August 1, 2016

Reaction to the Future, part infinity

Alvin Toffler, futurist and author of Future Shock and The Third Wave, died recently at the age of 87. Future Shock and The Third Wave [1] were favorite books of mine when I was in High School, and contains a lot of unexplored themes. The book's main argument was that rapid technological change is accompanied by a number of negative social effects, including reactionary political movements and collective psychocultural responses. As the rate and scope of technological change has increased [2], this shock to human society has become more acute [3]. The Thrid Wave was more directly related to cultural change, and assumed that major observed  transitions in cultural evolution [4] required profound shifts in sociology, economics, and psychology.

We can see this effect in our own society, particularly with respect to the economy of mind. As a cultural trend, more young people are pursuing a life of creative and/or mental productivity [5]. While some of this productivity is tangible (see the contemporary focus on applications of University research),  In particular, there is a strain of austerity thinking [6] that has arisen since 2008 which views intellectual expertise more generally and academic activity more specifically as a superfluous fraud. Since many of these pursuits require public (government) funding and/or provide no immediate tangible return, there is ideological bias at play as well. More generally, future shock can manifest itself as a revolt against modernity.

The blogger Drugmonkey, advancing the Mellon Doctrine (among other types of reactionary thinking) in the realm of biomedical science. 

Don't be a neo-reactionary! Hint: you don't need to appeal to religion to take this point of view.

The legacy of Toffler's ideas have gotten a bit muddled [7], and in exposed one of the problems with futurism: namely, it is hard to discern solid predictions from quasi-religious pronouncements. The unfortunate event of Toffler's death also coincides with the 50th Anniversary of the first episode of Star Trek (circa 1966). Star Trek's prime directive is an interesting detail of the Starfleet Academy rulebook consistent with Toffler's argument. The prime directive is more directly related to cultural evolution, and states that Starfleet cannot interfere in the normal trajectory of a given culture's development [8]. It is not clear how this works in practice, however, since mere cultural contact can change the trajectory of cultural evolution more than simple exposure to various foreign technologies [9]. On the other hand, if they are adopted, the introduction of single tools or cultural practices can have profound effects on a culture's trajectory.

This concept will take a long time to become culturally consistent. How long? Probably much longer than predicted by Gene Roddenbery (creator of Star Trek).

Some people who might argue that Toffler and Roddenbery are simply products of their era (the 20th century, a period of rapid technological change). Their views on the outcomes of change (technological advancement and modern cultural mores) are biased towards a historical positivism. In other words, progressive technological change is inevitable, even if we mediate this path to eventual enlightenment. Yet this view ignores the basic outlines of historical complexity -- that cultural and technological complexity does tend to increase, even if the process is painful, chaotic, and uneven [10].

[1] Toffler, A.   Future Shock. Random House, 1970 AND Toffler, A.   The Third Wave. Bantam Books, 1980.

[2] this is not necessarily equivalent to the rate of innovation, but rather has to do with the dynamics of technology adoption. For those of you who are familiar with early period (pre-2005) Wired magazine, ideological constructions around the term "neo-Luddite" characterizes the cultural aspect of this effect. For more, please see: Katz, J.   Return of the Luddites. Wired, June 1, 1995.

[3] this can be observational (such as noticing the preponderance of payphones in an several-decades old movie) or more profound (such as automation-related job losses).

[4] the major transitions of cultural evolution may or may not result from directional trends in cultural complexity.

[5] AKA The "yuccie" manifesto. For more, please see: Infante, D.   The hipster is dead, and you might not like who comes next. Mashable, June 09, 2015.

[6] Austerity thinking is associated with an obsession with debt which is underlain by a number of cultural and epistemic biases. There are a number of cultural antecedents that stress the connections between debt and morality, while most if not all cultural traditions are ill-equipped to deal with the logic and technical details of modern economics and finance. This latter point (an incompatibility between cultural traditions and advanced technology) was addressed in the book "Technopoly" by Neil Postman. A similar conceptual gap is also seen amongst popular responses to technologies such as genetic modification, which comes into conflict with many traditional cultural themes involving cleanliness and purity.

[7] There is a fascinating political subtext to how Toffler's ideas played out in society, namely his association with Newt Gingrich and anti-neo-luddite politics in the 1990s. Not particularly in line with Toffler's own views, but definitely a study in historical context. For more, please see: Murphy, T. Newt's New-Age Love Gurus. Mother Jones, January 30, 2012.

[8] For one interesting dissent on the optimality of the prime directive, please see: Clint, E.   The Prime Directive: Star Trek’s doctrine of moral laziness. Skeptic Ink blog, November 4, 2012.

[9] This statement is consistent with a process called "trans-cultural diffusion". For more, please see. Albrecht, K.   Trans-cultural diffusion. September 13, 2013.

[10] The essential lesson from the emerging field of cliodynamics. For more, please see: Turchin, P.   Arise 'cliodynamics'. Nature, 454, 34-35 (2008).

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