Future Shock: This Is What Happens When Humans Can No Longer Adapt To The Modern World, According To Research
Personal Note: This article is different than my normal ones on this newsletter. It’s not about thought leadership. Rather, it’s about something that I’m deeply curious about and that’s extremely important to the future of the world. It’s about the pace of technological change and how we adapt to that change as human beings and societies.
I realized that I needed a better model of change when I first saw this chart and internalized how so many major breakthroughs across fields are coming at us like a tidal wave in the very near future:
After synthesizing 17 books, I have come to a unique perspective that I haven’t seen written about anywhere else.
In 1970, futurists and spouses Alvin Toffler and Adelaide Farrell wrote a book that defined their generation’s perspective on accelerating change. The mega-bestselling book was called Future Shock.
The fundamental premise was that the rate of change was increasing at such a rapid rate that individuals and society might not be able to keep up.
And that the implications of this could be dire.
It’s now 50 years later, and it’s time to revisit the book’s premise.
On the one hand, the world hasn’t completely fallen apart and there has been significant progress. This challenges the book’s premise.
On the other hand, there are cracks developing in society’s foundation (see symptoms later in the article). So maybe the book’s premise was correct but the time frame was off.
Rather than just listening to the headlines, I wanted to go a level deeper and understand the problem at a more fundamental level. So, last year I spent dozens of hours reading and re-reading more than a dozen books on the topic (paid members get access to the book list with mini-reviews at bottom of the article).
This article attempts to rigorously and honestly explore the Future Shock premise:
Is Future Shock’s premise true? Where are we in the disease state? What do we do about it?
But, before we dive in, let’s get more clarity on Toffler and Farrell’s premise…
The Future Shock Hypothesis
Below is the premise broken down in a handful of curated sentences from the book:
Acceleration is a fundamental force in today’s world: “The acceleration of change in our time is, itself, an elemental force.”
It has a big impact: “This accelerative thrust has personal and psychological, as well as sociological, consequences.”
It has deep and far-reaching side effects: “[It’s] a real sickness from which increasingly large numbers already suffer.”
Collectively, these side effects are functionally equivalent to a disease: “This psycho-biological condition can be described in medical and psychiatric terms. It is the disease of change.”
Too much acceleration could be terminal: “Unless man quickly learns to control the rate of change in his personal affairs as well as in society at large, we are doomed to a massive adaptational breakdown.”
It’s not just a danger in the future, it’s a danger now: “It became clear that future shock is no longer a distant potential danger.”
Now that we have this understanding, we can break the premise down point by point.
Is The High Rate Of Technological Acceleration Functionally Equivalent To A Disease?
The Wikipedia definition of a disease is as follows:
A disease is a particular abnormal condition that negatively affects the structure or function of all or part of an organism, and that is not immediately due to any external injury. Diseases are often known to be medical conditions that are associated with specific signs and symptoms.
In short, a disease has three primary qualities:
Specific signs and symptoms
Let’s break each of these down…
Disease Trait #1: Abnormal
So much change is happening all at once in human society. And that speed is increasing, which is making it more and more abnormal.
In Google Director Of Engineering: This is how fast the world will change in ten years, I share the following mind-boggling chart showing the progression of the world GDP:
Conclusion: Yes, the change in society is abnormal.
Disease Trait #2: Negative Effects
Most significant innovations end up generating second- or third-order effects that are difficult to predict in advance, that in many cases are not aligned with the values of the original innovator who set it all in motion.
New technologies, even technologies that almost all people would say are positive, have side effects. The bigger the technology, the bigger the side effects. In his work, futurist Kevin Kelly puts this in perspective and makes the case that technology is 51% good and 49% bad. And that 1% delta compounds over time to become a net positive for civilization. For example, oil helped create the modern world, but it is the predominant cause of climate change.
Historian Yuval Harari tells a similar story of technological progress in his book, Sapiens. He goes so far as to say that the negative effects of the Agricultural Revolution, which is often lauded as a major step in human progress, are so overlooked that the idea of a revolution is history’s biggest fraud.
Here’s the excerpt (emphases mine):
Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity. They told a tale of progress fuelled by human brain power. Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people. Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat. As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the gruelling, dangerous, and often spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers.
That tale is a fantasy. There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time. Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered. Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.
Finally, a similar story can be told about the Industrial Revolution and the move toward urbanization. Below are some of the problems that arose:
Air pollution. High air pollution caused higher rates of hospitalization and premature deaths from pneumonia and bronchitis.
