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Waiting for the Whirlwind


Worldchanging is about solutions. We don't generally even write about problem-focused resources, unless, as our manifesto puts it, "the resource is so insightful that its very existence is a step towards a solution." This essay by Adam Greenfield fits the bill: it speaks, with an almost fevered clarity, about the American relationship to the future, at a moment when America's role in crafting the future may well be the planet's most important uncertainty. Read it. And for more of his work, check out his book Everyware -- Alex

I think we actually had two paperback copies of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock floating around the house when I was a kid - at least, I can remember its “computerized” type running against both pale yellow and pale blue covers.

Between the ages of six and fourteen, roughly, you could have wrapped just about anything from Sunday-matinee dystopia to extra-farty prog rock in that particular typeface, and I would have at least given it a look-see; I was a future-oriented kid. So even though this Toffler book seemed conspicuously lacking in sentient starships, lunar bases and the like, I flipped it down from its place on the top shelf and spent a few days paging through it.

Most of it sailed over my head at that age. What I do remember sticking with me was the notion of accelerating change, an idea which did then and still does make the hairs at the back of my neck tingle. I also quite clearly remember Toffler’s most succinct definition of the syndrome which gave the book its name, a definition which didn’t even necessarily refer to anything technological: to suffer from future shock was simply to be paralyzed by “too much change experienced in too short a period of time.”

For a long, long time thereafter, I’d sit in idle moments and wonder just when future shock was going to happen. In my childish conception, it was something that would happen all at once, be precipitated by some obvious event - the proverbial straw - and stand out just as vividly and obviously as an outbreak of the flu when it did roll across the land. It took me years to understand the words as pointing toward something more poetic and metaphoric than clinically diagnostic. It’s a thought I’ve had occasion to dig up and reconsider this last week. Because this is what I’ve come to understand: Here we are. This is it.


Like many of my friends, both American and otherwise, I’ve spent much of the past ten days in shock, sick to my core at the warm reception that Sarah Palin has received from the US “press” and public. More than just the kid-gloves welcome, of course: at the very real possibility that this willfully ignorant and manifestly unqualified ideologue might ascend to the Presidency in fairly short order. After a rare season of hope, the thought is almost too much to bear, and this is something I say without hyperbole.

In such circumstances my instinct is, quite literally, to rationalize. To intellectualize. It’s just how I deal with the undealable-with. So I’ve been doing my best to try and understand what appeal this figure might have to, at last count, 58% of the American electorate.

The gloss of down-home authenticity - the mooseburgers, “snow machines,” and other rustic tat that figure so centrally in her instant legend. The young-Earther retreat from science and all its methods. The palpable resentment of coastal elites (even as this time around it doesn’t seem that term is shorthand, as it so often is, for “Jews”). The instinctual, immediate recourse, upon achieving even the most local and limited sort of power, to the heavy-handed suppression of free inquiry. The things that endear this onetime nowhere-burg mayor to Americans are, as clearly as can possibly be, indicators that a whole lot of people think tomorrow came too soon.

What you get when you swallow too much change too quickly isn’t a mass outbreak of twitching, hebephrenic breakdown, nor some neo-Amish wave of technological renunciation. You wanna know what it looks like? A hockey mom and former beauty queen with an upswept ‘do and a pregnant daughter in high school. Sarah Palin is future shock personified.

On 15 August 1945, Japanese Emperor Hirohito redefined “understatement” for all time when, in his broadcast to the nation accepting the terms of unconditional surrender, he famously described the “war situation” as “ha[ving] developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”

That’s the phrase that leapt to mind when I thought about Palin and about what significance she might hold as a symbol of larger forces in the culture. But this time it’s not anything as concrete as a “war situation,” a disposition of forces and potentials around a theater of conflict. It’s the entire future that’s shaping up as hostile. Or at least I can easily imagine it seeming this way, if the equity you’ve fought to build up in your house is circling the toilet, if your medical bills are spiraling out of control, if the media culture seems purely inimical to all attempts to raise your children with any set of values you’d recognize as sane, if you’ve still got to face the question of what to do for (and with) your parents as they age.

Sure, I bet it feels like the future’s one long hard slap in the face when all it means is city-killing storms and literally crumbling infrastructure and the (nonexistent, but easily enough ginned-up) specter of know-it-alls like Al Gore showing for interviews with an ITYS smirk. There’s not a whole hell of a lot your Crackberry can do about any of that - in fact, all the high-tech trinkets only make it worse, more acutely felt and harder to get away from.

Maybe it has something to do with just having given a talk about the future of ubiquitously networked cities in a place - South Korea - that’s embraced this vision more passionately than anywhere else on Earth. I’m totally willing to cop to the idea that this recognition was catalyzed, and maybe something a little more than catalyzed, by the fact of my being in Seoul. As I’ve written previously, ordinary Koreans - the ajumas and the schoolkids and the salaried workers, from Suwon to Sinhyeon - are surprisingly invested in neo-Weiserian visions of the high-technological future, because they perceive it as working for them.

Mainstream Americans, by contrast, where they were once called to dream and to believe that their best days as a community still lay ahead, are now at war with the future. And this is one war situation that is definitely not developing necessarily to their advantage.

