLER: We sort of ran out of space, so they're doubled up.

KASTE: Heidi Toffler shows off editions of the book from around the world. She's a chain-smoking New Yorker who finishes Alvin's sentences for him. She fondly recalls the days of their media stardom.

H. TOFFLER: We were on a lot of talk shows. Who...

KASTE: Johnny Carson.

H. TOFFLER: ...Was the interviewer - Johnny Carson. And he read the book.

KASTE: The success of "Future Shock" led to consulting gigs with big corporations and then more bestsellers. By the 1980s, the futurism business had allowed them to buy this house in a swanky neighborhood of Los Angeles. The style is kind of mid-century Jetsons, floor to ceiling windows and wall-to-wall white carpeting.

H. TOFFLER: And we put an elevator in. As futurists, we look ahead, and we said someday we're not going to be able to climb the stairs.

KASTE: Arriving up in Alvin Toffler's office, things seem up to date. There's a newish laptop, a printer and two brand-new iPads, a gift for their 60th wedding anniversary, says Heidi. But they're still in their boxes.

H. TOFFLER: I printed out the instruction book from the Internet. I mean, it's just, you know...

KASTE: So you haven't tried it out yet?

H. TOFFLER: No, I haven't cracked it, yeah.

KASTE: Her reluctance to tackle the iPad echoes one of the predictions in the book, the notion of information overload, a concept explained once again in that 1972 movie with Mr. Orson Welles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FUTURE SHOCK")

WELLES: Computers combine things to make new knowledge at such high speed that we cannot absorb it.

KASTE: Clattering computers generating too much information for us to absorb - it sounds amusingly retro, but when you think about it, it's also kind of prescient.

STUART CANDY: We haven't adapted to rapid change particularly well.

KASTE: Stuart Candy is a latter-day futurist. He discovered "Future Shock" when he was 15. He bought it used at a yard sale. The book had its flaws, he says, but it also challenged people's understanding of what used to be called progress.

CANDY: What "Future Shock" got right is that it made a compelling argument for taking the acceleration of change seriously.

KASTE: The value of the book, he says, was to teach people that the best defense against the future is to think about it, to imagine different scenarios and to try to avoid being taken by surprise. And that's what the Tofflers are still doing even into their 80s.

A. TOFFLER: I'm curious.

H. TOFFLER: Yeah.

A. TOFFLER: I want to know what's going to be out there just for the heck of it.

KASTE: What's he most curious about when it comes to the future that's still to come? He says he'd like to find out if medicine will find a way to extend the human lifespan by an extra 50 or a hundred years.

A. TOFFLER: Because if you have lived a long time in the face of radical changes taking place all around you, you see the world differently.

KASTE: Whether it would be good or bad for a future society to have people that old hanging around is something Toffler says is impossible to predict, but it's certainly something he'd like to find out. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

SIEGEL: That was Martin's profile of Alvin Toffler. A version of that story first aired in 2010. Toffler died on Monday at the age of 87.

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