Squalid living conditions. “In the 1830s, Dr. William Henry Duncan, a government health official in Liverpool, England, surveyed living conditions and found that a third of the city’s population lived in cellars of houses, which had earthen floors and no ventilation or sanitation. As many as 16 people were living in a single room and sharing a single privy.” [*]
Spread of diseases. “The lack of clean water and gutters overflowing with sewage from basement cesspits made workers and their families vulnerable to infectious diseases such as cholera.” [*] Sewage also drained into drinking water supplies. [*]
Bad factory conditions. Early factories were extremely dangerous, used child labor, discriminated against women, provided little personal autonomy and often resulted in repetitive stress injuries. A picture can be worth a thousand words:
Full of horse manure. The average horse dropped 25-50 lbs of manure and one gallon of urine on the street per day as well. [*] I didn’t understand the seriousness of the horse poop issue until I saw the photo below…
These examples of the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution show how the net benefits of a big technology shift are not immediate. And that sometimes the side effects can even outweigh the productivity gains, especially in the short term.
This pattern is so universal that it is known as the J Curve:
Conclusion: While Future Shock does have positive qualities, it certainly has negative qualities.
Disease Trait #3: Specific Signs And Symptoms
Our bodies and minds were fine-tuned to the Earth’s environment over millions of years of evolution.
Over the last few thousand years, dramatic changes have occurred that have moved away from that ancestral environment.
This is known as Mismatch Theory in evolutionary biology:
This mismatch between our environment and our body causes problems.
Because technology is so ever-present, the symptoms of this gap show up in all areas. For example, below are just a few of the symptoms that we can directly link to technological change:
Physical inventions →
Shoes → less usage of arch muscles → flat feet
Cooking → less chewing → smaller jaws → smaller gaps between teeth → cavities
Exposure to supernormal stimuli →
Credit → increasing debt
Porn → porn addiction
Pills → drug addiction
Sugar → diabetes
Fat → obesity
Salt → high blood pressure → heart disease
Internet-connected computers → Knowledge work →
Globalization → winner-take-most dynamics → increased competition
Staring at screens all day →
Exposure to lots of blue light at night → insomnia
Typing on the keyboard all day → carpal tunnel syndrome
Sedentary lifestyle →
Lower bone density → more broken bones as we age
Burning fewer calories while eating more → obesity
Weak core → bad posture → chronic pain
Working indoors → less sun → Vitamin D deficiency
More information →
Info overwhelm →
Distractions → Less focus
Comparison to others’ highlight reels → unrealistic expectations →
Greater disappointment with the current situation
As a result of these three technologies, we see the following surprising stats:
Braces. 45% of people get orthodontic braces. [source]
Sedentary lifestyles. "Around 70 percent of all illnesses could be prevented if we all exercised more regularly and ate more healthily." [Daniel Lieberman [Harvard] in The Story of the Human Body]
Fatty livers. "There was a seven-fold increase of cases of fatty liver disease between 1975 and 2005." [Daniel Lieberman [Harvard] in The Story of the Human Body]
Repetitive stress. 3-6% of adults in the general population have carpal tunnel syndrome. [source]
Mental disorders. Autism and schizophrenia each affect about 1% of industrialized populations and lifetime depression affects 16% of the population. [source]
Flat feet. 60M Americans or 25% of the U.S. population have flat feet. [source]
Vitamin deficiencies. "Approximately 40 percent of people living in the United States are vitamin D deficient." [source]
Chronic pain. 50% of people over 50 have chronic pain.
Distraction. The average knowledge worker is distracted once every 20 minutes. [Cal Newport in A World Without Email]
Infidelity. "Brief exposure to just 10 photos of physically attractive female faces reduces men’s commitment to their long-term mates and women’s self-perceived desirability." [source]
Sexless men. 28% of men under 30 have reported no sex in the last year, which has doubled in the last decade. [source]
There are also concerning rises of other troubling, unexplained symptoms across society. It’s harder to find the exact root cause, but one can say that they are likely the result of technological change. In fact, having more and more weird things happen that we don’t fully understand is actually a symptom of the rate of change (more on this later). For example, some people argue that some of the issues listed below are because of increased plastics. Others say it’s because of vaccines. Others say it’s because of fertilizers. But, there is still a lot of uncertainty. Here is a small sample of the troubling trends…
Rise of anxiety and depression
Rise of autism
Rise of allergies (psoriasis, peanut, gluten, etc.)
Rise in suicides
Decline in testosterone
Finally, change doesn’t just directly change our bodies and minds. It also causes changes in culture, which then have large ricocheting impacts:
New mating patterns (more competition, rise of involuntary incels, later marriage)
Changing family structure (fewer kids, older parents, more divorce, elders not living with family, loneliness, aging populations)
Conclusion: There are undeniable signs and symptoms of Future Shock.
And The Official Diagnosis Is…
Our species’ pace of change now outstrips our ability to adapt. We are generating new problems at a new and accelerating rate, and it is making us sick—physically, psychologically, socially, and environmentally. If we don’t figure out how to grapple with the problem of accelerating novelty, humanity will perish, a victim of its success.
