- Over the last half-century most of us adapted, eventually, to unprecedented change.
- Adhering to conspiracy theories is a weak defense against future shock.
My mates of the Class of ’70 are turning 70. Witty as ever, my high school friend Mark says this means that, amazingly, we survived both the Sixties and our sixties.
And what a half-century it has been. Never has there been so much change so fast in the history of humankind as there has been in the 52 years since we graduated. None of us owned a digital camera then. Nobody traced their ancestry with a DNA swab. And none of us checked our phone for the latest 411. Deep change is about the only thing we could count on between then and now.
As stunning and far reaching as the innovations in technology have been, my classmates have registered far deeper psychological impacts.
In 1970 we could easily translate the acronyms FBI, NATO, LSD, and NASA. But as a rough gauge of the cascading changes of the last half century, consider the emotional, physical, political, spiritual, and mental impact on daily life of phenomena such as SWAT, MADD, CREEP, TM, TMI, SNL, R2D2, VCR, SPF, UPS, PTSD, HIV, ESPN, MRI, NSFW, GMO, CBD, ADHD, CGI, CNN, HMMWV, GPS, EPO, RBG, YOLO, LGBTQ, CRISPR, ICE, Q, LOL, and COVID. The need to keep abreast of the furious pace of change created its own unique emotional threat, FOMO (the fear of missing out).
To understand the scale and pace of change, consider this: In 1970 we wouldn’t have been able to identify the Ayatollah Khomeini, Dolly the cloned sheep, Mikhail Gorbachev, J.K Rowling, Beyoncé, or Serena Williams. We would have been unable to locate the Watergate Hotel, Chernobyl, Columbine High, or the World Trade Center. We’d have scoffed that someday we’d be paying more for water than for soda or that breadcrumbs would cost more than bread.
We couldn’t have explained laptop computers, junk bonds, post-it notes, Prozac, the Internet, shape skis, rooftop solar panels, sexting, or social distancing. And we could not have described dress down Fridays, Roe v Wade, Billy Jean King v. Bobby Riggs, climate change, parachute pants, raves, the half marathon, the Proud Boys, tongue-piercing, or women’s kick boxing.
In 1970, Amazon was a river, Chad was a country, Madonna was a saint, and January 6 was mainly known as the Feast of the Epiphany.
We saw the adverse effects of these trends coming. The Temptations released their Top-40 hit “Ball of Confusion. (That’s What the World is Today)” in 1970. In a best-selling jeremiad published the year we graduated titled Future Shock, Alvin Toffler and his wife Adelaide Farrell sketched the “shattering” disruptions that a technology-driven “third wave” society would soon disrupt our collective emotional stability.
Submerged by the “roaring current” of change, we would, the authors thundered, discover ourselves underprepared, overstimulated, overloaded, and adrift as we found our roots withered, our values undermined, and our institutions overturned.
Normally, nothing ages quicker than a vision of the future. But some of the boldest of the authors' predictions, both the dangerous and the promising, have held. Hierarchies and authority structures and institutions have weakened. Gender roles became more fluid as options opened for a “superabundance of selves.” We have become comfortable with virtual representations. We have become used to transience and disposability in things and relationships—even if the paper wedding dress didn’t take.
The Pace Quickens…
Between 1970 and the present, we have moved to the cusp of several of history’s greatest scientific revolutions. We have solved the mystery of the force that drives the continents, sent probes roving to nearby planets and into deep space, applied the insights of evolution to medicine and human psychology, fashioned replacements for worn-out joints and murky crystalline lenses, and created artificial but near-human intelligence. We are close to explaining the neuroarchitecture and neurochemistry of human emotion and consciousness. We are nearing an understanding of the very quantum foam that unifies space and time. The once mysterious now routinely falls to rational investigation. Everywhere there is proof of progress and understanding.
But the Culture Lags
Yet at the same time millions of the most future-shocked among us, those anguished by the feeling of having been left behind amidst accelerating change, have fallen victim to the purveyors of bizarre and groundless theories that both feed distrust and feed on distrust. When so much is uncertain, complicated, difficult, or apparently out of individual control and therefore menacing, people seek comfort in explanation, even when the explanations are twisted, and attributions of blame are ridiculous and blind to contrary evidence.
Thus, a substantial number of us have come to imagine that rock crystals can heal a sore knee. Distinguished newspapers still carry columns that insist that the configuration of the planets on your birthday will influence your job prospects or your portfolio. Popular tabloids assert that aliens with unnatural fixations might kidnap us. Shadowy deep-state actors are believed to have hijacked voting machines, and cell-phone towers are held responsible for pandemics. Fervent politicians believe they can legislate the laws of geology and biology. And that moon landing? Aha! Staged in a studio!
These fearful reactions are defense mechanisms mainly, weak shortcuts to understanding. It is not the information overload the Tofflers predicted, per se, that has recently so frightened and inflamed the vulnerable. Rather, it is skewed information that engendered the fear that hardened into confirmation bias and belief.
The oldest defense against this distortion remains the best defense—lifelong learning rooted in fact. Staying abreast of sound science has become not only the citizen’s sacred duty but a form of resilience.
Mostly though, we rolled with it all. Change didn’t shatter us. We didn’t disappear down the rabbit hole. We adjusted. We accommodated. We adapted. Knowing my shortcomings, my tech-savvy daughters once set my incoming phone messages to clack with the ancient (comforting!) sound of a mechanical typewriter. But eventually even the Luddites and geezers among us updated. Over the last five decades, the shocking future became routine.
Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, (1970).
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (1962).
David A. Hollinger, "Obama, the Instability of Color Lines, and the Promise of a Post-ethnic Future," Callaloo, (2008).
"Conspiracy Theories: Why We Believe," Psychology Today , (n.d.) https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/conspiracy-theories .