13 Mar People of the Future (Alvin Toffler)
People of the Future
The inhabitants of the earth are divided not only by race, nation, religion or ideology, but also, in a sense, by their position in time. Examining the present populations of the globe, we find a tiny group who still live, hunting and food-foraging, as men did millennia ago. Others, the vast majority of mankind, depend not on bear-hunting or berry-picking, but on agriculture. They live, in many respects, as their ancestors did centuries ago. These two groups taken together compose perhaps 70 percent of all living human beings. They are the people of the past.
By contrast, somewhat more than 2.5 percent of the earth’s population can be found in the industrialized societies. They lead modern lives. They are products of the first half of the twentieth century, molded by mechanization and mass education, brought up with lingering memories of their own country’s agricultural past. They are, in effect, the people of the present.
The remaining two or three percent of the world’s population, however, are no longer people of either the past or present. For within the main centers of technological and cultural change, in Santa Monica, California and Cambridge, Massachusetts, in New York and London and Tokyo, are millions of men and women who can already be said to be living the way of life of the future. Trendmakers often without being aware of it, they live today as millions more will live tomorrow. And while they account for only a few percent of the global population today, they already form an international nation of the future in our midst. They are the advance agents of man, the earliest citizens of the world-wide super-industrial society now in the throes of birth.
What makes them different from the rest of mankind? Certainly, they are richer, better educated, more mobile than the majority of the human race. They also live longer. But what specifically marks the people of the future is the fact that they are already caught up in a new, stepped-up pace of life. They “live faster” than the people around them.
Some people are deeply attracted to this highly accelerated pace of life—going far out of their way to bring it about and feeling anxious, tense or uncomfortable when the pace slows. They want desperately to be “where the action is.” (Indeed, some hardly care what the action is, so long as it occurs at a suitably rapid clip.) James A. Wilson has found, for example, that the attraction for a fast pace of life is one of the hidden motivating forces behind the much publicized “brain-drain”—the mass migration of European scientists to the United States and Canada. After studying 517 English scientists and engineers who migrated, Wilson concluded that it was not higher salaries or better research facilities alone, but also the quicker tempo that lured them. The migrants, he writes, “are not put off by what they indicate as the ‘faster pace’ of North America; if anything, they appear to prefer this pace to others.” Similarly, a white veteran of the civil rights movement in Mississippi reports: “People who are used to a speeded-up urban life … can’t take it for long in the rural South. That’s why people are always driving somewhere for no particular reason. Traveling is the drug of The Movement.” Seemingly aimless, this driving about is a compensation mechanism. Understanding the powerful attraction that a certain pace of life can exert on the individual helps explain much otherwise inexplicable or “aimless” behavior.
But if some people thrive on the new, rapid pace, others are fiercely repelled by it and go to extreme lengths to “get off the merry-go-round,” as they put it. To engage at all with the emergent super-industrial society means to engage with a faster moving world than ever before. They prefer to disengage, to idle at their own speed. It is not by chance that a musical entitled Stop the World—I Want to Get Off was a smash hit in London and New York a few seasons ago.
The quietism and search for new ways to “opt out” or “cop out” that characterizes certain (though not all) hippies may be less motivated by their loudly expressed aversion for the values of a technological civilization than by an unconscious effort to escape from a pace of life that many find intolerable. It is no coincidence that they describe society as a “ratrace”— a term that refers quite specifically to pacing.
Older people are even more likely to react strongly against any further acceleration of change. There is a solid mathematical basis for the observation that age often correlates with conservatism: time passes more swiftly for the old.
When a fifty-year-old father tells his fifteen-year-old son that he will have to wait two years before he can have a car of his own, that interval of 730 days represents a mere 4 percent of the father’s lifetime to date. It represents over 13 percent of the boy’s lifetime. It is hardly strange that to the boy the delay seems three or four times longer than to the father. Similarly, two hours in the life of a four-year-old may be the felt equivalent of twelve hours in the life of her twenty-four-year-old mother. Asking the child to wait two hours for a piece of candy may be the equivalent of asking the mother to wait fourteen hours for a cup of coffee.
There may be a biological basis as well, for such differences in subjective response to time. “With advancing age,” writes psychologist John Cohen of the University of Manchester, “the calendar years seem progressively to shrink. In restrospect every year seems shorter than the year just completed, possibly as a result of the gradual slowing down of metabolic processes.” In relation to the slowdown of their own biological rhythms, the world would appear to be moving faster to older people, even if it were not.
Whatever the reasons, any acceleration of change that has the effect of crowding more situations into the experiential channel in a given interval is magnified in the perception of the older person. As the rate of change in society speeds up, more and more older people feel the difference keenly. They, too, become dropouts, withdrawing into a private environment, cutting off as many contacts as possible with the fast-moving outside world, and, finally, vegetating until death. We may never solve the psychological problems of the aged until we find the means—through biochemistry or re-education—to alter their time sense, or to provide structured enclaves for them in which the pace of life is controlled, and even, perhaps, regulated according to a “sliding scale” calendar that reflects their own subjective perception of time.
Much otherwise incomprehensible conflict—between generations, between parents and children, between husbands and wives—can be traced to differential responses to the acceleration of the pace of life. The same is true of clashes between cultures.