—Bret Weinstein & Heather Heying (biologists), A Hunter-Gatherer's Guide to the 21st Century
Without a doubt, the case can be made that Future Shock isn’t just an abstract disease. It is something with real, severe, and ubiquitous symptoms.
On the other hand, the case isn’t quite closed on a few levels:
Humans have an incredible ability to adapt to any environment.
We create new inventions to fix side effects.
To fix flat feet, we have orthotics
To fix crooked teeth, we have braces
To fix a sedentary lifestyle, we have gyms and trainers
To reduce pollution, we have regulations
In other words, negative symptoms resulting from technologies are normal, and we can adapt to them. Not only that, almost no one would rather live hundreds of years ago rather than today, so most would agree that things have netted out positively.
The Real Threat Isn’t Technological Side Effects. It’s Our Comparatively Slow Ability To Adapt
Here’s what we need to understand.
There are several steps we go through in order to mitigate the side effects of technological acceleration:
Link of problem to technology
Research backs up problem and linkage
As an example of this process at work, let’s take a look at the blue light from smartphones. The iPhone was released in 2007. In 2013, I learned about the link between insomnia and blue light at night. I downloaded Flux to solve the problem on my desktop computer. It took a few more years until Apple made it possible to manually turn off blue light at night and a few more to make it automatic.
What’s notable about these steps to me is that it still took 10 years to play out for such a small issue.
Many of technology’s side effects are much more complicated, more severe, and will take decades (or centuries) to fix. One example is climate change:
The greenhouse effect was recognized all the way back in 1860 during the Industrial Revolution. The fact that humans were creating carbon dioxide, which was causing the climate to change, was formulated in 1956. In the following decades, evidence was collected from more and more disciplines supporting this theory. A scientific consensus emerged. But still, 70 years later, there is not enough worldwide mobilization to stop climate change from accelerating. Not only that, but climate change is now a politicized topic, where people are taking sides rather than seeking to solve the problem.
We’re now also going through this same process with artificial intelligence, which increases the stakes even more. AGI has the potential to improve and/or destroy the world to levels we currently can’t even fathom.
The technical name for this ability of cultural adaptation to take longer than technological innovation is adaptive lag.
Now, that we have an understanding of adaptive lag, we can project ourselves into the future and ask the doctor an important question…
What is the prognosis of Future Shock…
When Side Effects Grow Faster Than We Adapt
The simple claim that in modernity “everything goes faster and faster,” which is pervasive not just in the features pages and the popular press but also in academic works, is both undifferentiated and transparently false.
—Hartmut Rosa (sociologist)
The history of acceleration and modernity can also be told without contradiction as the story of a progressive rigidification.
—Hartmut Rosa (sociologist)
If side effects continue to grow, we could see a sort of Accelerating Stagnation. In other words…
On some levels, the world is changing faster and faster.
On other levels, we’re becoming more stagnant as the side effects cancel out the gains.
In other words, rather than the bang that techno-utopianists and techno-doomers predict, this era may go out with a whimper—a prolonged state like a chronic disease, that most people can’t quite recognize, diagnose, or solve. It’s a sort of chronic fatigue where our immune systems (adaptive responses) get confused and attack or ignore the wrong things and gum everything up in the meantime.
In some ways, we might already be seeing signs of this as I write in We’re in a productivity crisis, according to 52 years of data. Things could get really bad.
The amazing promise of technologies like AI may be canceled out by its unforeseen side effects, like people purposely using it for negative purposes (scams, propaganda, war, breaking/skirting the law, etc.), disasters that put a regulatory freeze on further development (as happened with the nuclear power industry), or an unforeseeable black swan event.
What many techno-utopians miss is that every technology has hidden side effects, and as the size of technological impacts increases, so too do side effects become larger—and as those side effects become larger, there will be a larger cultural and regulatory response. Currently, hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent on advancing AI every year whereas the money spent predicting and pre-adapting to potential side effects is a small fraction of that.
In one particularly unintentionally disturbing interview, the founder of one of the most pioneering AI companies estimates that there is a 25% chance that AI will destroy humanity. Many other employees at AI companies have beliefs that aren’t far away from that number.
Source: Control AI
Furthermore, we know progress is not guaranteed historically. It can be slowed, stopped, reversed, or even lost…
Previous Golden Ages Are A Warning
For example, there have been several times in history when we have receded into dark ages after light ages:
Ancient Greece (fifth century BCE)
Islamic Golden Age (eighth century)
Florence Renaissance (fourteenth century)
Dutch Golden Age (sixteenth century)
Ming Dynasty (sixteenth century)
Author Note: Paid subscribers get access to more details on these golden ages in the appendix at the bottom of this article.
