“Naked Into the Cosmos” — Space Exploration and the 50th Anniversary of “Future Shock” by Alvin Toffler

Future Shock, the world-shaking book, set against a Deep Field image from the Hubble Space Telescope—a world-shaking, future-shocking technology.

“How strange, therefore, that when we hurl a man into the future, we take few pains to protect him from the shock of change. It is as though NASA had shot Armstrong and Aldrin naked into the cosmos.” — Alvin Toffler, Future Shock.

Published in July, 1970, one year after the Apollo 11 moon landing, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock rocked the world of the human species, most still basking in the euphoric triumph of Apollo 11. At that moment, all things seemed possible via science and technology, with NASA and global television providing the events and imagery to momentarily unite one billion people watching on TV on planet Earth. Yet, as Apollo 8 showed so clearly, humanity was venturing into the cosmos intellectually unprepared, philosophically naked for our first steps into the starry skies. Fifty years later, we still have no space philosophy worthy of Apollo and the Hubble Space Telescope—and the universe they revealed. We’re still going “naked into the cosmos.”

In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler foresaw this existential and philosophical challenge, among many others. Future Shock provided profound insights into the accelerating waves of scientific and technological transformation sweeping the planet. The book detailed our ability/inability to successfully adapt to these changes, individually and as a society. Importantly, Future Shock did not claim that a dystopian future was certain to come, filled with the doom and destruction that dominates science-fiction films. Rather, Future Shock diagnosed what Toffler described as “the premature arrival of the future” and offered ideas for successfully adapting to the system-wide changes and cultural effects.

Fifty years later, the central premise of Future Shock remains more relevant than ever. Since it would take a book to discuss all of Toffler’s spot-on observations, this essay will focus only space. Nowhere is Toffler’s thesis more clear than in space exploration and the challenge to develop a philosophy to unite our species as enlightened and peaceful space farers—in a universe in which we are not central or significant.

Future Shock sold millions of copies around the world and was made into a documentary film starring Orson Welles, the legendary film director. No one says “future shock” and “the premature arrival of the future” better than Welles!

“The Premature Arrival of the Future”

In Future Shock, Toffler detailed how our “super-industrial” society had disrupted the traditional social order so dramatically that we had become traumatized—fearful of the loss of cultural traditions and uncertain of the tomorrows to come. Entering a future that was hurtling toward us at ever-increasing speed with ever-expanding patterns of change, we were finding ourselves overwhelmed by the social transformations of the industrialized and electrified world. As Toffler explains:

“Future shock is the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future. It may well be the most important disease of tomorrow… unless intelligent steps are taken to combat it, millions of human beings will find themselves increasingly disoriented, progressively incompetent to deal rationally with their environments. The malaise, mass neurosis, irrationality, and free-floating violence already apparent in contemporary life are merely a foretaste of what may lie ahead unless we come to understand and treat this disease…

Future shock is a time phenomenon, a product of the greatly accelerated rate of change in society. It arises from the superimposition of a new culture on an old one. It is culture shock in one’s own society.”

For Toffler, technology has delivered “the future” so fast that traditional values and conventional notions of family, work, education, community, and the like have been drastically altered. It’s as if we don’t recognize our own culture and destiny, plunging us into uncertainty and doubt. In addition, Toffler asserts, the more technology develops, the less stable our culture will be, preventing us from ever feeling fully settled or sure of where we are going. Changes in our concepts of space and time are the one certainty:

The Apollo 8 liftoff on December 21, 1968. Apollo 8 would soon foreshadow the future shock in space and on planet Earth.

“In the coming decades, advances in [sciences and technologies] will fire off like a series of rockets carrying us out of the past, plunging us deeper into the new society. Nor will this new society quickly settle into a steady state. It, too, will quiver and crack and roar as it suffers jolt after jolt of high-energy change.

Future Shock provided an exhaustive number of examples to support its thesis, although one does not have to agree with all of them to grasp the essential truths. Future shock is the emotional anxiety and existential dread felt toward a future that challenges all previous cultural narratives. And nothing has been more future-shocking than the universe revealed by space exploration.

Future Shock in Space: We’re the Center of Nothing

From Galileo’s telescope to the Hubble telescope, humans have long extended their gaze into the starry skies. For eons, we looked at the stars gliding above and imagined we were the center of the universe. Most humans still do. It’s the bubble of what I call cosmic narcissism. In this illusory bubble, we are not merely selfish or in love with our self-image, but rather we are busy imagining and acting as if we (individually and collectively) are the center of the universe, the center of everything—the center of all value, purpose, and meaning.

Perhaps the most important astronomer of all-time, Edwin Hubble stands next to the sleek telescope at the Mount Palomar Observatory.

