Futurist 40 Years Later: Possibilities, Not Predictions

Alvin Toffler, author of "Future Shock", sits at a restaurant on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles. i i

hide captionAlvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, sits outside a restaurant on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles on July 14.

Martin Kaste/NPR
Alvin Toffler, author of "Future Shock", sits at a restaurant on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles.

Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, sits outside a restaurant on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles on July 14.

Martin Kaste/NPR

Forty years ago, America was gripped by Future Shock. It was a book, published in July of 1970 — but it was also an idea.

It was the notion that life was changing faster and faster — in everything from technology to family structure to politics. People were moving more, throwing away their belongings sooner and having to adapt more often to new kinds of work.

The result was a kind of culture shock of the future — future shock.

The book was, in the publishing industry phrase of the time, a "runaway best-seller." It sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S., and untold more millions overseas, especially in Asia. The author, Alvin Toffler, was a reporter-turned-futurist from New York. He says the scale of his book's success came as a shock to him and his wife and collaborator, Heidi Toffler.

"We didn't grow up assuming that we would live well, necessarily," says Toffler. "We came from a working class family, and here we are, sitting in the sunshine, enjoy a not-cheap meal."

The success of Future Shock and their subsequent books, such as the The Third Wave, allowed the Tofflers to buy a house in a swanky neighborhood in Los Angeles, where they live to this day.

The house is mid-century modern: lots of floor-to-ceiling windows and white, wall-to-wall carpeting. The Tofflers built a boxy, light-filled addition containing a two-story library and matching, his-and-hers offices. It's all very up-to-date, although the brand-new iPads that they received as a 60th wedding anniversary gift remain in their boxes. Heidi Toffler is reluctant to embrace the new device.

Author Alvin Toffler, right, with his wife Heidi, in their home in Los Angeles, Calif. i i

hide captionAuthor Alvin Toffler, right, with his wife, Heidi, in their home in Los Angeles, Calif.

Martin Kaste/NPR
Author Alvin Toffler, right, with his wife Heidi, in their home in Los Angeles, Calif.

Author Alvin Toffler, right, with his wife, Heidi, in their home in Los Angeles, Calif.

Martin Kaste/NPR

The Tofflers have led extraordinary lives, since the publication of Future Shock. They've been invited to lecture around the world — they're treated like "rock stars" in South Korea, says Alvin Toffler. They recall a drop-in visit from Steve Jobs in the early days of Apple, and a private conference with Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s.

But what about their book's main prediction — the idea that change is speeding up, and that it threatens to overwhelm us? Alvin Toffler says he sees it happening, and that others do now, too.

"In the past, you made a decision and that was it. Now, you make a decision and you say, 'What happens next?' There's always a next," he says.

Still, the accelerating change doesn't seem to be driving people crazy, as was predicted by Future Shock. Alvin Toffler says it may be that younger generations have simply become more adapted to change, that it is their culture.

Academic futurist Stuart Candy says the Tofflers were wrong to predict widespread "future shock," as a form of societal illness or breakdown. Candy, who has a Ph.D in the field of "futures studies," and who bought his first copy of Future Shock at a yard sale when he was 15, says the book did make an important contribution.

"What Future Shock got right was that it made a compelling argument for taking the acceleration of change seriously," Candy says. And he says the value of the book was to teach people that the best defense against the future is to think about it, to imagine different scenarios, and try to avoid being taken by surprise.

That's what the Tofflers are still doing, even into their 80s.

"I'm curious! I want to know what's going to be out there — just for the heck of it," Alvin Toffler says.

Heidi Toffler says a career in futurism has taught them that no one can predict the future.

"Anybody that tells you they know what's going to happen, don't believe a word they say!" she says.

So why be a futurist?

"Because it makes you think," says Alvin Toffler. "It opens up the questions of what's possible. Not necessarily what will be, but what's possible."

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