Monday, July 4, 2016

Jottings: Slice of life - 24 (Alvin Toffler ( 1928 - 2016))

Jottings: Slice of life - 24
Alvin Toffler ( 1928 - 2016)
If you were in your teens during the eighties, and interested in ideas; then it is unlikely that you would not have read "Future shock" by Alvin Toffler, published in 1970 - one of the most influential books on the progress and direction of Human civilization as we approached the twenty first century. It was one of the first books which bought into focus technology not merely as a means to an end, but as a revolution penetrating and redefining the very structure, relationship and meaning of social life. When Toffler talked about Internet, cable Television, robotics and genetic engineering then, it seemed eerie ,quite unbelievable and downright impossible . But nearly half a century later, his words, thoughts and vision ring ominously true, and more so, seem to be vindicating the pervasive presence of a "Third wave"- a new way of human living after the agricultural and Industrial waves that preceded it - that he so strongly advocated in his second book published in the eighties.
Alvin Toffler wanted to be a writer from a very young age. He knew it was his vocation, but the question was what did he want to write about? The answer to that question emerged when he became a journalist and an investigative reporter for emerging technology companies. What he saw happening within those hallowed walls, the kind of radical breakthroughs they were working upon , the information overloaded society that was envisaged, moved him to spend five years understanding, digesting and articulating his views in his seminal work "Future shock". In the exuberance and financial boom of the radical sixties, nothing was deemed impossible in America. There was money, initiative and progress. And Toffler captured that optimism in his book. It became, more or less, the lingua Franca for countries aspiring to hold the global stage. From Gorbachev in Russia to Lee yuan kew in Singapore, they applauded and embraced the clarity of Toffler's thesis, and began the process of orienting their nations towards technological supremacy. Like Arnold Toynbee's "study of history" and Jared diamond's "The third chimpanzee", Toffler's book was able to condense for the common man the direction he was being herded to. He coined the term "Future shock" indicating the disruptive nature of this technological change. When innovations supersede the rate of acceptance, society flounders, trembles a little; and if not handled well, could lead to chaos moral turpitude and collapse of social systems as we know it. This is not new in Human history. We have passed through such waves of massive change in the past. But what Toffler, points out as different this time around, is the preparedness and sudden shift the third wave would force upon us. There is no scope for gradual change. It's a quantum shift, and the cycle of adoption will be in periods of years and not in centuries as in the past.
To me , one of the striking ideas of Toffler was his prediction of information overload. When Man loses his ability to pick and choose what he wishes to learn, and he is bombarded from all sides with information, both needed and unnecessary, then his intellectual security begins to be threatened. The line between What is true, and what he is made to believe as true becomes blur, and a process of dehumanization sets in. In one of the most striking observations Toffler writes:
"Tomorrow's illiterate will not be the man who can't read; he will be the man who has not learned how to unlearn."
In other words, a man who cannot sift information with wisdom or apply his own mind to analyze, observe, understand and discard will find himself frightfully insecure. He will become a programmable robot in the hands of whomsoever has access to his attention. The proliferation of media and technology is already showing such signs of Human distress, as Toffler predicted, unless we start acting judiciously.
The reason Alvin Toffler was liked and respected was because he never advocated a dooms day analyses. Though his book were futuristic, there was always an underlying optimism about where we are heading, and even in his most cynical, skeptical and pessimistic observations, Toffler maintained strong dignity and belief in the capacity of Man to live and accommodate changes, as he has always been doing for millennia. It is this refreshing sense of confidence and progress that make his books and ideas still eminently readable and printable even after forty years.
When Toffler passed away quietly in his sleep this past week, the intellectual world felt orphaned. Rarely do we find individuals who can raise themselves above the humdrum of facts and stormy waves of Human progress, to observe the movement of life from an elevated standpoint. Toffler was one of them.
For my young readers, pls read Toffler when you get a chance. It's the best summer reading you can hope to get.
God bless...
Yours in mortality,
Bala

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