I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Information Overload: Future Shock

by Brian Correia
April 27, 2013

Every generation thinks it's the last, but Alvin Toffler might have been onto something. The super-industrial world predicted by Toffler in Future Shock seems eerily similar to the app-happy one in which we find ourselves today.

Toffler, a prominent business journalist from New York City, saw that the world around him was changing radically. Rather than sit around and complain about it, he wrote a book in which he described a state known as “future shock.” Future shock's shortest and sweetest definition is something like: “too much change in too short a period of time.” According to Toffler, the symptoms of this condition include the increase of drug use, divorce, and crimei. Future Shock germinated in his Fortune Magazine column throughout the sixties and was published in 1970. It was popular and, naturally, controversial. It was popular enough, in fact, to warrant a curious little documentary film version narrated by none other than (the latter day, cigar-chomping, and, let's say, husky version of) Orson Welles himself.

And what a documentary it is. Unfortunately, there is not much information out there on director Alex Grasshoff (or about the film in general.) Apparently he had a Hollywood hookup and a penchant for famous narrators – Henry Fonda and Leslie Nielsen prominent among them. He was even nominated for several Academy Awards. That may be hard to believe as you behold this wonder that -- between the synthesizer soundtrack, the robot costumes, and the multiplying head of Orson Welles -- has aged about as well as a Styx music video (and I mean that as a compliment – domo arigato.)

It is easy to poke fun at Grasshoff's version of Future Shock. In fact, I found myself wishing that the Mystery Science Theater 3000 gang would pop up for the particularly ridiculous scenes, of which there are plenty. My favorites include the gay wedding (shocking!), the discarded doll (what horror!), and the terror of synthetic limbs (what will happen to the peg leg industry?!) Regardless, whether your stance is that of an Orson Welles fan, a connoisseur of Z movies, a futurist, or just somebody looking to be entertained for forty-five minutes, it's worth a watch. Despite the alarmist tone, the film is not always far off, as many of the technologies presented in the film, including cloning and test tube babies, now exist. Marvel at the images served up in this seventies' version of a slightly dystopian future. It might even get you thinking a little bit.

Of course, it's helpful to remember the environment in which the film was produced. Future Shock, in both its film and book incarnations, was a feeling with which the people of the late sixties and early seventies could easily identify. As the counterculture simmered down, the Vietnam War (and the protests against it) raged on, and a man landed on the moon. Even Curtis Mayfield, who named an album with the term, was feeling "future shocked". It's no wonder that the filmmakers chose to paint such a bleak and paranoid picture of the future. Between the rapid technological advancement and the constant reminders of violence, America must have felt chaotic. In a society where new technologies are adopted and rejected on a regular basis, the healthy skepticism presented towards them in the film might even feel refreshing.

How Orson Welles got involved in such a project is anyone's guess. By 1972, Welles was presumed to be past his glory days. His appearance here was one of a number of not-quite esteemed appearances in other short films, unreleased projects, and made-for-TV movies. Interestingly, our boy would bounce back the following year with the bizarre F for Fake, which is now regarded as his final masterpiece.

Based on the film alone, it is easy to imagine Alvin Toffler as a crazy, sandwich-boarded doomsayer handing out pamphlet versions of this book that he Xeroxed at Kinko's and yelling about robots, blue people, and red people (shoutout to the rapture.) However, as they say, you can't judge a book by its spaced out documentary adaptation. Toffler, as an experienced writer and a consultant for IBM, Xerox, and AT&T, had access to the inside scoop on technology, and therefore had some qualifications to write a book and make his claims. He has his critics, but is generally agreed upon as a thought-provoking writer. Many of his general predictions, such as information overload, have come alarmingly true in a way that no one could have predicted.

At least one critic called Toffler “the world's most influential futurist,ii” and many would agree. While Toffler and his Future Shock were by no means the beginnings of the futurist movement, its popularity gave the movement quite a leg up. The futurist movement is, to put it simply, concerned with the future and the prediction thereof [not to be confused with the Futurist movement of the 1910s-30s, which was concerned with decimation of the past, proto-fascism, and mysogyny, mostly in the form of vagina-less conception. -- Ed.]. Which is not to say that Toffler and the futurists fancy themselves soothsayers. Futurists base their predictions in science and sociology. As you can imagine, before the unexpected success of Future Shock, the futurists had a hard time getting people to take them seriously. A fundamentally futurist attitude has become common, if not vital, in the business world, where serious analysis and consulting are employed before every move. Toffler is an outspoken advocate for futurist education and has taught several futurist classes.

Alas, the obligatory look forward to the future is more vital than ever now. The film adaptation of Future Shock may not light a fire in your belly or send you Thoreauing into the woods, but the ideas presented by Toffler and the futurists are worth looking into. There may not (yet) be Lego-like houses or Build-A-Baby Workshops, but a “precooked, prepackaged, plastic wrapped instant society” is not so far from the one in which we live. Let's not prove fat Orson Welles right.

i"Toffler, Alvin - Introduction." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 168. Gale Cengage, 2003. eNotes.com. 2006. 31 May, 2011 <http://www.enotes.com/contemporary-literary-criticism/


iiFisher, Lawrence. Thought Leader: Alvin Toffler - Thirty-six years after his book Future Shock, the world's most influential futurist sees the informal economy as a basis of revolutionary wealth. Strategy and Business. 2006, ISSU 45, pages 145-153.

Brian Correia is a budding computer scientist and aspiring writer from Boston, Massachusetts who couldn't decide which hip-hop lyric to put in his byline. The top three, in no particular order, were as follows: “cooler than a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce,” “spiced out Calvin Coolidge loungin' with six duelers,” and “I got techniques drippin' out my buttcheeks.” He is on Twitter (@brianmcorreia) and Tumblr (brianmcorreia.tumblr.com) like the rest of the kids.