That’s why the telescope might well be the most radical technology ever, precisely because it removed us from the center of the universe and punctured our bubble of cosmic narcissism. Future shock in space—space shock!

In 16th and 17th centuries, Copernicus and Galileo rocked our narcissistic worldview by demonstrating that everything in the solar system revolved around the sun. This was in direct contrast to the geocentric (Earth-centered) universe defended by the church—based on the narcissistic idea that a Creator has designed a universe in which humanity’s salvation and purification is the central purpose. The idea that Earth and humanity are not the center of the universe remains truly world-shaking, effecting a space shock from which many have yet to recover.

Over the past century, humanity’s space shock has been ramped up exponentially. In the 1920s, the stars of the Milky Way still represented the entirety of the known universe because telescopes lacked the capacity to see beyond our galaxy. That changed with the Hooker Telescope in California, used by Edwin Hubble to make two landmark discoveries that forever changed our view of the universe:

  1. The universe is much older and larger than previously assumed, with the Milky Way being just one galaxy among many;
  2. The other galaxies and clusters of galaxies are moving apart from the Milky Way and from each other in what is known as the “big bang” model of the expanding universe.
Begun by Edwin Hubble, the “big bang” model was developed by the work of thousands of scientists around the world.

In the big bang model, the galaxies are not propelling themselves through space — rather, the voids of space are expanding and taking the galaxies along for the ride. Powered by mysterious “dark energy,” these voids are shaped like massive space bubbles, bordered with clusters and networks of galaxies. Based on data from the Hubble telescope and others, NASA’s latest estimates suggest the observable universe contains two trillion galaxies and stretches across 100 billion light years. And the number of stars exceeds three sextillion (3 followed by 21 zeros). We’ve discovered an epic universe—at once awe-inspiring and all-too-terrifying for many. Talk about space shock!

[ No one knows what caused the initial expansion of the observable universe 13.7 billion years ago, though I’m betting black holes, dark energy, colliding realms of the proposed multiverse, and/or other phenomena yet to be discovered will provide some answers. ]

The paradox of our greatest achievement: we’re brainy, but tiny.

We humans apparently can’t handle the paradoxical meaning of our greatest scientific achievement and most important philosophical discovery: The universe is vast and majestic, and our species is insignificant and might be utterly meaningless. There may well be no meaning or purpose to our existence in the immensity of the cosmos that spans billions of years in the past and trillions upon trillions of years in the future. Rather than the center of everything, we are the center of nothing. As a species, we have ventured into the sublime of the universe and retreated from the possible nihilism, our minds blown but our philosophy paralyzed with future shock.

Future Shock saw this challenge coming: “In the awesome complexity of the universe, even within any given society, a virtually infinite number of streams of change occur simultaneously. All ‘things’ — from the tiniest virus to the greatest galaxy — are, in reality, not things at all, but processes. There is no static point, no nirvana-like un-change, against which to measure change.”

If there is any meaning to our existence, perhaps it is because we are one way the universe is aware of itself. Our species is one process for generating knowledge of the universe itself. This non-static basis suggests a radically different philosophy for space exploration, an approach filled with wonder and admiration for the places we visit and life forms we encounter—in contrast to plundering and waging war.

The first Earth selfie: the famed “Earthrise” image captured by Apollo 8.

Space Shock and Apollo 8

Future shock in space has been on planetary display since Apollo’s first trip to the moon. In 1968, Apollo 8 orbited the moon ten times, stunning the world with an incredible moment of bravado, creativity, and scientific triumph. As seen in the media coverage of the 50th anniversary of the event in 2018, Apollo 8 is largely remembered for two things:

  1. The Earthrise image: our first view of our planet in space.
  2. The global television broadcast which reached one billion viewers back on planet Earth. To conclude the broadcast, the astronauts read the opening passages from Genesis in the Bible.

Desperate to discuss anything real and uplifting about humanity in an age of Trump, Twitter, and Putin’s fake news, the media and “space experts” blindly praised both of Apollo 8’s key events. Yet, both moments put space shock on display for all to see:

  1. NASA flipped and edited the Earthrise image to make Earth the center of the photo, thus maintaining the illusion of human centrality and creating an “icon of cosmic narcissism.”
  2. To console and provide meaning for a stunned humanity, art and secular philosophy were completely absent. Instead, the astronauts recited creation myths reaffirming our cosmic narcissism. In effect, “Apollo 8 crashed” on global television.
Left: The original Earthrise image, as captured by astronaut William Anders. Right: the flipped and adjusted Earthrise released to the world.

