I was aware of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock when I was growing up partly because my dad was sort of in the futurology business himself; he was an analyst at the Hudson Institute under Herman Kahn from the mid-1970s through the late 1980s, which specialized in the project of using trends to generate scenarios about the future—where a certain kind of counterintuitive reasoning usefully pushed back against the excesses of the alarmist left, as represented by Toffler and The Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome. (Kahn was a brilliant man who is mostly forgotten today, but was prominent enough that he was partly the basis for the character of Dr. Strangelove and was also mordantly represented, after a fashion, by the Walter Matthau character “Professor Groeteschele” in the 1964 movie Fail Safe.)
Anyway, around our household Toffler was sometimes mentioned as a crass popularizer of a particularly doomy form of techno-futurism that sought to cash in on qualms over technology in the society at large. This marvelous 1972 documentary about Toffler’s book was directed by Alex Grasshoff and features the voice and image of Orson Welles to a remarkable extent. Insofar as the movie accurately represents the book (Toffler co-wrote the doc, so I have no reason to imagine it doesn’t), it shows the content to be pretty half-baked at best. One feels for poor Orson having to read this stuff, but it’s better than frozen peas, I suppose.
Alvin Toffler. Photo: Roman Tokarczyk
Future Shock is about “a sickness ... that comes from too much change in too short a time.” We’re suffering terrible stresses because we have begun to live in “the pre-cooked, pre-packaged, plastic-wrapped, instant society.” Now surely there is something to this—technology in our lives does move awfully fast, and it’s natural to worry about the problems of disposability and transience. But the documentary has a habit of dressing up good news as bad news, mainly in order to scare inattentive dupes, as in the following:
A chemistry professor recently stated that he couldn’t pass today’s examinations because at least two-thirds of the questions require knowledge that didn’t even exist when he graduated from Oxford in the early thirties.
Oh no!! You’re saying we’ve learned so much about the chemical makeup of life (and also, developed ways to improve life) that ... it’s harder to absorb the information—how terrible!!!! A little later, quite similarly, you can hear Welles’ voice warn us of the dangers of the “disposability of … people” as follows: “Thousands of people are alive today only because they carry inside them electronic devices, plastic parts, transplanted organs.” (So wait: this point about extending people’s lives via technology is a “bad” thing because of ... the “disposability of people”? Huh?)
There’s no trend that can’t be dressed up as a terribly important problem that you should be very worried about. At one point the documentary discusses “the mobile society ... the rate of change reflecting the fact that where we live means less and less as we breed a new race of nomads.” This segues, hilariously, to an idealized montage of young people hitchhiking, which is one notable midcentury activity that is all but extinct today. So ... yeah, not so much.
One of the best and most amusing sequences comes around 17 minutes in, in the discussion of “modular bodies.” There is a marvelous bit depicting our taken-for-granted ability to change our skin color at will—the montage features the lobby of an office building in which a number of the people have blue, gold, or unnaturally pasty white skin.
Oh, if you want to see Toffler himself he pops up around the 38th minute.
I shouldn’t neglect to mention the gloriously schlocky production values of the movie, lots of weirdo sci-fi music and some cheesy video effects that are by now dated. As documentaries go, let’s just say it’s got some Logan’s Run in its DNA.
After the jump, a remarkable “educational companion” published to promote the movie…..