Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Reading :: Future Shock

Future Shock
By Alvin Toffler

Inspired by some of David Ronfeldt's work, I've been reading some of Alvin Toffler's books. Like 1980's The Third Wave, 1970's Future Shock is a fascinating mix of straight-on predictions, near-misses, and way-off guesses that sound like the science fiction being written contemporaneously. Let's put the third category aside for the most part and concentrate on the things that Toffler got right - and what a 1970 perspective might tell us about changes at the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

Toffler defines "future shock" as "the disease of change" (p.2) and "the human response to overstimulation" (p.326). Like its namesake "culture shock," future shock describes a moment at which an individual's expected social cues no longer mean what s/he thinks they mean (p.11) - but with future shock, such moment occur because one's own culture is changing rapidly; you can't retreat to your own culture, enclave, or ex-pat community. Toffler portrays this accelerated pace of change as a characteristic of "super-industrialism" and points to transience as one symptom (p.17).

Transience manifests, for instance, in our relationship to artifacts: "Instead of being linked with a single object over a relatively long span of time, we are linked for brief periods with the succession of objects that supplant it" (p.55) - and here he gives examples such as disposable cigarette lighters and cardboard milk containers, which were relatively new developments in 1970. (Personally, I thought of increasingly rapid genre formation and hybridization.)

But Toffler also points to other aspects of transience that were stirring in the 1970s: apartments; increasing numbers of travel-related jobs; higher divorce rates; the breakdown of the extended family; the loss of lifetime employment. This last point leads to perhaps the most valuable discussion, the chapter on "ad-hocracy," in which Toffler argues that bureaucracies are doomed because workers are too transient and bureaucracies too inefficient and inflexible to survive the rapid change he was seeing. This is "the organization of the future": in it,
man will find himself [sic] liberated, a stranger in a new free-form world of kinetic organizations. In this alien landscape, his position will be constantly changing, fluid, and varied. And his organizational ties, like his ties with things, places, and people, will turn over at a frenetic and ever-accelerating pace. (p.125)
Since organizations are facing higher turnover, he says, the resulting high change in organizational relations dooms the bureaucracy (p.128) by destroying fixed lines of authority and loyalty. The most dramatic symbol of this trend is project or task-force management, in which "teams are assembled to solve short-term problems" (p.132). Novel problems, such as ones involving innovation or customization, require novel organizational structures (p.135). Such ad-hoc teams don't necessarily replace permanent functional structures, Toffler concedes - but they do change those structures (p.135). Simultaneously, traditional chains of command are breaking or being sidestepped, replaced with horizontal communication, (p.137), because vertical communication requires too many steps to convey information (p.139). Furthermore, specialists don't fit into traditional chains of command. Sounding exactly like Drucker, Toffler argues that these specialists are
in vital fields so narrow that often the men on top have difficulty understanding them. Increasingly, managers have to rely on the judgment of these experts. ... Such men are assuming a new decision-making function. (p.140)
So "managers are losing their monopoly on decision-making" (p.140).

"Each age," Toffler adds, "produces a form of organization appropriate to its own tempo" (p.143) - a theme that he later develops in The Third Wave and that Ronfeldt takes up in his TIMN work. And in the age that Toffler describes, "Executives and managers will serve as coordinators between the various transient work teams. They will be skilled in understanding the jargon of different groups of specialists, and they will communicate across groups, translating and interpreting the language of one into the language of another" (p.144).

So, he concludes, "this is a picture of the coming Ad-hocracy, the fast-moving, information-rich, kinetic organization of the future, filled with transient cells and extremely mobile individuals. From this sketch, moreover, it is possible to deduce some of the characteristics of the human beings who will populate the new organizations - and who, to some extent, are already to be found in the prototype organizations of today" (p.144). Whereas bureaucracies were characterized by "permanence, hierarchy, and a division of labor," demanding people who could work within those constraints (pp.144-145), the ad-hocracy demands workers who are loyal to their professions rather than the organizations through which they cycle (p.146); able to work in interdisciplinary, cross-functional groups (p.147); oriented to the task or project rather than the job (p.148); entrepreneurial (p.148); risk-seeking and innovative (p.150); moving among slots in the organization (p.150); extremely adaptable in terms of systems, arrangements, locations (p.150); and in sum,
basically uncommitted to any organization. He is willing to employ his skills and creative energies to solve problems with equipment provided by the organization, and within temporary groups established by it. But he does so only as long as the problems interest him. He is committed to his own career, his own self-fulfillment. (p.149).
It's hard for me to express how closely this assessment seems to align with much more recent literature in knowledge work, communication, project management, and fourth-generation warfare, as well as some of the things I've seen in my own studies. Certainly I could pick holes if I wanted to get into the particulars, but the overall direction has been vindicated.

Certainly Toffler isn't as accurate in some of his other predictions. He argues that people will live in underwater colonies well before 2000 AD (p.191) and that we'll genetically tailor the human race to produce "girls with super-mammaries" (p.201 - and here I wonder if all of Toffler's books include predictions about mammaries). He also predicts the death of college degrees, credits, and majors as we know them (p.273).

On the other hand, he predicts that governments will condemn people to death and transplant the condemned's organs into the bodies of more deserving citizens (p.206), a theme that doesn't just show up in Larry Niven's novels but also in transplant ethics discussions. He predicts, though overhypes, the experience economy (p.226). He predicts the reconfiguration of families to include childless couples, single parents, gay couples, and blended families (Ch.11).

All in all, this 39-year-old book is still a fascinating read, and in parts - especially the chapter on ad-hocracies - it's surprisingly current. If you're interested in organizational change in particular, I recommend it.

1 comment:

David Ronfeldt said...

i'm delighted to see this reprise about this book by toffler. i think it, more than any other single book, inspired me to start wondering about the information revolution, at a time when i was a latin american area specialist.

ad-hocracy remains a curious term. i have always wished that toffer had coined a term that referred to networks instead. he helped pioneer thinking in network terms -- but that term itself is oddly absent in his early writings.