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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.

Khant Thaw Htoo is a young engineer who works in Eni's Sakura Tower office in the heart of Yangon. As an HSE engineer, he monitors the safety and environmental impact of onshore and offshore operations. He also looks out for his parents' well-being, in keeping with Myanmar's traditions.

Learn more about Khant in the final episode of the Faces of Eni series, which focuses on Eni's employees around the world.

On his first day as president, Joe Biden signed a remarkable series of executive orders. Boom! The US rejoins the Paris Climate Accord. Bang! The United States rejoins the World Health Organization. Pow! No more ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries. Biden's press secretary reminded reporters later in the day that all these orders merely begin complex processes that take time, but the impact is still dramatic.

If you lead a country allied with the US, or you're simply hoping for some specific commitment or clear and credible statement of purpose from the US government, you might feel a little dizzy today. The sight of an American president (Barack Obama) signing his name, of the next president (Donald Trump) erasing that name from the same legislation/bill, and then the following president (Biden) signing it back into law again will raise deep concerns over the long-term reliability of the world's still-most-powerful nation.

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Kevin Sneader, Global Managing Partner at McKinsey & Company, provides perspective on what corporate business leaders are thinking during the global coronavirus crisis:

Should businesses be pessimistic or optimistic about 2021?

It's easy to be gloomy about the year ahead when faced with the realities of a cold, bleak winter in much of the world. Add to that lockdowns across Europe, surging case numbers and hospitalizations, and dreadful events in the Capitol in the US to name a few reasons for pessimism. But I think there is a case for optimism when it comes to this year. After all, it's true to say that it's always darkest before the dawn, and my conversations with business leaders suggest there are reasons to be positive by 2021.

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Renowned tech journalist Kara Swisher has no qualms about saying that many of the country's social media companies need to be held accountable for their negative role in our current national discourse. Swisher calls for "a less friendly relationship with tech" by the Biden administration, an "internet bill of rights" around privacy, and an investigation into antitrust issues.

Swisher, who hosts the New York Times podcast Sway, joins Ian Bremmer for the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on public television nationwide beginning this Friday, January 22th. Check local listings.

Brexit pettiness lingers: Here we were naively thinking the Brexit shenanigans were over after the EU and UK agreed to an eleventh-hour post-Brexit trade deal last month. We were wrong — the saga continues. Now, a new row has erupted after the Johnson government said it will not give the EU ambassador in London the same diplomatic status awarded to other representatives of nation states. Unsurprisingly, this announcement peeved Brussels, whose delegates enjoy full diplomatic status in at least 142 other countries. The UK says it will give the EU envoy the same privileges as those given to international organizations, which are subject to change and do not include immunity from detention and taxation given to diplomats under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. EU members are furious, with officials accusing London of simply trying to flex its muscles and engaging in "petty" behavior. The two sides will discuss the matter further when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets EU representatives next week, their first face-to-face since the two sides settled the Brexit quagmire on December 31. Alas, the Brexit nightmare continues.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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