I used to look forward to the future.
Now it paralyzes me.
To deal with this, I slip on an Oculus headset my husband got last Christmas and sit there in the home screen environment, a warm cabin in the mountains under the northern lights. I don’t play any games. Instead I pretend this is where I live, away from everything, in nature. I wonder when I’ll be able to get to the real mountains again.
After a while, my brain tells me screw the real mountains. These fake mountains are prettier. I want to stay here forever, in the fake mountains under a luminous green sky.
This is future shock, a term coined by Alvin Toffler all the way back in 1970, in a book by the same name. It refers to the social and emotional paralysis we all feel, brought on by “shattering stress and disorientation” at the magnitude and velocity of changes we’re going through.
I find it highly appropriate.
The future is full of artificial light.
If we’re honest, the future is looking darker these days — but there’s a lot of artificial light to distract us from that.
On the one hand, climate change might destroy the planet. We’re living through a sixth mass extinction. On the other hand, a robot can give you a lap dance now. Cars can drive themselves. Gold has gone digital. We’re a few years away from being able to live on other planets (so we’re told). Most recently, you get to work from home.
We’re constantly torn about the future.
Things are getting a lot worse and a lot better at the same time. We don’t know whether to trust the artificial light or not. It seems to be causing a lot of the problems it promises to solve.
Lately it feels like the only way to get through an entire day is not thinking about the future too much, especially in the long term. And yet, we also know we can’t hide from the future. It’s coming, whether we like it or not. We have to prepare somehow, so it doesn’t catch us by surprise.
We feel chronically unprepared.
The future is making us obsolete.
We used to worry about being replaced by someone younger and better educated than us, maybe better looking. That time is long gone. Now we’re competing against algorithms and lines of code.
One day, some of us will report to an artificial intelligence that knows our heart rate and credit history.
People are already losing jobs and healthcare to pieces of software. The only way to stay employed is to become more like a robot, or a superhuman. You have to become evermore productive. Or you have to figure out what robots can’t do (yet), and learn how to do it better. You have to be a creative genius, just to keep your head above water.
Anyone under 50 feels a growing sense of overwhelm at the sheer number of skills we’re expected to master today. We live with daily stress and unrest over which industries are going to transform us out of a career in five years, and force us to completely reinvent ourselves.
Job security is going extinct.
This fear of becoming obsolete is putting us on edge. Being replaceable or expendable means poverty and death. We’re willing to do anything to keep up now. We’ll pay more and more money for courses that promise to keep us relevant, so we can earn our livelihoods. We’ll buy tons of e-books. We’ll sign up for websites that teach us how to code.
We update ourselves to survive.
We’re trying to short the future now.
Thanks to the r/wallstreetbets movement, we all know what it means to short a stock now. You sell an asset at a high price because you think it’s going to drop later. This move resonates with us because that’s what we’ve been doing for the entire last year. We’ve been shorting the future.
We used to daydream. Now we anticipate the problems we’ll have to deal with, and how we can avoid getting trapped by them.
We wonder which cities will be underwater in 15 years. We wonder which safety nets will collapse first, and where we can put our money to keep it safe when they inevitably do.
We hedge our hopes.
Giant corporations and billionaires are doing the same thing. They seem to understand that the end could be on the way. So instead of trying to save everyone, they’re surging their pollution to maximize profits, so they’ll be better off when everything goes to hell.
We’re all trying to eyeball that moment in the next decade or so when things start to get really bad, and when we might have to bail on society altogether. We anticipate a time when we’ll have to protect only ourselves and those closest to us. If you have a conscience, it eats at you. It’s painful and disorienting to only sort of believe in the future.
It freezes your brain.
We’re trying to get away from the future.
A lot of us are entranced by old things now. We’re binge-watching period romances, or just watching our old favorite movies on repeat. We love the past because it doesn’t change.
That lack of change provides deep comfort. It’s relaxing to watch a movie where you already know what’s going to happen.
This is exactly why I can’t finish Tenet, a film I’d been looking forward to before the pandemic. There’s something deeply unsettling about a movie where the future is trying to kill you, and the only way to survive is to learn how to think backward and forward at the same time.
The metaphor is too good.
The future is driving us nuts.
The most troubling part of the future now is that it’s forcing us to think in completely new ways. We’re having to face hyper-objects, facts that escape our ability to deal with them through ordinary logic.
Climate change would be an example. So would the economic shifts we’re seeing now. It’s hard to think about the consequences of entire cities going underwater in our lifetimes, or never retiring.
And yet, we have to.
We have no choice but to deal with the future. It’s already here, washing into every crevice of our lives. We use technology to escape the stress caused by technology. We create new tech to solve the problems of old tech, which cause new problems. Every year the cycle speeds up, like a merciless Peloton coach. We have to pedal faster and faster.
