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Future Shock: Is this Orson Welles’ Film about the Technological Singularity?

Future Shock is a 1972 documentary by Orson Welles. It is based on the 1970 Future Shock book by sociologist and futurist Alvin Toffler.

a cigar smoking Orson Welles who defines the term as follows:

“Future shock is a sickness which comes from too much change in too short a time; a feeling that nothing is permanent anymore; it’s the reaction to changes that happen so fast that we can’t absorb them, it’s the premature arrival of the future. For those who are unprepared its effects can be pretty devastating.”

Putting aside the strands of technophobia and the dystopian world that this 40 year old movie seems to depict, it is absolutely stunning how many things Toffler (and Welles) got right and how many more they are likely to get right. Let’s just look at some of the predictions about our world:

We live in a changing world where we have to make instant decisions with not only choice but also over-choice.

We have turned into an instant society consuming pre-cooked, pre-packaged, disposable products.

We live in an impermanent world where everything is transient. Over-stimulation is prevalent and many are turning ADD.

We have transplanted organs, temporary body parts, plastic surgeries, bio-engineering, disposable and/or modular bodies, cryonics and cloning.

Artificial intelligence and space travel are advancing.

Accelerating change and escape thereof is impossible.

Clear symptoms of societies cracking under the pressure for change.

The movie ends with Alvin Toffler’s warning that:

“If we can recognize that industrialism is not the only possible form of technological society, if we can begin to think more imaginatively about the future, then we can prevent future shock and we can use technology itself to build a decent, democratic and humane society.” […] “We can no longer allow technology just to come roaring down at us. We must begin to say “No” to certain kinds of technology and begin to control technological change, because we have now reached the point at which technology is so powerful and so rapid that it may destroy us, unless we control it. But what is the most important is we simply do not accept everything; that we begin to make critical decisions about what kind of world we want and what kind of technology we want.”

While the term singularity has not been used anywhere in the movie, aren’t Toffler and Welles in essence talking about the technological singularity?

What can we learn from this film so that we use technology to build “the kind of world we want”?

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  • Anonymous

    Artificial intelligence and space travel are advancing.

    The definition of “AI” keeps changing, so I don’t know what “advancing” in that field means. Some people in the skeptic community have criticized the more grandiose (and unfulfilled) claims for it, however. For example:


    Space travel, by contrast, shows signs of decline and relinquishment. Nobody has traveled beyond low Earth orbit since the last Apollo mission in 1972; America’s space shuttle program has ended with no successor technology (despite the shuttles’ many problems, they did usually get the job done with 1970’s technologies); and the crew on the International Space Station may have have to abandon it because the last unmanned Russian supply ship blew up, despite the Russians’ reputation for allegedly durable and reliable launch vehicles. 

    In general I keep wondering about this notion of “future shock” propagandized by Alvin Toffler. Has the peer reviewed social science literature defined and tested this idea, for example? Or have social scientists shrugged it off as an outdated fad from the 1970’s?

  • HomoEvolutis.info

    I would object that space travel is in decline. In my view having private space flights is huge advancement. Private competition which would ultimately create a lot more opportunities than the ones created by USA-USSR arms race. 
    Furthermore while using manned flights as a measure of success for space exploration is a very straightforward and easily understood approach, I thing that the actual measure should be the new acquired knowledge about near and far space. For the last 40 years (mainly the last 20 (mainly the last 10 of them and etc.)) )we have gained as much knowledge of space and solar system as the previous 400/200/100. Now we can plan a manned flight to Mars, not dream about it. Now we can analyze other planets, unseen planets, not hypothesize about their existence. Now we know what keeps the universe together besides the forces of gravity, not scratch our heads on the topic.
    Thirdly the amount of knowledge gained from on-Earth experiments, such as  trapping antimatter, breaking the speed of light, and all the other breakthroughs happening at CERN and FermiLab are again huge advancements not only for particle physics but mainly for space exploration.

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