Illustration of futuristic laser
Shawna X.

The Library of Possible Futures

Since the release of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock 50 years ago, the allure of speculative nonfiction has remained the same: We all want to know what’s coming next.

The pandemic, which has seemed stranger than science fiction in so many ways, has occasioned much debate about the role of speculative fiction in imagining the future: The possibilities of such stories have felt, to some, like answers amid uncertainty, even as others have questioned the limits of dystopian visions. But perhaps an equally relevant literature to revisit is speculative nonfiction: the constantly evolving genre we might call “pop futurism.”

What are the telltale signs of a “pop futurist” book? It sketches out possible tomorrows, highlights emergent trends to watch, and promises ways for even nonspecialists to apply these insights to their own life and work. It’s likely to sport an arresting cover, a style dating back to the work that arguably pioneered this genre and still casts a long shadow. Future Shock—the book by Alvin Toffler that helped popularize “futurism” as a concept in mainstream culture and business, and which recently marked its 50th anniversary—was printed in multiple colorways so that it would jar the eye as a neon rainbow beaming off bookstore shelves. Other titles have kinetic lettering that judders off the page, as if traveling at high speed. The writing’s tone usually sits somewhere between start-up pitch and self-help mantra, with the oracular confidence of the returned time traveler.

Though their contents have varied over time, refracted through the concerns of each era, the appeal of pop-futurist books remains the same: We all want to know what’s coming next. They tap the ancient power of the future to fascinate and frighten, in a way that both soothes and feeds our contemporary anxieties. Like all good pop-science or self-help texts, they vow to separate signal from noise and give us a bit of comforting control (however illusory) in a chaotic world. They offer clues about where the future is heading, no matter how muddled the present looks.

But the most important promise underlying much of the canon inaugurated by Future Shock is that with the right foresight, readers can not only prepare for what’s coming, but also profit from it. This whiff of insider trading presents the future as a commodity, an exercise in temporal arbitrage in which knowledge of new developments yields a financial edge. It’s no coincidence that the authors of such works have historically skewed white, male, and capitalist in mindset; many of them work as futurists, consulting in the gray area between business, government, technology, advertising, and science fiction.

This mercantile approach has dominated pop futurism, though it may be changing. This past year saw an astonishing number of new entrants to the field—strangely apt at a time of deep uncertainty about what will happen tomorrow, never mind the next decade. Could such a historically swaggering genre still provide some solace, let alone true insights?

To answer that question, we should go back to Future Shock. Though its titular phrase may be only fuzzily familiar today, when it was published in July 1970, it quickly became a global phenomenon. The book sold millions of copies, was adapted as an Orson Welles–narrated documentary, and inspired a Curtis Mayfield song. It helped spawn a publishing genre that continues today, and it made Toffler a celebrity, launching his decades-long career as an author, a pundit, and a consultant. Rereading Future Shock, you can see how it not only planted the seeds for the PowerPoint prophecies of TED Talk culture and shaped an industry of corporate futurists-for-hire, but also framed our very vision of the future.

As a physical object, it was striking. It was thick, some 500 pages even before its voluminous index. It was bright and, well, futuristic, down to its plump yet robotic title font based on MICR typefaces, which had been designed to be read by both humans and machines. The futurist Scott Smith recalls seeing the chubby paperback on his parents’ nightstand when he was growing up and finding it both scary and enticing; he half-jokingly credits it with leading him into the field. Alvin Toffler, the author printed on that indelible cover, was a Brooklyn-born journalist who got his start covering progressive politics and the labor movement with his wife, Heidi (née Adelaide Farrell); they were collaborators on a trilogy of works starting with Future Shock, but she didn’t receive a formal author credit until a later book. That even a future-facing power couple was surprisingly retrograde in this regard shows that we are all susceptible to the blind spots of our time—as was Future Shock.

