The New Age, how it already seems ho-hum, like long hair and Ralph Nader and old Volkswagens. It has its own magazine and a devoted following, like yachting and blue-grass music and model railroads. What’s going on when even the New Age, with all its mysteries, can get as dull as the evening news?
Maybe it ate itself. Or maybe the mother culture ate it like a mother fish eats her young. Maybe the New Age culture was just a fancy name for one facet of the giant multihedron we call culture. Maybe it was larger than the culture and it was the other way around.
Reflecting on this last week, my imaginings turned darker. I saw the New Age culture as a giant thought-carnivore, living in a jungle of edible intellect, gobbling up everything novel with ravenous fury. No profundity was too large for the jaws of this creature, no taste too vile for its mastications, no behavior too irregular for it to swallow and nothing at all too strange for it to digest. But despite the insanity of modern life, the craziness, the tragedy, the ubiquity of both art and waste, I still slept pretty well. I wasn’t that concerned about it. This realization gave me a tinge of deja vu. Then it hit me:
Oh yes! I could remember it clearly. The title was in black computeresque letters against a day-glo color background. The author, Alvin Toffler, looking every bit the nasty business-man-intellectual with his half-frame glasses in his hands, stared with piercing authority from the back cover. The book was praised by reviewers and bought by everybody back around 1970. Surely there was one to be found.
I crawled through the attic. I rummaged through such cultural relics as Charles Reich’s The Greening of America, some early Whole Earth Catalogs, a Radical Software magazine, Spock’s Baby and Child Care and some early McLuhan. No Future Shock. I went next door. And across the way. And down the road. Everybody had either thrown theirs away or stashed it somewhere forever. I went to a couple of book stores. No luck. The library. Not there, either. I finally scored one at the PTA Thrift Shop.
Amazingly, the book has become its own victim. I guess after the New Age Creature grabs a meal in the Garden of Bountiful Thought, it takes a dump at the Thrift Shop. Poor Alvin Toffler.
What happened to Future Shock? Was there something wrong with it? Was Toffler right despite the fate of his book? If he was, how come we’re so well-adjusted (or does it just seem that way)? If Future Shock was a dud, is the New Age in for a similar fate?
* * *
There is not any haunt of prophecy. Nor any old chimera of the grave, Neither the golden underground, nor isle Melodious, where spirits gat them home, Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured As April’s green endures, or will endure
(inside the front cover of The
Greening of America
by Charles Reich)
I’ll hand Alvin Toffler this much: He had his evidence down cold. The details abound in every category of cultural cataclysm: throw-away merchandise, radical lifestyles, transient residency, international power-shifts, rising suicide rates, crime waves, ethnic unrest, overchoice, modularization, space exploration, crumbling institutions, and more.
All the data were brought together in support of a novel theory: Things were changing so fast, and at such an accelerated pace, that coping with this change was becoming shockingly difficult for people. Was he right?
In some ways, it looks like he was. After all, some of us do find The Change hard to handle, especially when it screws up long-term life commitments. I think especially of my friends who jumped into postgraduate study when it looked promising only to find upon obtaining their PH.D’s that the only jobs around, if any, were teaching in prisons or South Texas high schools.
Perhaps the sad and cynical attitude toward life I find so often in their quarter could be called a product of future shock. Clearly Nixon also suffered something like it, when the American people suddenly became intolerant of abuses that were quite acceptable to him.
But these are exceptions. Most of us still cope pretty well, and this is why, for the most part. Toffler blew it. He thought we couldn’t cope, at least not without his generous help. Boy, did he want to help! Above the title, the cover reads “THE SYMPTOMS OF FUTURE SHOCK ARE WITH US NOW. THIS BOOK CAN HELP US SURVIVE OUR COLLISION WITH TOMORROW.” Well, the symptoms are here, perhaps stronger than ever. And we survived our collision with six years of tomorrow — apparently without the help of THIS BOOK.
Toffler’s problem is typical of what many futurists suffer when they insist in grounding predictions in mounds of data and details — and forcing conclusions through the funnels of logic and causality. The problem with logic is that it doesn’t mix well with people. Logicians know this; one of the most basic logical fallicies is ad hominem, the appeal to personal prejudice. Logic alone is not sufficient for prophecy or even for the kind of broad, detail-littered scenario that Toffler was trying to create.
The main difference between prediction and prophecy is spiritual. And it is the spiritual vacuity of Future Shock that not only makes it less than prophetic, but lousy prediction as well. This becomes most obvious when Toffler makes his predictions/recommendations about shockproofing our future. For example:
It is no longer sufficient for Johnny to understand the past. It is not even enough for him to understand the present, for the here-and-now environment will soon vanish. Johnny must learn to anticipate the directions and rate of change. He must, to put it technically, learn to make repeated, probabilistic, increasingly long-range assumptions about the future. And so must Johnny’s teachers.
To create a super-industrial education, therefore, we shall first need to generate successive, alternative images of the future; assumptions about the kind of family forms and human relationships that will prevail. . . .
It is only by generating such assumptions, defining, debating, systematizing and continually updating them, that we can deduct the nature of the cognitive and affective skills that people of tomorrow will need to survive this accelerative thrust.
That last paragraph is painful. It holds that man creates himself consciously, through reason, defining, systematizing, updating and especially deducting (as if this were how we reason).
