Half a century ago, Alvin Toffler published a book “about what happens to people when they are overwhelmed by change.” Future Shock became a 1970 chart-topper.
Toffler’s phrase future shock tells us something of the history of cultural anxiety. It also speaks to our response to change now in 2017, the very adolescence of the 21st century, when to be overwhelmed by change has become the standing condition of modernity.
Toffler’s book begat an industry, lodged in no small part in eager business and tech programs, where it has become a commonplace to speak of futurists, meaning people who specialize in the study of our response to rapid change.
Reference books now encode futurist as one whose business is futuring. An aspect of futuring is visioning.
A 2015 article in The Atlantic asks why more women aren’t futurists, which would of course require them to be futuring, as well as visioning a lot more than those who count such things imagine women are.
Some readers will call futuring and visioning examples of verbing, making verbs out of nouns, which sounds innocent enough. But I admit that when I hear futuring I’m torn between imagining a breathless TED talk and a street-front fortune teller’s window.
A century ago, this group of terms signified differently. Futurism — or in Italian, futurismo — is the early-20th-century art movement that celebrated speed, machines, and violence, sometimes in absurdist juxtapositions. Marinetti, a famous futurist, held forth on many subjects, including food. He hated pasta, for example, because he thought it slowed people down, and he envisioned a future without it.
With a rapidity that Marinetti might have admired, we’ve gone beyond futuring all the way to the verb form to future. “Let’s future it, Bob.” To future in this instance seems to mean postpone.
Greg Britton at Johns Hopkins University Press, and one of my informants on such things, tells me he’s also heard the verbal form parking lot, as in “Yes, Ann, we’re going to parking lot that project.” (Presumably in LA this would be “Yes, Ann, we’re going to valet parking lot that project.”)
What do early-20th-century Italian futurism and our up-to-the-minute analytic anxiety about futuring have in common? At least a triumphalist idea of smashing models and seeing more clearly.
Seeing clearly is, after all, what a clairvoyant is supposed to be able to do. That’s what the word means.
I’m less concerned with policing the line between a) knowing which way the wind is blowing and b) having second sight. But futurists have had an awful lot of air time.
So what are our alternatives? No one yet dares identify as a pastist — the word doesn’t even look right — but it would mean someone who analyzes things that have happened and uses that insight — clair or not — to help tackle the problems of the moment.
Oh wait, we do have a word for that profession. It’s historian.
Most are too modest to call themselves futurists, but historians, who know how to think about complex things, are worth listening to — now more than ever, when we need an understanding of history to help us sort out an enormous mess we just can’t future.
If you’re a futurist or planning to become one, put a stack of works by bona fide historians — not crackpot “real histories” by reality celebrities — on your bedside table, or download them to your Kindle. Give real history books to the people you love. Even those you only like.
You don’t need to hear from Faulkner or Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire yet once again to know that history isn’t going away, any more than time is.
If you think we’re running out of time, or future, in which to solve our dilemmas, you’ve got plenty of company. With apologies to Walt Kelly: “We have met the future and it is us.”
You can follow me on Twitter @WmGermano. I promise not to use all caps.