3 books published by Toffler

The book’s central argument may be recognizable, perhaps because Toffler argued it so convincingly that it became a cliché: The world was changing at an exponentially accelerating pace, leaving humans in a state of “shock” and struggling to keep up. At least in the countries of the developing West, society experienced a profound historical shift as the industrial revolution gave way to information economies; that shift was in turn sped up by new technologies of mass communication. Confronted by a tsunami of change, most people were anxious, disoriented, and confused. The book sought to diagnose this novel condition, to show its “sources and symptoms,” and to ponder possible ways to mitigate its effects.

The chief strategy for combatting future shock, according to Toffler, was to double down on the future itself. He called for government committees to fund large-scale future studies, for science-fiction writers to bring more methodical forecasting to their stories, for American schools to teach future-oriented courses (as a counterpoint to history classes). “To create such images and thereby soften the impact of future shock,” he wrote, “we must begin by making speculation about the future respectable.” This was not a new challenge; even H. G. Wells had taken pains to emphasize that the systematic attempt to project potential futures based on contemporary data could be a science, not mere fortune-telling. But Toffler’s book pushed futurism into the mainstream, not just in the realm of militarism (i.e., the type of nuclear-scenario planning pioneered at the RAND Corporation) but also in the “soft” spaces of everyday life, from “politics and playgrounds to skydiving and sex.”

Beyond its substance, though, Future Shock resonated just as much for its style. Taking a cue from the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, whose ability to deliver big concepts in snappy sound bites was obviously an inspiration, Toffler made the medium the message. His tone is equal parts alarmed and energized, professorial and breathless. He speaks of a “fire storm of change,” the “electric impact” of new concepts, populations “rocketing”; his language emulates the propulsive speed he’s describing. He shares catchy terms like ad-hocracy; he makes the future the most spectacular show on Earth, and you’d be foolish to look away. Even when Toffler depicts the potential dangers of accelerated change—offshore drilling accidents, for example, or decision-making algorithms—and proclaims the necessity of regulation, he believes that solutions must come from a thorough orientation toward future transformations. “The power of the technological drive is too great to be stopped by Luddite paroxysms,” he writes, and the book, despite its occasional cautionary tone, intoxicatingly sets the terms of its own worldview. “Is all this exaggerated?” he famously asks, before answering his own question. “I think not.”

If Future Shock’s forceful style made it a best seller, its success made way for an entire genre that evolved with the concerns of each subsequent era. One subset of pop-futurist books that quickly followed Future Shock focused heavily on forecasting consumer behavior, starting in the 1980s with John Naisbitt’s Megatrends franchise and, eventually, the grand doyenne of trendspotters Faith Popcorn’s Popcorn Report (1991). With the first dot-com boom, technology became a more overt theme, no doubt helped by Silicon Valley’s self-image as a place where the future is made: This next phase of the genre prioritized innovations in hardware and software, and some titles began to explore the wildest technological fringes, such as Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), and Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future (2011). But whether business-banal or cyber-gnostic, the classic pop-futurist canon presupposes an audience who wants to disrupt industries while preserving the status quo. Even futurists like Kurzweil, one of the most recognizable of the current era and an heir to Toffler, present concepts that seem revolutionary—the singularity, the possibility of immortality—in language that is bounded by individualist, entrepreneurial thinking. Threaded through it all is the logic of optimizing everything, even our souls.

For most of their history, these books largely reflected the limited perspectives and goals of corporate futurism. Often driven by the agendas of their clients, the futures business focuses on the problems it is hired to solve. Grown in the soil of management consulting and overheated start-ups, even when these works branch out into the wider world, they are more interested in, and can more easily imagine, interstellar colonies and eternal life—which offer an immediate road to profit for some—than an issue such as prison abolition. (A recent entrant with Toffler’s penchant for acceleration but none of his measured concern, The Future Is Faster Than You Think, written by the X Prize founder Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, breathlessly describes how technologies such as AI will lead humanity to “experience more upheaval and create more wealth than we have in the past hundred years.” You can probably guess who gets the upheaval, and who gets the wealth. Problems such as climate change, it insists, can be dealt with via ever-evolving gadgetry: cheaper solar panels, wildfire-fighting drones.)