This doesn’t leave you a lot of time to think things though.
We feel the need to act now. Because if we wait a few minutes, the price on the stock or that cryptocurrency will go up.
We’ll miss out.
We’re living in an age where the richest man in the world can send an asset soaring with a single tweet, in just a few minutes. It’s not the kind of environment that encourages deliberation. That’s why people are acting so illogical now. There’s huge amounts of displaced anger and anxiety. We’re all rushing toward the latest thing to offer a slight advantage in this unpredictable landscape, full of artificial light.
It’s maddening, in the true sense.
It’s driving us nuts.
We have to grapple with our future shock.
Alvin Toffler recommends a handful of practices and attitudes to handle our future shock, and they’re surprisingly on point for a book that was published more than fifty years ago. Here they are:
- Unplug from the world and relax. Get away from technology. Sit outside. Go for a walk. Read. Look at old photos. Give yourself a break from the future, anyway you can.
- Pay attention to how you feel. Learn what your body does when you start thinking about the future too much.
- Give into the moment. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, do it. Don’t think about other things. Don’t talk about other things, not even what’s going to happen tomorrow.
Zones of stability
- Reduce your decisions. We underestimate the amount of energy it takes to decide something. When you can save yourself from having to make a decision, even a little one, then do it.
- Develop a routine that stays the same, no matter what’s going on around you. This creates habit and predictability, and it gives you a space where you can actually think.
- Focus on the bigger picture, including things you know probably won’t change in the next five or ten years.
- Stop thinking about who and what you are, or were, or wished you could be. Nobody stays anything for very long.
- Focus on what you’re becoming.
- View yourself as a being always in a state of change. If you’re always changing, then it’s less scary to think of the world changing. Everything is always changing together.
- Stop trying to stay the same in a changing world. Think about how you can control how you’re already changing.
Halfway houses and enclaves of the past
- Ease into major changes, instead of doing them all at once.
- See adapting to the future as incremental.
- Alternate thinking and planning for the future with sheltering in the past. Spend some time in both worlds.
- Create spaces and communities that celebrate the past, and give you temporary shelter from the future.
- Keep reminders of the past for comfort, not escape.
Global space pageants
- Maintain rituals and pastimes that give you a sense of continuity. Watch sports. Play games. Rent movies.
- Observe personal and cultural rituals to process new information and big changes. Rituals use the past to incorporate the future into the present, and they offer stability.
- Find ways to celebrate the future, and look for hidden opportunities. Often, it’s the only way to adapt.
Strategies of futureness.
- Stop clinging to outdated knowledge and attitudes. The harder you try to live in the past, the harder it gets to live at all.
- Make yourself learn new skills. Remember how to be a beginner. The sooner you start, the better.
- Embrace new concepts and ideologies instead of running from them. You can’t outrun the future into the past.
- Look to the ancient past instead of the near past. It can hold lost keys to figuring out the future.
The larger point here is that you don’t have to abandon the past. You just have to stop letting the future paralyze you. There’s a lot about the future that concerns someone like me, including the recent craze over meme stocks and cryptocurrencies going main stream.
But I’m altering my stance every week. I’m inching toward investing in some cryptocurrencies, even though I’m skeptical of the hype. I’m figuring out what new skills to learn so I can stay employed. I’m acknowledging that things will change, and that they always have been.
You can’t stop change. You can just get better at letting it rush over you and through you, like a cold stream.
Don’t let the past consume you.
For the last year, I’ve found myself wishing for a time machine. I’ve been fantasizing about the past more than daydreaming about the future. It would be nice to just flip a switch and travel back ten years.
Part of me would stay there.
The past provides comfort and safety. It was a world where climate change and economic uprooting were only threats on the horizon, something you could spend a few minutes feeling concerned about before getting back to your day, something that didn’t assault you every day. Back then, things like democracy and job security were sure bets.
Wrapping yourself up in the past offers a temporary reprieve from the constant onslaught of the future, but it can never do anything more than that. A little bit can give you some peace of mind. Too much tricks you into thinking you can pretend to live there.
You have to step into the future.
We have to live in the future.
Living in the future means letting go of some antiquated worldviews. It means unyoking yourself from old schools of thought. It means listening to our intuition and instincts as much as your logic. It could mean reaching even further back into history for ideas we’d forgotten about.
It means letting go of the need for security. That need is what’s causing our paralysis. We’re trying not to change.
This future isn’t the one we wanted. It’s cold and unsettling. It gives us chills. But we made the future. We’re making it right now, minute by minute, for ourselves and for everyone else.
Don’t let the future shock you.