Futurist 40 Years Later: Possibilities, Not Predictions Alvin Toffler's Future Shock was first published in July 1970. The book includes insights into the effects of rapidly changing technology and "information overload." People may not be as shocked by change as 81-year-old Toffler had imagined, but he says there's still value in envisioning possibilities.

Futurist 40 Years Later: Possibilities, Not Predictions

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Forty years ago, America was gripped by "Future Shock." The book by Alvin Toffler became a bestseller. It also became an idea embraced by many.

Here's how Orson Welles described it in a long-forgotten movie adaptation of the book.


M: 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. It's the premature arrival of the future.

SIEGEL: In the 1970s and '80s, Alvin Toffler was America's preeminent authority on things to come. These days, fewer people recognize the name. Toffler is now 81 and NPR's Martin Kaste looked him up to find out how he's been handling the future.


MARTIN KASTE: In that movie version of "Future Shock," the future looks pretty creepy. It opens with a young couple walking through a park, an idyllic scene but it's intercut with glimpses with dystopia: urban riots, weird technology and then...



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.


KASTE: 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.

M: I'll have the Cobb salad.

KASTE: We meet Toffler here to talk about the 40th anniversary of his big bestseller. And when you're having lunch with an elderly futurist, you just have to ask: What surprises him most about how things have turned out?


M: Us.


KASTE: By us, Toffler means himself and his wife, Heidi Toffler, and the fact that, well, they ended up rich.

M: We didn't grow up assuming that we're going to live well, necessarily. We came from a working class family, and here we are, sitting in the sunshine and enjoying a not-cheap meal.

KASTE: But what about the big idea in Toffler's book, the notion that change was speeding up - has that come true?

M: Oh, yeah. I think it's taken for granted to a greater extent that you do think about where things are going because things are going. Whereas, in the past, you made a decision and that was it. Now, you make a decision and you say, but what happens next? There's always a next.

KASTE: In the book, Toffler warned that this accelerating change might actually drive us insane. Back in the '70s, this idea apparently struck a nerve - the book sold more than five million copies just in the U.S.

At the Tofflers' house, there's a whole bookcase dedicated to the success of "Future Shock."

M: 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 and sometimes starts them, too. She fondly recalls the days of their media stardom.

M: We were on a lot of talk shows. Who was the interview? Johnny Carson and he read the book.

M: I don't remember.


KASTE: The success of "Future Shock" led to consulting gigs with big corporations and then more bestsellers. Alvin calls Heidi his collaborator. Even though her name isn't on the books, she says she co-wrote them.

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.

M: 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.

M: I printed out the instruction book from the Internet and it's that thick. I mean it's just, you know...

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

M: 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.


M: This machine makes our lives move faster. Computers combine facts 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.

M: There's just so much coming at you and your system just can't handle it.

KASTE: This is James Sturm, a professional cartoonist who swore off the Internet for four months this year. He wrote about it on Slate. But what's interesting here is the fact that he seems to have diagnosed himself with exactly the kind of information overload that the Tofflers predicted 40 years ago. And Sturm says he's gotten a lot of mail, letters actually, from other people suffering the same ailment.

M: Most of them were several pages long, documenting their struggles with the Internet, trying to kind of create some healthy distance between them and their compulsion to be online.

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

KASTE: Stuart Candy is a latter-day futurist. Actually, he has a Ph.D. in what's called futures studies. 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.

M: 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.

M: I'm curious. I want to know what's going to be out there just for the heck of it.

KASTE: These days, Alvin Toffler is thinking about the future of nations.

M: Is it possible that the more advanced we are technologically, the less we need to depend on uniformity and that, in fact, instead of seeing fewer nations, we may see more and more diversity?

KASTE: But 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 100 years.

M: 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.

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