Still, as the discipline and definition of “futures thinking” transforms, expanding through different voices, geographies, and ideological frameworks, the pop-futurist book is transforming along with it, sometimes challenging Toffler’s footsteps, if not taking a new path altogether. Last year saw the release of After Shock, an official tribute to Future Shock: The anthology featured homages and, notably, a few critiques, by more than 100 contemporary futurists and thinkers. Representing a step in a different direction, How to Future: Leading and Sense-Making in an Age of Hyperchange shares strategies about how to manage and create change in various contexts, far beyond just the commercial or technological realm. Written by Scott Smith and the sci-fi writer Madeline Ashby, it admirably attempts to open up the “futuring toolkit” for diverse audiences and goals, illustrating the application of methodologies such as scenario planning, which has its roots in Cold War militarism, in fields such as nonprofit management and public health. The case studies and depictions of process are illuminating, though the level of detail may verge on the academic for the reader who might not be applying this as a practical handbook anytime soon.

The oft-cited concept of “long-term thinking” also pops up in several recent books as a crucial tool for addressing a different existential threat: the climate emergency. In The Good Ancestor, the philosopher Roman Krznaric calmly calls for a reorientation toward the future, not to benefit us (as is typically the pitch of the pop-futurist book), but to benefit our far-off descendants. He uses the term cathedral thinking to describe epic projects that will not be completed within our lifetimes, but that are crucial to start now—similar to the work of generations who built medieval cathedrals that only their great-grandchildren would see finished. If Future Shock and its ilk crystallized the image of the future as a great wave roaring toward us, inevitable and crushing, the central metaphor throughout Krznaric’s book (which sometimes reads as though you’re wandering through a hushed forest) is the acorn. The point is not just to, say, plant trees (though literal reforestation is indeed described as a vital long-term project), but to emphasize the agency of the present moment and the potential, however imperfect, to influence the future.

This theme is perhaps most inventively explored in pop-futurist projects that go beyond the confines of the book entirely. One is Afro-Rithms From the Future, a card game that challenges players to imagine future scenarios with an explicit focus on issues of social justice and inequality. The game has been in closed-testing mode; demos were offered at UNESCO’s Futures Literacy Summit in December, and a public beta version will be released soon. It was developed by a team including Ahmed Best, a futurist, an actor, and an artist, and Lonny Brooks, an associate professor of communication at California State University, East Bay, who works with a number of futurist outfits. The game draws on Afrofuturist thought and art to encourage radical visions of a more just world, and group discussion to model the types of present-day changes that could lead us there. The cosmic, jewel-toned cards are inviting, a vivid contrast to the blue-laser graphics that too often are a default “future” aesthetic, but like any good talisman, they need a specific process to unlock their potential—the collaborative gameplay itself. Unlike a linear book, interactive card decks and collective storytelling projects may best embody the strange, mutable, participatory ways the actual future unfolds.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic surged across the world in early 2020, the catastrophic threats facing the planet—climate change, rising nationalism, systemic inequality, technology that is creating more problems than it solves—had shattered any sense of a stable tomorrow. Our default image of the future has become far more Children of Men than The Jetsons, and even our stock cyberpunk dystopias have started to seem quaint. But as the faintest of silver linings, perhaps this is the year when we’ll be able to see most clearly that we need an entirely new way of talking about the future if we are to shape it into something equitable and sustainable for all.

Now, just as in 1970, the future is made by intricate interactions of people, systems, communities, material and environmental conditions—and by the stories that influence those relationships. This new chapter of pop futurism shows its enduring appeal as a familiar dialect, even if the message it carries is now an urgently different one. It might still have the potential to illustrate new visions of the future for a healthier world, but it needs to feel as vivid and magnetic as Future Shock did 50 years ago. As Toffler and his acolytes once made the accelerated, profit-driven future dazzling, the next generation of thinkers is trying to reconcile this paradox—to conjure slower, more restorative, community-driven futures that are just as irresistible.