In for a future shock

June 25, 2014

Back in 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote a seminal book entitled “Future Shock.” Toffler’s thesis was that events were happening at a faster and faster rate, and that unless we prepared ourselves, we could become mentally overwhelmed. His evidence was indisputable; it took a lifetime to construct a Greek temple, a decade for a Gothic cathedral, and only a couple of years for the modern equivalent. Fighter aircraft speeds rose from 100 to 2,000 miles per hour in 50 years, and computer processing rates double every five years.

Jack O’Brien

Jack O’Brien

But all these things are the obvious result of technological progress, and far from being overwhelmed by the need to board a plane to fly to Australia in a few hours, we are tickled to death, and will welcome teleportation when it comes. Nevertheless, there is another kind of acceleration that is by no means welcomed by us old folk. In the last 20 years, movie takes, the period of a single scene, have shrunk from tens of seconds to a tenth of a second; credits that could be easily read now scroll by too fast to decipher; TV anchors who used to speak at a comfortable 80 words per minute are no longer employable if they can’t manage 160 wpm, and actors who haven’t been trained for this have simply sacrificed intelligibility.

Certainly, as we age, our perceptions slow down, and we find it increasingly difficult to understand speed talkers. But that doesn’t alter the fact that things unconnected with technical progress seem to be happening faster, so what’s going on?

Toffler didn’t try to explain the phenomenon, only to record it, which gives us room to speculate. There are several exotic explanations, such as time compression due to the expansion of the universe, the spiraling cost of TV and movie production, or our increased impatience due to longer exposure to ionizing radiation, but none that stand up to critical examination. However, after watching young children master the operation of complex electronic gadgets without so much as a glance at the instruction book, could it be that humans are actually getting smarter with each succeeding generation?

There is no hard evidence for this, but then creativity and resourcefulness are not easily detected by intelligence testing, so perhaps what we are seeing is the slow process of species change in action, the evolution of Homo proximus, a smarter version of Homo sapiens, more adaptable mentally to the technical challenges of the future.

It has happened before. There has always been a mystery about the relatively rapid disappearance of Neanderthal man and his replacement by the physically inferior but mentally superior modern man, with better hunting strategies, better weapons and better adaptation to the changing environment, so that the Neanderthals lost first the ability and then the will to compete with the smarter newcomers.

Are we going on the same road as the Neanderthals toward history’s scrap heap?

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