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BusinessDay: After 50 years the future is still shocking

The rate of technological change and innovation has made the role of futurists tricky

By Johan Steyn, 30 November 2021

Predicting the future is akin to a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that is not there. The “black cat” analogy has been in use for more than two centuries and a variety of quotes have been attributed to Charles Darwin, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Oscar Wilde and others.

There are some trends predicting what the effect of automation and machine cognition are likely to be, but for a large part we really don’t have a clue. The rate of technological change and innovation has made the role of futurists a tricky one. I think they are there to help us imagine possibilities more than act as predictors of anticipated realities.

Alvin Toffler wrote in 1970 about the “rental revolution” and the “demonopolisation of media”, predicting that the major media outlets will no longer be the custodians of opinion formation. Future Shock sold millions of copies and was translated into dozens of languages.

The self-trained social science scholar achieved international fame and his book is still in print. Many of Toffler’s predictions became a reality. Companies such as Uber and Airbnb created a world where the ownership of cars or even homes may be in decline, in what is referred to as “the sharing economy”.

His book anticipated that customer experience would become a major focus for organisations of all types. He foresaw a world where social media platforms such as Facebook and others would become more powerful in dispensing news and engineering public opinion than traditional print and television media outlets.

Last year, in celebrating the 50th anniversary of this important book, a hundred of today’s foremost futurists contributed essays reflecting Toffler’s predictions and offering a compelling view of what our future may look like. In After Shock: The World’s Foremost Futurists Reflect on 50 Years of Future Shock — and Look Ahead to the Next 50, the contributors focus on, among other things, the concept of “adaptivity”.

It’s difficult for many people to keep up with today’s fast pace of change. Even in the face of rapid technological transformation, Future Shock anticipated that people are far more adaptable than we previously thought. Since publication of his book, the pace of change has dramatically accelerated, but we are more adaptive than we think we are.

According to Toffler, “cyborgs among us” will be the most significant transformation in the next few decades. Humans and machines were already intertwined when Future Shock was published. Brain-computer interface technology is still in its infancy and has yet to fulfil its potential, despite recent breakthroughs.

As a result of technological advancements, people will be separated into those who benefit and those who don’t. Between what will become two distinct human populations, biases and prejudices are inevitable. If you wait long enough, the words “future shock” will be redefined. As the pace of change in the future continues to accelerate, both individuals and groups will have to continually adapt and cope.

• Steyn is chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA.


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