Has a book ever changed your life? Has one single author given you a route map for navigating life? Serendipity placed in front of me at the age of sixteen a book that would astound me at the time and would go on to provide a breadcrumb trail which in my wiser moments (and perhaps they were too infrequent) I followed.
Back in 1980 time seemed to pass so slowly. I busied myself with rifling through the University books that my brother-in-law brought back to the cultural oasis of home in the slumberous village of Tenterden in Kent. The books were varied and far out of my reach. Most of them were concerned with population dynamics and anthropology. I had the mistaken belief that immersing myself in some of these would give me a head start in my schoolwork. Nothing could be further from the truth. My examination results betrayed a child that was trying to run before they could walk. Someone that had skipped on the fundamentals in an attempt to embrace a world of complexity.
So, it seemed that these tablets of wisdom only confused and confounded me. But one book compelled me to read on. The book, entitled Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, had been published some eight years previously (1970). It was the type of book I’d never encountered before. I had read science fiction books by HG Wells, Isaac Asimov and George Orwell before, but this book before me was far from being science-fiction. Yes, it dealt with a world that was yet to emerge. But it spoke to me on a personal level: it told me of a world that was different from my father’s. No longer could I rely on parental guidance: after all, looking through the rearview mirror would only blind us to what was ahead. This was something seismic; something that would make the ground move beneath our feet.
Books can provide a ‘lens’ on the world. Future Shock gave me just such a lens. Often I have neglected to look through the lens. This lens showed how technology would impact on the human condition and on the condition of society at large. The book is often misrepresented as a technological forecasting tool. It is far more than that. Indeed, some of the forecasts are somewhat wayward whilst others are hauntingly predictive.
The lens was useful to me in my subsequent career as an academic looking at the changing physical work environment. High rates of churn in office space, mobile working and homeworking were all foretold in the book. But more importantly, the book sought to explain how these changes would affect the human condition. In embracing these technological changes we were attempting to discard deeply embedded human traits: the need for rootedness, for belonging and stability. Survival in this landscape would involve a careful coexistence of technology with human behaviours. Such behaviours, unlike technology, are deeply embedded as a result of thousands of years of evolution. Discarding them at a whim brought about what Alvin Toffler termed Future Shock.
It seems as though we’ve lost sight of what the book was actually telling us. It was not simply a book about change. It was a book about coping with change. Whilst we talk about ‘worklife balance’ and the wonders of homeworking, most technological changes in the workplace have simply been shoehorned into organisations with little regard for the human condition. High rates of stress, attrition, workplace violence and isolation are a testament to organisational ineffectiveness at marrying technology and human behaviour. The introduction of ‘zero hour contracts’ and ‘hot desking’ provide examples of such contemptuous endeavours.
Now as I sit at the breakfast table I look across at my two young sons immersed in some tablet or iPhone.. What kind of world will they be growing up in? Can I hope to steer them in the right direction? Perhaps the only real bit of useful advice is to ‘expect the unexpected.’ After all, technology and the world around us is changing at such apace that my learning experiences may be of little relevance to theirs. The one skill that I know will be irreplaceable to their generation is self-awareness. Techniques such as mindfulness will inevitably become part of modern schooling and workplace routines as we struggle to cope with the pressures of information overload.
Alvin Toffler, I give you my thanks. I will remember to use the lens you gave me.