Both moves illustrate future-shock in space—a space-shock wrought by the clear demonstration of our non-centrality in the vast universe. NASA sent astronauts “naked into the cosmos” and had no plan and no answers for the future displayed on television screens around the world. They looked to the past for answers, seeking centrality and philosophical stability to counter the existential vertigo present in the triumph of Apollo 8 and the original Earthrise image. In effect, Earthrise was the first Earth selfie, clearly anticipating 21st century selfies and how today’s smart phones feature editing software to make each human look better in their selfie.

The image of Earth against the black void does have a clear meaning. Humans are a single species sharing a single planet with millions of other species and we should be doing our best to protect the planet that makes life possible. This observation is supported by the fact that all humans share 99.5% of the same DNA and are made of the most common elements of the cosmos—hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, etc. We are made of the universe!

Of course, a mere eight months later, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, where Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar lander and stated the immortal line: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Surely, Apollo 11 ranks as one of the greatest and most profound achievements in the history of our species, leaving behind a long and complex legacy.

Apollo 8’s Earth selfie and Genesis reading have proven more prophetic because of future shock in space. Five decades later, Genesis and stories of all-powerful Creators still reign as the dominant narratives most humans turn to for explaining humanity’s origins and destiny in the universe. With Apollo 8’s “Earth selfie” and the billions of selfies on Earth, and our cosmic narcissism remains secure. In contrast, the overall secular and non-central meanings of Apollo 11’s moonwalk and Armstrong’s phrase have yet to generate any serious challenge to the theologies and technologies that inspire most of the people on planet Earth.

Source: Gallup and NPR (2013).

However, non-belief is on the rise. According to Gallup and National Public Radio, the “nones” (non-believers in religion) stayed below 5% until the Apollo program in the late 1960s. The rise of the nones began with the moon landings and has continued long after the Apollo program was shut down. Current estimates are that one in four Americans does not believe in a Creator.

Future Shock/Space Shock: 2019 and Beyond

Science and technology are propelling humans into a beautiful and sublime universe, with trillions of galaxies stretching across billions of light years. Yet our popular narratives seem philosophically paralyzed and most humans remain in future shock and turn to theism and tribalism for meaning, purpose, and identity. Centuries-old virulence and violence, ancient tribal and religious warfare—these are all replicating on Earth, in social media, and are destined for Mars, the moon, and beyond.

Toffler anticipated these conditions: “The greatest and most dangerous marvel of all is the complacent past-orientation of the (human) race, its unwillingness to confront the reality of acceleration. Thus man moves swiftly into an unexplored universe, into a totally new stage of eco-technological development… He stumbles into the most violent revolution in human history (and) simply refuses to imagine the future.”

The End of Enlightenment in Space

Fifty years after the unifying moment of Apollo 11, there is still no popular narrative that integrates humanity with its origins and destiny in the all-too-majestic cosmos. There is no philosophy that unites the human species as a peaceful and enlightened space-faring civilization. Neil Armstrong’s “one giant leap for mankind” is but a faint echo in YouTube. Landing on the moon “For All Mankind” has been replaced by the corporate-nationalist agendas of militarizing space, strip-mining the moon, and terraforming Mars into a suburb of Earth, along with space theocrats wanting to baptize ETs and colonize the Milky Way.

There is no way this can be called “enlightened.” Science will be an irrelevant sideshow, unless it serves the above imperatives. Art is nowhere on the agenda. Beauty, majesty, and sublimity — all will be seen as meaningless in the new human space agenda. Eyes open, but vision blinded by the awe, we are still going naked into the cosmos.

Apollo Moon Landing Conspiracies

Is there a better example of 21st-century future shock than the endless conspiracy theories that NASA faked the moon landings? With the help of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, no less! It’s not that the conspiracy theorists are merely crazy, it’s that the success of Apollo taps into their existential dread that they’re not as cosmically special as they think they are. That we know NASA went to the moon is explained here in Medium.

Some Apollo conspiracy theorists believe Stanley Kubrick filmed the Apollo moon landings after he finished 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Pseudoscience and Paranormal Worldviews

Pseudoscience and anti-science are proliferating—from fundamentalists to flat-Earthers, creationists to Apollo conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers to “Ancient Alien” theorists. The belief in Ancient Aliens is fast becoming a new space religion. Meanwhile, creationist space warriors are already in the American White House, in the form of VP Mike Pence. That’s no way to flourish in space. In fact, it’s a prescription for a future shock fuck-up!

In terms of popular space narrative, Apollo has been replaced by Ancient Aliens.

The Weaponization/Militarization of Space

China, Russia, and the United States are very busy weaponizing and militarizing space, preparing to wage war for resources and religious colonization of the moon and Mars, while keeping open the distinct possibility of nuclear war on our home planet. The Cold War is back and getting hotter. A future shock fuck-up is possible. There’s a reason Star Wars is so popular. The human species seems to love war!

