Monday, September 13, 2010

Future Shock

I read a post today that talked about Future Shock, both in the sense of people reacting to the rapid changes in society and referring to the book by the same name.  The basic idea is that people cannot react to the changes in the way we live and the technologies we use as quickly as changes take place and that results in feelings of sadness, depression, helplessness and fear.  The article blames this for the recent increases in fundamentalism and religious extremism around the world, suggesting that many or most of our current social problems can be attributed to Future Shock as people struggle to keep up with an ever shifting world.

I don't buy it.  There are a few reasons you might think that people would drastically change in a negative way but the two biggest ones would be information overload and forced changes in lifestyle and I don't think the arguments for either hold up.  The information out there to be learned certainly has increased as civilization has progressed so it seems certain that the total pool of things that could be understood by a person has shot up dramatically, particularly in recent decades.  However, I don't believe that a person who knows 1% of everything is going to feel significantly different from a person who knows .1% of everything.  Both have vast gulfs in their knowledge base and cannot hope to understand a significant fraction of human knowledge; neither is even capable of understanding the breadth of what it is they do not know.  Also, much of our minds is taken up not with knowledge that changes with technology but rather with social interaction.  We spend a tremendous chunk of our time, energy and processing power simply working with the people that surround us and trying to get ahead in a world where our only real competition is each other.  All of that complexity is not changed just because there are more of us since those extra billions are outside our sphere of influence anyway.

Lifestyles truly are different in modern civilization.  We have different skills, work at different sorts of jobs and our leisure time is not at all the same as in previous epochs.  Typing and hunting, math and gathering, writing and cooking are entirely different in appearance but I don't see any reason to think that our jobs and hobbies are actually more complicated than before.  Television is certainly no more challenging than any prehistoric hobby and the range of skills required to be an effective hunter is immense and would require years of training - different than an ER surgeon for sure but hardly so much less complicated that it matters.  There are certainly new things much more often now than there were in the past.  I cannot imagine a prehistoric person would integrate a new device into his life every few months, but of course the devices he did integrate would not come with instruction manuals or helpful graphics either.

We as a civilization have changed dramatically but I think that the average person just skims on the surface of those changes, learning only what they need to to get by and spending most of their time and energy trying to seduce, outwit, intimidate or bamboozle other humans.  We pick a small set of skills someone else values, learn them enough to do a job and then proceed to ignore all the innovations and changes required for those skills to matter.  A factory worker doesn't need to understand metallurgy, computers or chemistry, he just needs to hit a button and lift a thing and put it over there.  Even a scientist, though he only understands 1% of science instead of the 50% that was possible in centuries past, still understands a miniscule fraction of everything and works on his own pet projects just the same.  Civilization marches on bringing many changes with it but Future Shock isn't one of them.

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