Each culture has its own characteristic pace. F. M. Esfandiary, the Iranian novelist and essayist, tells of a collision between two different pacing systems when German engineers in the pre-World War II period were helping to construct a railroad in his country. Iranians and Middle Easterners generally take a far more relaxed attitude toward time than Americans or Western Europeans. When Iranian work crews consistently showed up for work ten minutes late, the Germans, themselves super-punctual and always in a hurry, fired them in droves. Iranian engineers had a difficult time persuading them that by Middle Eastern standards the workers were being heroically punctual, and that if the firings continued there would soon be no one left to do the work but women and children.
This indifference to time can be maddening to those who are fast-paced and clockconscious. Thus Italians from Milan or Turin, the industrial cities of the North, look down upon the relatively slow-paced Sicilians, whose lives are still geared to the slower rhythms of agriculture. Swedes from Stockholm or Göteborg feel the same way about Laplanders. Americans speak with derision of Mexicans for whom mañana is soon enough. In the United States itself, Northerners regard Southerners as slow-moving, and middle-class Negroes condemn working-class Negroes just up from the South for operating on “C.P.T.”—Colored People’s Time. In contrast, by comparison with almost anyone else, white Americans and Canadians are regarded as hustling, fast-moving go-getters.
Populations sometimes actively resist a change of pace. This explains the pathological antagonism toward what many regard as the “Americanization” of Europe. The new technology on which super-industrialism is based, much of it blue-printed in American research laboratories, brings with it an inevitable acceleration of change in society and a concomitant speed-up of the pace of individual life as well. While anti-American orators single out computers or Coca-Cola for their barbs, their real objection may well be to the invasion of Europe by an alien time sense. America, as the spearhead of super-industrialism, represents a new, quicker, and very much unwanted tempo.
Precisely this issue is symbolized by the angry outcry that has greeted the recent introduction of American-style drugstores in Paris. To many Frenchmen, their existence is infuriating evidence of a sinister “cultural imperialism” on the part of the United States. It is hard for Americans to understand so passionate a response to a perfectly innocent soda fountain. What explains it is the fact that at Le Drugstore the thirsty Frenchman gulps a hasty milkshake instead of lingering for an hour or two over an aperitif at an outdoor bistro. It is worth noticing that, as the new technology has spread in recent years, some 30,000 bistros have padlocked their doors for good, victims, in the words of Time magazine, of a “shortorderculture.” (Indeed, it may well be that the widespread European dislike for Time, itself, is not entirely political, but stems unconsciously from the connotation of its title. Time, with its brevity and breathless style, exports more than the American Way of Life. It embodies and exports the American Pace of Life.)
To understand why acceleration in the pace of life may prove disruptive and uncomfortable, it is important to grasp the idea of “durational expectancies.”
Man’s perception of time is closely linked with his internal rhythms. But his responses to time are culturally conditioned. Part of this conditioning consists of building up within the child a series of expectations about the duration of events, processes or relationships. Indeed, one of the most important forms of knowledge that we impart to a child is a knowledge of how long things last. This knowledge is taught, in subtle, informal and often unconscious ways. Yet without a rich set of socially appropriate durational expectancies, no individual could function successfully.
From infancy on the child learns, for example, that when Daddy leaves for work in the morning, it means that he will not return for many hours. (If he does, something is wrong; the schedule is askew. The child senses this. Even the family dog—having also learned a set of durational expectancies—is aware of the break in routine.) The child soon learns that “mealtime” is neither a one-minute nor a five-hour affair, but that it ordinarily lasts from fifteen minutes to an hour. He learns that going to a movie lasts two to four hours, but that a visit with the pediatrician seldom lasts more than one. He learns that the school day ordinarily lasts six hours. He learns that a relationship with a teacher ordinarily extends over a school year, but that his relationship with his grandparents is supposed to be of much longer duration. Indeed, some relationships are supposed to last a lifetime. In adult behavior, virtually all we do, from mailing an envelope to making love, is premised upon certain spoken or unspoken assumptions about duration.
It is these durational expectancies, different in each society but learned early and deeply ingrained, that are shaken up when the pace of life is altered.
This explains a crucial difference between those who suffer acutely from the accelerated pace of life and those who seem rather to thrive on it. Unless an individual has adjusted his durational expectancies to take account of continuing acceleration, he is likely to suppose that two situations, similar in other respects, will also be similar in duration. Yet the accelerative thrust implies that at least certain kinds of situations will be compressed in time. The individual who has internalized the principle of acceleration—who understands in his bones as well as his brain that things are moving faster in the world around him—makes an automatic, unconscious compensation for the compression of time. Anticipating that situations will endure less long, he is less frequently caught off guard and jolted than the person whose durational expectancies are frozen, the person who does not routinely anticipate a frequent shortening in the duration of situations.
In short, the pace of life must be regarded as something more than a colloquial phrase, a source of jokes, sighs, complaints or ethnic put-downs. It is a crucially important psychological variable that has been all but ignored. During past eras, when change in the outer society was slow, men could, and did, remain unaware of this variable. Throughout one’s entire lifetime the pace might vary little. The accelerative thrust, however, alters this drastically. For it is precisely through a step-up in the pace of life that the increased speed of broad scientific, technological and social change makes itself felt in the life of the individual. A great deal of human behavior is motivated by attraction or antagonism toward the pace of life enforced on the individual by the society or group within which he is embedded. Failure to grasp this principle lies behind the dangerous incapacity of education and psychology to prepare people for fruitful roles in a super-industrial society.