Maybe the future isn't so shocking after all

Maybe the future isn't so shocking after all

Technology is changing faster than people or governments can keep up. The move to an information economy is rapidly displacing old industries. People subjected to a continual barrage of news and data feel anxious and alienated. They're suffering from "information overload."

These ideas could easily be part of a stock description of life at the beginning of the 2020s. In fact, they were first popularized half a century ago, in 1970, when the author Alvin Toffler and his wife Heidi, later credited by Alvin as co-author, published their book, Future Shock.


The Tofflers were trying to make sense of a world moving faster and faster, thanks to jet travel, mass media, the birth control pill, and the then-still-very-nascent computer revolution, leaving people and society struggling to cope. Some of these concerns may seem quaint or dated (check out the documentary film about the book, which opens with a Pan-Am jet and a middle-aged Orson Wells walking through an airport puffing a cigar), but many of the trends it identified are still relevant: today's policymakers, business leaders, and citizens face a new wave of technology-related angst. Artificial intelligence, automation, and viral disinformation are leaving people alienated, disrupting traditional institutions, and raising concerns about the future of democracy.

What lessons can this 50-year-old book offer? Here are two ways to look at it - one positive, and one slightly more pessimistic:

The world (and democracy) survived the "future shock" of the 1970s – it will do so again. While the Tofflers may have put their finger on an important trend, the world didn't fall apart after 1970. Future Shock also arguably put too much stock in the idea of accelerating change as the culprit behind the "malaise, mass neurosis, irrationality and free-floating violence" of its time and too little stock in society's ability to adapt to technological disruption.

People, governments and other important institutions adapted to the technological changes of a previous era, and they can do it again. In another 50 years, social scientists may look back on today's big sources of tech-driven angst and see either overblown worries or other factors besides technology as the main drivers of disruptive trends. In other words, don't underestimate the power of human beings to change. We've been doing it for a long time.

Future Shock was before its time: It wasn't technological change itself that the Tofflers were worried about. It was the accelerating pace of change. The world we live in today is scarcely recognizable from 1970, and not just because you can no longer smoke in the airport. The information overload wrought by the internet and smartphone revolution will only increase as technologies like artificial intelligence and ultra-fast 5G networks lead to an exponential increase in the amount of data that people, governments, and criminals can access. As another futurist, the novelist William Gibson might say, the Future Shock is here, it just isn't evenly distributed.

A sector that's rapidly expanding, domotics - domus (home) plus robotics - are smart houses that manage temperature and lighting to minimize wasted electricity. For example, smart thermostats sense your presence and set the temperature according to your needs, saving 20% a year on heating bills. Watch this episode of Eni's Energy Shot series to learn how domotics save money and increase a home's value.

Even if the US, Europe, China, and India reduce carbon emissions at the rate they've promised, much climate damage has already been done. That shouldn't stop these and other countries from doing all they can to meet their net-zero emissions targets, but they also better start preparing for a world of people on the move.

Climate change will displace an unprecedented number of people in coming years, creating not just a series of humanitarian crises in many parts of the world, but lasting political, economic, and social upheaval as those of us who live on higher ground try to find a sustainable place for these climate refugees to live.

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Listen: In a wide-ranging interview with Ian Bremmer, Pulitzer Prize-winning climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert assesses the current state of the climate crisis and answers a simple question: how screwed are we? And as the climate continues to warm at a record pace, she unpacks some of the more extreme climate solutions that some increasingly desperate nations are starting to consider. Such measures may sound like stuff of science fiction (see: injecting sulfur particles into the atmosphere or shooting millions of tiny orbital mirrors into outer space) as times become more desperate, their appeal is growing. Can we fix the planet the same way we broke it?

China is making its neighbors nervous these days. Chinese fighter jets are screaming into Taiwan's airspace. Hundreds of armed Chinese "fishing boats" are plying the disputed waters of the South China Sea. And Beijing is slashing imports from some trading partners because of disputes over political issues.

To push back against this increasingly aggressive behavior, regional powers Japan, India, and Australia, together with the US, are boosting cooperation via a 17-year-old grouping called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or simply "The Quad." But how effectively can these four countries really work together to counter China? Eurasia Group's Peter Mumford discusses the Quad's future.

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Want to tackle climate change? If so you'll have to reach out to China, which is currently responsible for over a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions. Beijing will certainly take your call, as climate is a huge priority for President Xi Jinping.

Xi has promised that China will go "net zero" — meaning its carbon emissions will be offset by equal amounts of either natural or tech-driven carbon capture — by 2060. Is a decade later than most of the top 10 polluting countries fast enough for the rest of the world? It is for the Chinese, who want to help but have their own ideas about how.

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When will it be safe for the world's children to be vaccinated against COVID-19? The World Health Organization's chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, says that vaccines are being tested in children down to the age of six or even lower, and promises that data on children will be shared as soon as it's available. She also notes that there are not enough studies on transmission in schools, and the WHO has advised governments to prioritize schools "over other things like shopping malls or cinema halls or pubs." Dr. Swaminathan spoke with Ian Bremmer in an interview on GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting April 9. Check local listings.

Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic

Over the past half century, climate change has had an immense impact on the farmers who produce the food we eat. A new study by Cornell University shows that global warming has knocked 21 percent off of global agriculture productivity growth since 1965, equivalent to seven years of normal growth if humans had not polluted the planet. But not all countries have been affected in the same say. Farmers in warmer parts of the world have been hit hard as conditions grow more arid, but sub-polar regions in Canada or Siberia are now actually better for agriculture because they are not as cold as they used to be. Here we take a look at how climate has affected farming productivity growth around the world.

On Tuesday, a major US intelligence report said the top threat to America right now is China. A day later, John Kerry, the Biden administration's "climate czar," got on a plane to... China.

Such is the drama of ties between the world's two largest economies these days.

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