After my talks, I’m frequently enough asked about the comparative technical backwardness of the US, often in so many words. In such circumstances I invariably trot out Mimi Ito’s relativist line about “alternatively technologized modernities,” and the idea that different places, different polities arrive at - have to arrive at - divergent understandings about which technologies are appropriate for their given time and place. And I strongly believe that it’s a correct line..but it’s no longer true. What’s going on in the US isn’t, it’s clear to me, a measured and equally valid selection from the sheaf of available technosocial possibilities, but symptomatic, however subtly, of a headlong flight from contemporaneity.

In the relatively narrow field of my interests - ambient informatics, the networked city - can be seen something profound writ small: among fully-developed nations, the US stands out as having generally rejected “futuristic” interventions in everyday urban life, to the point that what I’m bound to present as innovative to US audiences is almost laughably banal elsewhere.

I don’t mean to imply that this is anything like the whole story, but it strikes me as what poker players might call a “tell.” The gobsmacking foolishness of our national discourse, the things which now seem to signify, the very person selected to act out these psychodramas on the national stage - these are all far surer signs that the future is deeply, and I mean pants-shittingly, terrifying to many Americans. They’ve read the tea leaves, all right, they’re not in the slightest bit stupid, and they know how things are shaping up. They’ve had their eponymous Century, and it ended seven years ago today; this one’s Injun Country by comparison, no pun intended. So I can only surmise that the question of who to elect looks a whole lot clearer if you’ve once sown the wind and are waiting for the whirlwind to arrive.

Sadly, heartbreakingly, “hope” isn’t in it. It takes a people that still believes in the possible, and their place in it, to vote for that.

More from Adam at Speedbird.

Photo credit: probek, creative commons.

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thanks for the penny politics, as if we dont get enough of that already. remember why your audience reads from here.

is this site changing from eco-awareness to punditry?

Posted by: jon on 14 Sep 08

Sarah Palin is the absolute worst thing to happen to American politics in my lifetime (since 1964). That our system could allow someone so venal, scheming, and unqualified to rise so near to the top is proof positive that the once-grand idea of American democracy is all but finished. It's been sacrificed on the altar of ignorant populism, religious posturing and blind feel-good patriotism.

Looking reality squarely in the eye (and some form of measurable competence) should be the first and only qualification to hold the highest office in the land. But how do you enshrine that in a constitution? How do you disqualify someone so unsuitable without also throwing out the whole illusion of democratic elections?

The past eight years and what looks to be the coming four are proof-positive that the American people prefer politicians who tell them what they want to hear, regardless of consequence. As things unravel further, the desperate impulse in the electorate to maintain their illusions and comforts of the past will only grow stronger. In yet another 4 years, what new and even more sordid brand of opportunists will arise to pander to America's desperation and swing-state follies? (You only have to hoodwink a couple of million people to get elected these days. The rest of our votes cancel out and basically don't even count.)

Let's hope those key voters get a hell of an education in the next 50 days or so. The future of the world is literally in their hands.

If we elect Palin, we ensure not only decades of an extreme-right-wing supreme court, but the waste of a precious four years on top of the vital but now-squandered eight we've had since 2000 to implement sound energy and climate policy. If or when reality finally hits America 2012-2016, and citizens wake up to the fact that they've been sleepwalking through one of the most important periods in human history, there may be little left to save. Let's hope the rest of the planet has its eyes open just a crack more and fares a bit better. Some of us folks who are at peace with reality, and actually still see promise in the future may need a place to go.

Posted by: BlackSun on 14 Sep 08

I'm just glad that Hillary didnt get it. She never seemed to connect with me. I support both Obama and McCain - seems strange but there are qualities to both I really admire. McCain brings an honourable military perspective to the national discussion and his time as a POW should keep him thankful and stay moderate, but his handlers are over playing that card and maybe he is past his prime. Obama almost symbolizes a brighter future through change - but I'm a little cautious of lawyer-types who's job is to tell a good lie - what did he have to do, what promises and assurances did he have to give his backers to get propped up for this race? Palin was just as unknown as Obama, but she seems real to me. To balance that Biden is Obama's experience card.

Both teams are just to evenly matched for me, and since I'll be happy with either I'm probably not going to vote at all.

So long Hillary! lol, Bill is such a broken man now!

Posted by: jjensen on 15 Sep 08

"Some of us folks who are at peace with reality"

Yeah, "at peace" is really an accurate description of the tone of this post and comments.

Posted by: Knemon on 15 Sep 08

I have been suffering from some future shock myself lately, thanks in part to your writing. The thing to remember is that Sara Palin is just as much a scary, threatening reality as are computers running the stock market and the US being overshadowed economically by India and China. Don't be one of those people who tries to stop the train because most of the world is "crazy" and values things you (and I) don't understand. Just keep doing your work and you'll do much better than all this fearful complaining.

Posted by: Daniel Erwin on 15 Sep 08

There's an interesting study running around the web today which shows that, when presenting refuting statements from reliable sources of their opinions to conservatives, it tends to harden their resolve in sticking with those opinions. When presenting similarly refuting information to liberals, it has no effect, one way or the other.

