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.

56 responses to “Thoughts for an eleventh September: Alvin Toffler, Hirohito, Sarah Palin”

  1. apartness says :

    Holy fuck, what a brilliant writer you are. And how I wish I could disagree with anything you’ve said.

  2. AG says :

    [An anti-Obama comment redacted, not for its content, but for its pseudonymity. If you’re going to parrot farcical Republican talking points here, I expect you to have the integrity to do so under your own name.]

  3. Wendy says :

    The election ain’t over until it’s over! Yes, maybe 58% of the American people had a burst of “yes, I can vote for someone who’s comfortable, who’s like someone I know, but who’s still different enough that I don’t look like a racist” but we have almost two months left to help that 58% learn more (or at least the crucial swing 18.) Give money! Make phone calls. Talk to strangers. Volunteer for the campaign even though it’s yucky, boring, tedious work. It’s not over unless people like us give up. So DON’T GIVE UP! And that said, yeah, the past ten days have made me alternately angry, tearful, and nauseous. Thanks for expressing that so beautifully. I live in a red state and sometimes I feel very alone in my despair!

  4. Jeremy Mandle says :

    Adam. All this morning I’ve playing the Feeding Fear scene from Donnie Darko over in my head and have begun a posting on my blog that I have not been able to finish until reading this posting of yours. Thank you. And I so wish I didn’t have to thank you, for I am pants-shittingly afraid for us. Watching Chuck Norris sandwiched between Arianna and Ari last night was at first laughable, but when awoken from a nightmare involving Norris round house kicking me to death while Palin prepares to field dress my bloddied carcass on an infomercial at 3am, I realized just how scared and overwhelmed I’ve become. Christy Brinkley was nowhere in sight. Nothing saved me but my walking moment rationalization that it was just a nightmare. Of course it is a waking terror as well. Hope is not as apparent for me at this time. I will continue to inform myself and family, and those around me of what we as a country need. And I’ve decided to take my remaining vacation daysthis fiscal year and donate them to the American people, in the form of humble servitude to my local Obama campaign office. I encourage anyone reading this to do the same. Because just voting in November will not be enough.

  5. Erin says :

    Thanks for this, Adam.

    Please write your book.

  6. Brian Oberkirch says :

    Walter Benjamin lives.

  7. Jamais Cascio says :

    Brilliant piece, Adam. Thank you for writing it.

  8. Julie Hamwood says :

    I’m with Wendy. There are still 54 days of campaigning. And this election will be won in the battleground states, and Obama can still win. There’s a lot ways we can help Obama win. Visit and choose one (or three) or make up your own way. Come November 4, I want to know I did what I could to help and, hopefully, cheer his historic, incredibly hard-won, victory. As ever, thanks for your posts, Adam.

  9. AG says :

    I saw that on the BBC, Andrew, and smiled a little – I’d just nearly bought Deer Hunting with Jesus in the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa t’other day, and it looked like great fun. And by “great fun” I mean “thoroughly depressing,” of course.

  10. David Sleight says :

    It may ebb and flow, but there’s absolutely nothing new about anti-intellectualism. Some societies have had the good fortune, however fleetingly, to win a battle or two against it, but just as many have not. It’s an ever present aspect of human behavior, the only question being how much purchase it finds in the tone of the times.

  11. AG says :

    I’m afraid I don’t take your point, David.

  12. The Elder Dan says :

    >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”).

    That will change as her “energized base” gains power. It always does.

  13. Dethe Elza says :

    Thanks for this, Adam. America has gone from post-modern to pre-feudal in such a short time. The American election is scaring us in Canada.

  14. David Sleight says :

    I may be off, but I’m not fully convinced the root cause of Palin’s appeal to all things lowbrow stems from too much change too quickly. (Though it may be exacerbating the condition.) The frothing pack that flocks to her does so out of a group rejoice in anti-intellectualism. It’s a strain that’s always been present in American politics, and doesn’t strike me as particularly new, bubbling to the surface over and over again. (Although I will admit that for the last decade-plus it’s felt like a full-on rolling boil). They’d be doing the same thing whether we were still hammering out memos on stone tablets or mentally projecting them via satellite-based repeaters. (“Look at them with their granite, they think they’re so great. Shale is fine for us regular folk!”)

  15. AG says :

    I think you’re conflating “anti-intellectualism” and the “lowbrow” with fear of difference, David, and while they may well have similar (or identical) antecedents, they’re not quite the same thing.

    The argument I’m making is about a nation and a culture that’s given up on tomorrow primarily because it’s too different from today, and not in a we-put-a-man-on-the-moon way. Sure, America has always been suspicious of eggheads and Poindexters, to the point of hostility, but at least it had a positive orientation toward the future. And that’s just not something I see any more.