How can this be remotely sane? Did the superpowers forget Neil Armstrong’s famous line: “…. one giant leap for mankind”?

Terraforming Mars and Strip-Mining the Moon

Terraforming Mars and strip-mining the moon for products to consume on Earth are perfect examples of humanity’s cosmic narcissism and a surefire prescription for war in space. None of these plans will make life better on Earth. Elon Musk says we need a backup planet for our species, but he’s philosophically off-base. If we can’t protect and care for our own planet, then what gives us the cosmic right to terraform Mars into a suburb of Earth? Nothing other than our cosmic narcissism and a backward 19th century industrial vision of plunder and pollution.

Why not treat celestial bodies with reverence and admiration for their beauty and majesty, like we do with national parks? Instead of warriors and strip-miners, we should send artists, scientists, ecologists, and philosophers to Mars and the moon.

Terraforming and strip-mining. The 19th century vision of the future in space.

The Anthropocene

Toffler says future shock “arises from the superimposition of a new culture on an old one.” We see that happening right now with regard to climate disruption and the Anthropocene, the new epoch in which humanity has imposed its industrial consumer society on the rest of the planet — thus transforming the Earth’s surface and living systems. As our planet hurtles through the cosmos, we indeed face an entirely new level of “eco-technological development,” along with rising C02 emissions, sprawling landfills, polluted and plastic-filled oceans. A planetary future shock is coming and it visible from space via satellites and space stations.

The glow of the human epoch: The Anthropocene.

Toffler: Countering Future Shock in Space

With clear foresight, Toffler sensed the post-Apollo challenge and sketched out possible first steps in uniting humans. What follows are some of the key next steps in Future Shock and how they have not been realized.

Integration to Counter Social Fragmentation

Toffler wrote: We have the opportunity to introduce additional stability points and rituals into the society, such as new holidays, pageants and games. Such mechanisms could not only provide a backdrop of continuity in everyday life, but serve to integrate societies, and cushion them somewhat against the fragmenting impact of super-industrialism. We might, for example, create holidays to honor Galileo or Mozart, Einstein or Cezanne.

Can we even imagine some kind of social unity in the aftermath of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Unity seems impossible, precisely because social media cultivate tribes, create echo chambers, and keep humanity at the center of the universe, the center of everything meaningful and valuable—the perfect consolation for the discoveries of the Hubble telescope.

Celebrating Unity Among Humanity

Toffler wrote: We might create a global pageantry based on man’s conquest of outer space. Even now the succession of space launchings and capsule retrievals is beginning to take on a kind of ritual dramatic pattern. Millions stand transfixed as the countdown begins and the mission works itself out. For at least a fleeting instant, they share a realization of the oneness of humanity and its potential competence in the face of the universe.

Rather than rituals celebrating the “unity” and “oneness” of humanity, we have Star Wars openings and superhero films, where Gods-in-human-form save us from the monsters of the universe.

A Global Holiday Honoring Apollo 11

Toffler wrote: By regularizing such events and by greatly adding to the pageantry that surrounds them, we can weave them into the ritual framework of the new society and use them as sanity preserving points of temporal reference. Certainly, July 20, the day Astronaut Armstrong took “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” ought to be made into an annual global celebration of the unity of man.

When I read the Apollo 11 holiday idea, my jaw dropped in amazement. Toffler is absolutely correct. Rather than a global holiday celebrating Apollo 11, we have proliferating Apollo conspiracy theories claiming the great achievement is bogus, along with the transient enthusiasms of Oscars, Super Bowls, and World Cups.

“Future Shock” vs. “Explosion of Awareness”

From Apollo to the Hubble telescope, NASA’s grand achievements have collectively destroyed the pre-Copernican narratives humans use to explain their origins and destinies. Toffler was correct—fear, denial, and ignorance are prevailing. We need a new philosophy that builds on our profound connections to the Milky Way, the Hubble images, and seeing Earth from space. Astronauts who’ve seen Earth from space experience deep feelings of awe, transcendence, and a primal connection to the universe. Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell described the experience as an “explosion of awareness.” Given that we are one way the universe knows itself, this “explosion of awareness” provides an exciting basis for a 21st century philosophy, a new worldview to counter the future shock on Earth and in space. We longer have to go “naked into the cosmos.”

We need a philosophy worthy of the Hubble Space Telescope.

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Barry Vacker’s recent books include Specter of the Monolith (2017), which presents a radical new space philosophy inspired by 2001. He is also co-editor of Black Mirror and Critical Media Theory (2018), the first media/technology studies book about the series Black Mirror.