This may explain why the widespread refuting of Sarah Palin's clearly untrue statements has not had that much effect -- so far anyway -- to her supporters, the fact that she's getting all this criticism only proves how great she really is in their eyes.

Posted by: DennisSc on 15 Sep 08

A deep and thought provoking post, unfortunately marred by politics. Thoughts on future shock and different how societies are dealing with that change is interesting. Bitter side-thoughts about why this is all seen in one political race (one politician) is a little far out.

Posted by: blum on 16 Sep 08

A deep and thought provoking post, unfortunately marred by politics.

I just want to get this straight: You come to a site called "Worldchanging"...and somehow think you're going to be able to avoid politics?

You'll have to excuse what I'm sure will come across as cheap sarcasm, but I'm sincerely interested in understanding your POV, and I literally can't wrap my head around that. The only thing I can imagine is that you're subscribing to some form of Magical Technodeterminism. How exactly do you think the world is made to change?

Posted by: Adam Greenfield on 18 Sep 08

Can we find adequate enough ways to warn each other in the human community of impending danger before we reap the whirlwind?

We in the family of humanity are going to be forced to do better in our efforts to communicate in a more reality-oriented way about ominously looming threats of an human-driven, global calamity of some kind. If we keep doing precisely what our leaders are saying and doing now, the future for our children looks bleak. We can surely do more and do it better. After all, human beings are remarkably intelligent, ingenious and adaptive.

Before we can determine what new and different to do, perhaps a brief analysis of our current, distinctly human-induced, global predicament is in order. Consider for a moment some of the ways in which my generation of leaders has gone so terribly wrong.

First, the leaders in my generation of elders wish to live without having to accept limits to growth of seemingly endless economic globalization, of increasing per capita consumption and skyrocketing human population numbers; our desires are evidently insatiable. We choose to believe anything that is politically convenient, economically expedient and socially agreeable; our way of life is not negotiable. We dare anyone to question our values or behaviors.

We religiously promote our widely shared and consensually-validated fantasies of `real' endless economic growth and soon to become unsustainable overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities, and in so doing deny that Earth has limited resources and frangible ecosystems upon which the survival of life as we know it depends.

Second, my not-so-great generation appears to be doing a disservice to everything and everyone but ourselves. We are the "what's in it for me generation." We demonstrate precious little regard for the maintenance of the integrity of Earth; shallow willingness to actually protect the environment from crippling degradation; lack of serious consideration for the preservation of biodiversity, wilderness, and a good enough future for our children and coming generations; and no appreciation of the vital understanding that humans are no more or less than magnificent living beings with "feet of clay."

Perhaps we live in unsustainable ways in our planetary home; but we are proud of it nonetheless. Certainly, we will "have our cake and eat it, too." We will own fleets of cars, fly around in thousands of private jets, live in McMansions, exchange secret handshakes, frequent exclusive clubs and distant hideouts, and risk nothing of value to us. We will live long, large and free. Please do not bother us with the problems of the world. We choose not to hear, see or speak of them. We are the economic powerbrokers, their bought-and-paid-for politicians and the many minions in the mass media. We hold the much of the world's wealth and the extraordinary power great wealth purchases. If left to our own devices, we will continue in the exercise of our `inalienable rights' to outrageously consume Earth's limited resources; to recklessly expand economic globalization unto every corner of our natural world and, guess what, beyond; and to carelessly consent to the unbridled global growth of human numbers so that where there are now 6+ billion people, by 2050 we will have 9+ billion members of the human community and, guess what, even more people, perhaps billions more in the distant future, if that is what we desire.

We are the reigning, self-proclaimed masters of the universe..... the thousands of greedy little kings of capital concentration, big business potentates and governmental sinecurists. We enjoy freedom and living without limits. Of course, we adamantly eschew any talk of the personal responsibilities that come with the exercise of personal freedoms or discussions of the existence of biophysical limitations of any kind.

We deny the existence of human limits and Earth's limitations.

Please understand that we do not want anyone presenting us with scientific evidence that we could be living unsustainably in an artificially designed, temporary world of our own making....a manmade world filling up with gigantic enterprises, virtual mountains of material possessions, and boundless amounts of filthy lucre.

Third, most of our top rank experts appear not to have found adequate ways of communicating to the family of humanity what people somehow need to hear, see and understand: the rapacious dissipation of Earth's limited resources, the relentless degradation of the planet's environment, and the approaching destruction of the Earth as a fit place for human habitation by the human species, when taken together, appear to be proceeding at breakneck speed toward the precipitation of a catastrophic ecological wreckage of some sort unless, of course, the world's colossal, ever expanding, artificially designed, manmade global political economy continues to speed headlong toward the monolithic `wall' called "unsustainability" at which point the runaway economy crashes before Earth's ecology is collapsed.

Who knows, perhaps we can realistically and hopefully hold onto the expectation that behavioral changes in the direction of sustainable production, per human consumption, and propagation are in the offing.....changes that save both the economy and the Creation.

Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony on 20 Sep 08



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