  16. Erin says :

    It occurs to me that the discussion Peter and I have been having about youth culture (’90s rave culture vs. ’00s hipster/DIY culture in particular) runs parallel to this. The zeitgeist seeps into everything.

  17. Wil says :

    His point, I believe, is that this is not a new struggle, nor a solely American one. It is a constant struggle between rational discourse and comforting ignorance. Most societies are riven by it, and few able to move forward. Looking around the world today, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand (these just from personal experience) are all fighting the same fight. It is not only Americans that see the future as a battle and turn from it, or that see their personal situation as stagnant and seek comfort. We, given a position of privilege and education, may see this as a disaster, or as a collapse or loss, but it is nothing of the sort. The past ten days are a reminder of how much building a society, a future, that we desire is a matter of work. Like the man said, “be the change you want to see in the world.”

    As others have said, an excellent piece, thank you. And props to Kissane for the link.

  18. AG says :

    …nor a solely American one.

    Neither said nor implied otherwise. Hell, if I’d uttered anything that exceptionalist on the record, they’d strip me of my Finnish credentials and have me on the very next flight out of the EU.

    But it also occurs to me that what worries me in Palin isn’t even about anti-intellectualism, but is emblematic instead of the recent (i.e. Bush-era) American turn away from competence itself. What we’re seeing these days isn’t nearly so much innerleckchual-baiting of the Alan Sokal yuks’n’lulz variety, but a rejection of the very notion that a basic knowledge and understanding of the law is an appropriate thing to expect from an elected representative. The crux of my dismay at Palin’s elevation isn’t, necessarily, that she’s a thoroughgoing antifeminist or a speaker in tongues: it’s that she, by all accounts, wasn’t even a very good governor.

  19. lena says :

    I wish to read more of what you write. Much like you, I’m worried about this predicament that we’re in.

  20. Tony Fisk says :

    I think it’s a little early to despair of what Palin’s ascension means: it’s only been a week since the Republican conventions, and they’re enjoying the bounce (although I do think the term ‘barrascudder’ is worth associating with the lady)

    Still, it’s only natural to contemplate the ‘unthinkable’ when the future is a little murky. Speaking as someone who has been through two such electoral epiphanies, I can only offer the words ‘it will pass’.

    A recent worldwide poll suggested humanity preferred the Obama ticket over McCain’s, not by 4%, but by 4-1. This could mean a number of things:
    1. don’t believe every poll you see.
    2. future shock is america only.
    3. the pod person initiative is in full swing.

  21. Matthew Owen says :

    I despise my own cynicism, and found myself despairing at yet another woman…who lacked the fundamental good judgment to avoid the Republican party like the plague, much less it’s leadership.

    Then I saw the cheering, whooping crowds (who I had to remind myself were as capable of group think as any other group), and it hit me: the sort of Republican party I’ve painted in my mind OUGHT to be glum and sullen at the prospect of a woman leading their party, what with her not remaining in the kitchen and all…

    …but instead they were applauding, and I remember the rhetorical question I asked myself back in 2004: isn’t it long past due that I “allow” the Republican party to “grow up”?

    So she use boatloads of Democrat jargon (name dropping unions and standing up to oil interests); and McCain prior to 2000 was well known for crossing the political aisle to get things done (McCain-Feingold, anyone?!).

    Does this not, ultimately, affirm a progressive victory, such that even the party of the Christian Coalition and Dixiecrats would now applaud a woman as VP?

    Food for thought. I don’t like how despair feels, and want to remind myself that maybe I over exert the despair muscles at my own peril.

  22. roxielh says :

    Hello Adam,

    I understand what you’re saying about “accelerating change.” It brings to my mind what I overheard someone say five years ago, “Everyone’s just tired.” That statement has stayed with me for a long time, because when there’s too much change we grow physically and mentally tired.

    However, I’d like to present an idea relevant to past future shocks and “too much change experienced in too short a period of time.”

    Is it not possible that for example, the Native Americans who were forced to walk on the trail of tears experienced that shock?

    I have to wonder if Africans experienced that shock when they were brought to the states as slaves.

    Even my Depression Era parents experienced that kind of shock.

    There always seems to be an overwhelming sense of too much change in history. Perhaps technology has some influence, but I don’t think it’s the main reason.

    So my point in is that our human spirit is resilient. We will be ok. I know you didn’t ask for reassurance, but I’m an artist (with a small “a”) and I think your essay is quite thought provoking.

    Finally, Barack Obama has been saying something that is interesting. He “trusts the American people” to do what is right.

  23. Scott Mattoon says :

    Thanks for this piece.

