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.

Carbon has a bad rep, but did you know it's a building block of life? As atoms evolved, carbon trapped in CO2 was freed, giving way to the creation of complex molecules that use photosynthesis to convert carbon to food. Soon after, plants, herbivores, and carnivores began populating the earth and the cycle of life began.

Learn more about how carbon created life on Earth in the second episode of Eni's Story of CO2 series.

As we enter the homestretch of the US presidential election — which is set to be the most contentious, and possibly contested, in generations — Americans are also voting on 35 seats up for grabs in a battle for the control of the Senate. The 100-member body is currently held 53-47 by the Republican Party, but many individual races are wide open, and the Democrats are confident they can flip the upper chamber of Congress.

Either way, the result will have a profound impact not only on domestic policy, but also on US foreign relations and other issues with global reach. Here are a few areas where what US senators decide reverberates well beyond American shores.

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On September 23, GZERO Media — in partnership with Microsoft and Eurasia Group — gathered global experts to discuss global recovery from the coronavirus pandemic in a livestream panel. Our panel for the discussion Crisis Response & Recovery: Reimagining while Rebuilding, included:

  • Brad Smith, President, Microsoft
  • Ian Bremmer, President and Founder, Eurasia Group & GZERO Media
  • Jeh Johnson, Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP and former Secretary of Homeland Security.
  • John Frank, Vice President, UN Affairs at Microsoft
  • Susan Glasser, staff writer and Washington columnist, The New Yorker (moderator)

Special appearances by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde, and comedian/host Trevor Noah.

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Jon Lieber, who leads Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, offers insights on the Supreme Court vacancy:

Will Senate Republicans, who stopped a Supreme Court nomination in 2016, because it was too close to an election, pay a political price for the change in tactics this time around?

Not only do I think they won't pay a political price, I think in many cases, they're going to benefit. Changing the balance of power on the Supreme Court has been a career-long quest for many conservatives and many Republicans. And that's why you've seen so many of them fall in line behind the President's nomination before we even know who it is.

At this point, do Senate Democrats have any hope of stopping President Trump from filling the ninth seat on the Supreme Court?

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In a special GZERO Media livestream on global response and recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Eurasia Group & GZERO Media president Ian Bremmer discussed the difference between Europe's unified approach to economic stimulus and the deeply divided and political nature of the current conversation in the US. While initial stimulus support was bipartisan, there is little chance of Democrats and Republicans coming together again ahead of the November 3 presidential election. "It's red state versus blue state. President Trump's saying that coronavirus isn't so bad if you take the blue states out. He's president of the blue states, you can't take the blue states out," Bremmer told moderator Susan Glasser of The New Yorker.

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Panel: How will the world recover from COVID-19?

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