Thoughts for an eleventh September: Alvin Toffler, Hirohito, Sarah Palin
I think we actually had two paperback copies of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock floating around the house when I was a kid – at least, I can remember its “computerized” type running against both pale yellow and pale blue covers.
Between the ages of six and fourteen, roughly, you could have wrapped just about anything from Sunday-matinee dystopia to extra-farty prog rock in that particular typeface, and I would have at least given it a look-see; I was a future-oriented kid. So even though this Toffler book seemed conspicuously lacking in sentient starships, lunar bases and the like, I flipped it down from its place on the top shelf and spent a few days paging through it.
Most of it sailed over my head at that age. What I do remember sticking with me was the notion of accelerating change, an idea which did then and still does make the hairs at the back of my neck tingle. I also quite clearly remember Toffler’s most succinct definition of the syndrome which gave the book its name, a definition which didn’t even necessarily refer to anything technological: to suffer from future shock was simply to be paralyzed by “too much change experienced in too short a period of time.”
For a long, long time thereafter, I’d sit in idle moments and wonder just when future shock was going to happen. In my childish conception, it was something that would happen all at once, be precipitated by some obvious event – the proverbial straw – and stand out just as vividly and obviously as an outbreak of the flu when it did roll across the land. It took me years to understand the words as pointing toward something more poetic and metaphoric than clinically diagnostic. It’s a thought I’ve had occasion to dig up and reconsider this last week. Because this is what I’ve come to understand: Here we are. This is it.
Like many of my friends, both American and otherwise, I’ve spent much of the past ten days in shock, sick to my core at the warm reception that Sarah Palin has received from the US “press” and public. More than just the kid-gloves welcome, of course: at the very real possibility that this willfully ignorant and manifestly unqualified ideologue might ascend to the Presidency in fairly short order. After a rare season of hope, the thought is almost too much to bear, and this is something I say without hyperbole.
In such circumstances my instinct is, quite literally, to rationalize. To intellectualize. It’s just how I deal with the undealable-with. So I’ve been doing my best to try and understand what appeal this figure might have to, at last count, 58% of the American electorate.
The gloss of down-home authenticity – the mooseburgers, “snow machines,” and other rustic tat that figure so centrally in her instant legend. The young-Earther retreat from science and all its methods. The palpable resentment of coastal elites (even as this time around it doesn’t seem that term is shorthand, as it so often is, for “Jews”). The instinctual, immediate recourse, upon achieving even the most local and limited sort of power, to the heavy-handed suppression of free inquiry. The things that endear this onetime nowhere-burg mayor to Americans are, as clearly as can possibly be, indicators that a whole lot of people think tomorrow came too soon.
What you get when you swallow too much change too quickly isn’t a mass outbreak of twitching, hebephrenic breakdown, nor some neo-Amish wave of technological renunciation. You wanna know what it looks like? A hockey mom and former beauty queen with an upswept ‘do and a pregnant daughter in high school. Sarah Palin is future shock personified.
On 15 August 1945, Japanese Emperor Hirohito redefined “understatement” for all time when, in his broadcast to the nation accepting the terms of unconditional surrender, he famously described the “war situation” as “ha[ving] developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”
That’s the phrase that leapt to mind when I thought about Palin and about what significance she might hold as a symbol of larger forces in the culture. But this time it’s not anything as concrete as a “war situation,” a disposition of forces and potentials around a theater of conflict. It’s the entire future that’s shaping up as hostile. Or at least I can easily imagine it seeming this way, if the equity you’ve fought to build up in your house is circling the toilet, if your medical bills are spiraling out of control, if the media culture seems purely inimical to all attempts to raise your children with any set of values you’d recognize as sane, if you’ve still got to face the question of what to do for (and with) your parents as they age.
Sure, I bet it feels like the future’s one long hard slap in the face when all it means is city-killing storms and literally crumbling infrastructure and the (nonexistent, but easily enough ginned-up) specter of know-it-alls like Al Gore showing for interviews with an ITYS smirk. There’s not a whole hell of a lot your Crackberry can do about any of that – in fact, all the high-tech trinkets only make it worse, more acutely felt and harder to get away from.
Maybe it has something to do with just having given a talk about the future of ubiquitously networked cities in a place – South Korea – that’s embraced this vision more passionately than anywhere else on Earth. I’m totally willing to cop to the idea that this recognition was catalyzed, and maybe something a little more than catalyzed, by the fact of my being in Seoul. As I’ve written previously, ordinary Koreans – the ajumas and the schoolkids and the salaried workers, from Suwon to Sinhyeon – are surprisingly invested in neo-Weiserian visions of the high-technological future, because they perceive it as working for them.
Mainstream Americans, by contrast, where they were once called to dream and to believe that their best days as a community still lay ahead, are now at war with the future. And this is one war situation that is definitely not developing necessarily to their advantage.
After my talks, I’m frequently enough asked about the comparative technical backwardness of the US, often in so many words. In such circumstances I invariably trot out Mimi Ito’s relativist line about “alternatively technologized modernities,” and the idea that different places, different polities arrive at – have to arrive at – divergent understandings about which technologies are appropriate for their given time and place. And I strongly believe that it’s a correct line..but it’s no longer true. What’s going on in the US isn’t, it’s clear to me, a measured and equally valid selection from the sheaf of available technosocial possibilities, but symptomatic, however subtly, of a headlong flight from contemporaneity.
In the relatively narrow field of my interests – ambient informatics, the networked city – can be seen something profound writ small: among fully-developed nations, the US stands out as having generally rejected “futuristic” interventions in everyday urban life, to the point that what I’m bound to present as innovative to US audiences is almost laughably banal elsewhere.
I don’t mean to imply that this is anything like the whole story, but it strikes me as what poker players might call a “tell.” The gobsmacking foolishness of our national discourse, the things which now seem to signify, the very person selected to act out these psychodramas on the national stage – these are all far surer signs that the future is deeply, and I mean pants-shittingly, terrifying to many Americans. They’ve read the tea leaves, all right, they’re not in the slightest bit stupid, and they know how things are shaping up. They’ve had their eponymous Century, and it ended seven years ago today; this one’s Injun Country by comparison, no pun intended. So I can only surmise that the question of who to elect looks a whole lot clearer if you’ve once sown the wind and are waiting for the whirlwind to arrive.
Sadly, heartbreakingly, “hope” isn’t in it. It takes a people that still believes in the possible, and their place in it, to vote for that.
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