In truth, when it comes to what we do, where we go, how we live and especially how we cope, little is deduced. For the most part, we are on automatic pilot. Our lives, our Selves, involve far more than higher cerebral activity. This, Toffler didn’t understand. He was wrong, in part, because he was wrong about people.
The future is not something totally distinct from the present, always waiting to mug us around the next corner. The cultural changes that threaten us are of our own making, and the future we suffer or enjoy will grow, writhing with change, out of the present.
Toffler hoped that we would generate assumptions upon which the power of systematic thought could be brought to bear, for the purpose of “deducting” new skills.
This shows a profound misunderstanding of what skills are all about. Skills are anything but deduced. Each skill is developed through active and repeated dwelling in a process. In fact, skills are impossible to perform if one pays them too much attention. It is difficult to read, for example, if you focus purely on the way you look at the words, or on the speed at which your eyes can scan the page, or on the words themselves, or even on the letters that make up the words. When we read, we attend to meanings that emerge through the operation of that skill. We lose those meanings when we deductively analyze a part of the skill.
Obviously, some of our highest skills are devoted to coping. The reality we cope with is quite different from what Toffler and others imagine to be an assemblage of concrete matter, amenable to analysis and conscious manipulation. This is simply wrong. At the base of things, at the sub-atomic level, “matter” isn’t concrete. “Things” are not things. Time isn’t what we think it is. Causality doesn’t even apply.
The reality we know best — what we see, hear, feel, touch and taste — is a shared cognition. It is an agreed-upon assembly of reliable patterns that emerge from and float upon a sea of randomness and acausality. We are physical creatures that flow with the changes in those patterns. Our physicality forces us to be aware of the most “concrete” among these emergent patterns. Our physical senses are built for that kind of awareness. If we were built to feel mass with the same sensitivity as we see light; or if we could feel the magnetism of the earth, like migrating birds; or if we could sense many of the other emergent patterns of reality that escape sensory detection — perhaps we would know at a conscious level much of what our subconcious has always known — that there is much more to everything than meets the senses, and almost all of it is beyond words.
In the last paragraph of Future Shock, Toffler says, “These pages will have served their purpose if in some measure they helped create the consciousness needed for man to undertake the control of change, the guidance of his evolution.”
Is a “consciousness” needed to control change, to guide evolution? Obviously, the change is under a kind of control already, quite unconsciously. Together we are part of The Change, developing mysteriously as a species. How do we do it? For what?
I often think of Don Juan, the Yaqui Indian sorcerer made famous by Carlos Casteneda. In wondering about the source of our collective thrust and the inadequacy of cerebral activity in the face of larger reality, I think about how Don Juan regards reason as interfering with will. Also about the island of the tonal, the area we know and agree upon as reality, where there are words for everything and reason prevails; and of the nagual, the totality outside the tonal, where power originates and reason is superfluous.
Could it be that we ride astride Change with one foot in powerful Totality and the other in terra crazy?
Maybe it is unfair to pick on Toffler. His book makes an easy target now, six years after people started chucking it. But it does a good job of showing many of the prejudices that have guided our thinking about the future, that have stood in our line of vision demanding that we Think Things Out when something other than detailed intellectualization is required.
Well, it may be a fresh bore, but we are in a New Age. Toffler is right about many of the changes that are taking place, and maybe about a lot of the traumas too. But the whole thing is immensely larger than the psychodrama that Toffler depicts. The New Age is so much larger that intellectually all we can do is recognize the fact of it. The evidence goes far beyond all the technological and lifestyle revolutions that Toffler accurately relates. In the grand sweep of human affairs from the dawn of culture to the present, the most dramatic changes have been very recent. They are special changes too: we can travel anywhere in the world in a day; we can talk to people all over the world without leaving our homes; there are those who can destroy the world if the mood strikes them; there are zealots who can paralyze commerce and wreck livelihoods with guns, bombs, hijackings, embargoes, terrorism, death gas, etc.; and there are good-natured scientists at Harvard who can manipulate DNA to create new forms of life that nature without human intervention might never produce.
In atomic physics a chain reaction in accelerated unstable atomic activity threatens to explode when it reaches something called critical mass. Is humanity reaching a kind of critical mass? It there an unstable, uncontrolled chain reaction going on?
I feel that I should be alarmed, but I am not. How, I ask myself, can I get on when life abounds with massive offenses to my sensibilities?
I think the reason we cope goes beyond the often boring nature of daily life, or the need to ignore depressing things, or apathy or moral deficiency — though all those things can help. I think it has to do with that unknown realm where God-knows-what takes place and we all cooperate in some timeless, acausal way.
Polanyi says, “We know more than we can tell.” This is true more in the literal than the practical sense. We really can’t tell some things, because they are beyond telling while remaining tantalizingly knowable.
I think often of Old Mr. Sammler, the protagonist of Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet. Upon waking one day, the world-weary Sammler thinks about how “Intellectual man had become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, experts to laymen, doctors to patients, man to his own soul, explained. The roots of this, the courses of the other, the source of events, the history, the structure, the reasons why. For the most part in one ear and out the other. The soul wanted what it wanted. It had its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on the superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.”
So, this is the New Age? — a giant growing superstructure of explanation elevating humanity to ever new heights of informed confusion? For the intellect, perhaps. But for the soul, which knows more than the ego can ever tell, the final words of Mr. Sammler’s Planet put it simply: . . . “we know, we know, we know.”