Elon Musk summarizes the situation when he says…
People are mistaken when they think that technology just automatically improves. It does not automatically improve. It only improves if a lot of people work very hard to make it better, and actually it will, I think, by itself degrade, actually. You look at great civilizations like Ancient Egypt, and they were able to make the pyramids, and they forgot how to do that. And then the Romans, they built these incredible aqueducts. They forgot how to do it.
— Elon Musk
At least now that we understand the possibilities and mechanisms better, we can mount a better response…
Understanding Adaptive Lag Can Help Us Have A More Evolved Conversation
Like so many topics of today’s age, acceleration has become a politicized topic.
Much of the conversation has devolved into black-and-white conversations based on whether technology is good or bad.
Certain people believe it is good. Therefore, they almost exclusively point out the good things about it and ignore or attack the criticisms of it.
Other people believe it is bad and almost exclusively point out the bad things about it and ignore/attack the boosters of it.
Thus, each side talks past the other.
Because this topic has become politicized, we lose our ability to think and act rationally and productively.
This is unfortunate.
Because one of the biggest determinants of our cultural adaptation rate is our ability to come to a consensus on large (global/national), interdisciplinary challenges (e.g., climate change) in order to sign binding treaties and create productive regulations.
When markets are too free, we risk contagious risks that can stall an entire sector for years (or even decades) like the collapses of the nuclear energy industry and the FTX fraud in the crypto industry.
When markets are too regulated, the innovation rate decreases too far. As a result, many of the smartest people leave those industries and that industry stalls.
In other words, the answer we want likely lies within a moderate goldilocks zone—not extremism.
Unfortunately, today’s online climate conversation seems to veer toward extremes.
For example, I was recently saddened to read Marc Andreessen’s manifesto…
I have deeply admired Andreessen as a nuanced thinker, entrepreneur, and investor. Unfortunately, with this essay, he carves out his space as a fighter for technology, which means:
He focuses 99% of his attention on the pros of technology.
For the 1% that he focuses on the risks, he uses straw man arguments where he pretends to reason about the risks by attacking the weakest parts.
He seems to have written the essay as a countervailing extreme manifesto to counter the extreme attacks on capitalism, technology, and accelerationism.
For example, one quote particularly caught my attention:
Our enemy is the Precautionary Principle, which would have prevented virtually all progress since man first harnessed fire. The Precautionary Principle was invented to prevent the large-scale deployment of civilian nuclear power, perhaps the most catastrophic mistake in Western society in my lifetime. The Precautionary Principle continues to inflict enormous unnecessary suffering on our world today. It is deeply immoral, and we must jettison it with extreme prejudice.
While the essay has many true points I agree with, I find it impossible to endorse it when it doesn’t seriously consider or address opposing sides, which also have good points.
Stated differently, if polarization is a significant part of the problem, then crafting manifestos that rally your base may do more harm than good.
Conversely, I might be wrong. Maybe…
I’m too optimistic that there are enough people who want and/or have the capability to handle nuance.
Extremism from one side to another might lead to an evolving equilibrium that lies in the goldilocks zone.
Therefore, people like Andreessen who have the ability to be nuanced are consciously or unconsciously making the choice to be more extreme and less nuanced in order to have a more positive impact from their perspective. On the surface level, this feels backward. But, maybe on the levels he operates in with world leaders, this is more practical.
At the risk of being a human collaboration optimist, I believe these are not the case—at least we’re not destined to this being the case. Rather than arguing about whether technology as a whole is good or bad, my hope is that the model of cultural adaptation in this article can help us align on four shared beliefs:
Technology has pros and cons.
We can ameliorate those cons.
As the rate of technology evolution evolves, we need to accelerate our cultural adaptation.
We can and should rigorously improve our adaptive response to technological change.
One of my favorite quotes is, “A problem well stated is half solved. (Charles Kettering).” My hope for this article is that it contributes to a deeper understanding of the problem so we can collectively create the future we all want.
Appendix Table Of Contents For Paid Subscribers (5,000+ Words)
A tiny fraction of the research I do actually makes it into the article. But, if you’re fascinated by the topic and want to go deeper, below are several appendixes that organize the most interesting research I found:
A: Previous Golden Ages
Ancient Greece (Fifth Century BCE)
Islamic Golden Age (Eighth Century)
Florence Renaissance (Fourteenth Century)
Ming Dynasty In China (1500)
B: Hidden Forces Slowing Down Growth
Population Bomb hypothesis
Legal system that doesn’t support innovation
Polarization from rising tensions of change
Backlash against acceleration as acceleration increases
Hyper-cautiousness could rise as the risks of technology rise
Environmental management cost becomes higher
Decadence rises as people become rich, fat, and happy
C: Top Resources On Acceleration And Side Effects
I provide links and short summaries of 16 books that deeply influenced the ideas in this article.