Future shock? Adapting to change

Conventional wisdom is that we are living in an era of unprecedented socio-technological change. Recently, however, I’ve been intrigued to discover a couple of dissenting voices.

One is Noam Chomsky, in this talk at the 2012 Future of Learning conference (~6:35):

We should bear in mind that the technological changes that are taking place now — while they’re significant — probably come nowhere near having as much impact as technological advances of say a century ago, plus or minus.

So the shift — let’s just take communication — the shift from a typewriter to a computer, or a telephone to email is significant but it doesn’t begin to compare with the shift from a sailing vessel to a telegraph. The time that that cut down in communication between, say, England to the United States was extraordinary compared with the changes taking place now.

And the same is true of other types of technology — like the introduction of, let’s say, plumbing. Widespread plumbing in the cities had a huge effect on health, much more than the discovery of antibiotics.

So the changes are real and significant, but we should recognize that others have taken place which in many ways are more dramatic.

Ironically enough, Chomsky wasn’t physically at the conference but made these remarks via remote video hookup. Ray Kurzweil called Chomsky’s statements “apocryphal,” meaning dubious, and Ken Robinson gave the nod to Kurzweil. All the videos are here.

I caught these talks earlier this year but hadn’t considered commenting on them until I noticed a similar statement in Herbert Simon’s autobiography, Models of My Life. In one passage, Simon critiqued the 1970 book Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, whose thesis was that rapid changes can cause physical or psychological trauma:

[W]e learned that someone had called Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock to President Nixon’s attention. He, or someone on his staff, wanted an evaluation by social scientists of Toffler’s thesis. I wrote a memorandum pointing out that social change had surely been more rapid in my grandmother’s time (from an agrarian to an urban society, with the advent of rapid transportation and communication) than my own, and that she and her contemporaries showed no great signs of psychological trauma — no more than any other generation. I could not understand, therefore, why our generation should be subject to any special “shock.”

See also: Will climate shuffle the pace layers?

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