    Toffler’s 1993 (advent of he web,) predictions that “Third Wave societies… are rewriting all the rules.” We now live in “networked communities” in which millions can report the news as they witness it, and open culture has a place to flourish. Toffler’s prescience was not so hopeful, however.

    Giving voice to reason, sharing ideas, and stimulating meaningful public discourse is not what Toffler saw. He predicted that these tools will only enable greater degrees of spin and targeting of propaganda. I wonder. Is this what has created the Palin phenomena, or is there something more banal at work?

    What makes me sick to my core: we’ve come this far with technologies to distribute knowledge and disperse power, only to find the American public rallying around a creationist would be book-banner, who has lopped hope off at the knees.

  24. Khannea says :

    I’d love you to speculate more on how this will look, how it will taste, in cinematic terms, in the next decades. What you describe is obvious when I think about out – so what will happen because of this pathology?

  25. Jamie says :

    Adam: Thank you.

  26. Brendan says :

    Adam, thanks for writing this insightful and articulate piece that sums up my own sense of shock at the events of the last fortnight.

    Could it be argued that there’s a paradox at work here – that this backlash against contemporaneity is itself faciliated by the fruits of recent technological change? Could the ‘groupthink’ that’s contributed to Palin’s ascendancy have happened twenty years ago, at a time when limited communication methods made it harder for the electorate to convince one another of a candidate’s merit, in the face of her/his patent unsuitability? Is future shock self-enabling?

  27. mitchell porter says :

    Ironically given its theme, I feel that this essay itself constitutes a failure of imagination. I find there is a certain complementarity to Palin and Obama, at least if one insists on viewing them symbolically, and it is more enlightening to seek the flaws and virtues on both sides than to see it all one way. I’d recommend, if you can find it, William Irwin Thompson’s essay from 1970, “Values and Conflict through History: the view from a Canadian retreat”. In the end you can still make your political choice, but you might meanwhile acquire a better insight into this other America that you’re struggling to understand.

  28. Steve Goodman says :

    It sounds like you’re the one experiencing future shock, Adam!

  29. Mark Brandon says :

    What a brilliant piece of writing…

    From a UK perspective (I live in London) many of us find Sarah Palin very scary. The idea that someone who has travelled so little might have her finger near to shiny red buttons is a scary prospect.

    I think what worries me more is what seems to be the continued corrosion of any sensible, rational debate in the world’s most powerful country, and where that takes us, globally.

    As some of your posters have pointed out, this is nothing new. Simon Schama’s ‘History of Britain’ series neatly sketches out the enduring thread of anti-intellectualism in British society, not least in the politically fervent 18th century, when American politics itself began to emerge as a coherent force. I wonder if it is something distinctively Anglo-Saxon…(the French public, for instance, still takes interest in the publication of philosophical tomes, and nowhere are ‘eggheads’ and ‘Poindexters’ more derided than in the UK and the US.

    We, at least, are still prepared to elect people who are cleverer than we are, but in the US it is increasingly looking like the cleverer you are, the less chance you have.

    Most worrying of all was Palin’s red-in-tooth-and-claw stance on foreign policy. Hiding behind NATO to justify action in Georgia is pathetic, given that the US has proven itself perfectly capable of acting unilaterally whenever it feels like it without having to justify its position to anyone. I am left wondering what the US would do if Mexico became communist or if Russia sent aid to, say, a separatist Quebec…

    Life is infinitely more complicated than the Sarah Palins of this world would have us believe. I hope to God that Obama is elected, for the sake of the world (and of course that he isn’t assassinated about five minutes later, which seems depressingly likely…).

  30. Randall Szott says :

    Yes, the future(shock) has already arrived.

  31. Dr Joolz says :

    From afar (Australia) I find myself shocked at the scarey reaction to Palin. Don’t get me wrong I don’t support her. But in true democracy she has the right to run and be judged at election. How can you say you value diversity and yet attack her for her way of living. Just substitute any different individual – Muslim, Catholic, Dalai Lama, the person next door, etc. – in some of the personal attacks that have been leveled at Palin and they all start to look pretty evil and sick.

    You live in a democracy and yet you disgrace it with the tincture of Fascism in your commentary.

    Obama is right trust the people and they will make the right choice -regardless of which ticket wins it will be the right choice. And if you don’t like it you get to have another chance in 4 years. Isn’t it great!

    Why diminish yourselves by villifying Palin for exercising the rights guaranteed her under your great Constitution. Celebrate instead that you have a country and a system that can throw up paradoxes and surprises.

    In the end Palin and Obama merit respect as humans who are standing for for they believe in – you don’t have to agree with either of them, but you can still afford them that respect.

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