Brain Pickings

Future Shock: Alvin Toffler’s Vintage Techno-Paranoia, Narrated by Orson Welles

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What the dawn of computing has to do with Herbie Hancock and humanoid robotics.

In 1970, sociologist and futurist Alvin Toffler, the Ray Kurzweil of his day, wrote a book entitled Future Shock, which proposed a certain distressing psychological state , induced by change so rapid the human mind can’t digest it, and introduced the notion of “information overload” for the first time. In 1972, the book, already a bestseller, was adapted into a little-known documentary of the same name, narrated by Orson Welles. Exploring the shift from industrial society to what Toffler calls “super-industrial society,” the film tackles notions of consumerism and information overload — think BBC’s The Century of the Self meets Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows.

The film is now available on YouTube in five parts, offering a fascinating glimpse of a conflicted society on the brink of a new information era, the very cultural landscape we now inhabit.

What do we buy, where do we go, what shoud we think? The make, the model, the price… Buy now! Keep up with the latest! Don’t fall behind! The pre-cooked, pre-packaged, plastic-wrapped instant society. We’re faced with so many choices, so many decisions. We have to make them so quickly. None of us can escape the pressures. That’s what Future Shock is all about.”

A chemistry professor recently stated that he couldn’t pass today’s examinations because at least two thirds of the questions require knowledge that didn’t exist when he graduated from Oxford in the early 30s.”

So wide-spanning was the influence of Toffler’s work that it inspired an entire Curtis Mayfield album, the title track of which was even famously covered by Herbie Hancock.

The rate of change reflecting the fact that where we live means less and less as we breed a new race of nomads. Few suspect how massive, wide-spread and uprooting these migrations are.”

As the pace of technology accelerates, as the pieces are laid into place, the pattern seems clear: We might create an artificial man. As work proceeds on the brain, it may one day be possible to combine all the elements into a life-like duplication of flesh and blood. The momentum is established, but the direction is up to us. Is there danger in the path we are taking? What happens to the definition of man, who is he? What is he?”

Considering present scientific knowledge, we may soon be able to create carbon copies of human beings. Imagine the implications — to duplicate a human being, genetically, down to the last detail.”

Our children. Will we save them from future shock, or are they destined to suffer the same illness that rocks today’s society? The directions we choose have consequences not merely for us. The choices we make will determine the nature of their world. There is still time.”

The film, darkly dystopian and oozing techno-paranoia, is a valuable reminder that — as our friend Nick Bilton keenly points out — societies have always feared new technology but ultimately adapted to it. Or, better yet, adapted it to their needs. Future Shock is an excellent companion to contemporary books tackling the same issue, such as Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, putting our modern fears in perspective and grounding our present techno-paranoia in its proper historical context.

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An Animated Tribute to the 10 Ruble Banknote

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From Russian animator Irina Neustroeva comes Inflation of Animation — a wonderful stop-motion short film commemorating the 10 ruble banknote. So negligible is the banknote’s value — roughly equivalent to $0.35 — that the denomination was deemed undeserving of paper currency, taken out of circulation and demoted to a replacement coin of the same value, a common shift in many post-communist Eastern European countries that have suffered from inflation-induced devaluation of their native currency.

For more banknote creativity, don’t miss The Art of Money — a roundup of 5 artists’ incredible collages and sculptures made out of paper currency.

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Transit Maps of the World: A Design History of Transit Systems

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We have a severe cartographic obsession, which peaked last week with these carefully curated 7 must-read books on maps, and a soft spot for subway map design. Naturally, Mark Ovenden’s Transit Maps of the World hits the bull’s eye — an ambitious and first of its kind exploration of the design history of the world’s rapid-transit systems, featuring current and historic maps of 200 cities around the world.

Divided into six sections based on the evolution of the maps, the book offers vintage treasures dating as far back as the 19th century alongside the latest proposed subway systems around the globe in a rare blend of design candy and historical context.

Spread images by Robin Benson

Detailed yet digestible, Transit Maps of the World is as much a stunning design treat as it is a fascinating read for scholars of urbanism and cultural difference.

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Retrofuturism Revisited: The Past Imagines the Future

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Flying cars! Spinning buildings! Voice AND color! …or what Disney has to do with Eve.

Last year, we looked at the 2020 Project, which invited some of today’s sharpest thinkers to imagine tomorrow. But how will their visions look to future generations? To get a taste for it, we looked to the past: Here are 6 charming visions for the future, from the past — a delightful exercise in retrofuturism that embodies humanity’s chronic blend of boundless imagination, solipsistic foolishness and hopeless optimism.

THE FUTURE OF TRAVEL

In 1936, Japanese magazine Shonen Club published World Transportation Invention Competition — an illustrated series envisioning the future of transportation, based on concepts by inventors from around the world. From high-speed monorail to tank-like battle boats to a car with spherical wheels, the images embody a fascinating blend of technological urgency and artistic imagination.

Mountain monorail -- Kikuzo Ito, 1936

A powerful airplane propeller balances a precarious-looking two-wheel bodice, while a tail fin keeps the train upright and stable.

sphere-wheeled car -- Reiji Iizuka, 1936

Based on a concept by a German inventor, the vehicle's oversized rubbery tires promise a smoother ride than the conventional tires and act as a cushion in the event of an accident.

WALT DISNEY’S TOMORROWLAND

Last month, we featured Walt Disney’s Man In Space — an entire series of retrofuturist visions for space exploration, part of his Tomorrowland program. In the following mashup, digital artist David Phillips remixes footage from the program to capture Disney’s legendary optimism about the future.

CLOTHING OF THE FUTURE

In the 1930s, Pathetone Weekly asked leading fashion designers to imagine women’s clothing in the year 2000. From an electric belt that adapts the body to climatic changes to a wedding dress made of glass to an electric headlight “to help her find an honest man,” the Eve of tomorrow is as delightfully retrofuturistic as they come.

As for [the man], if he matters at all, there won’t be any shaving, colors, ties or pockets. He’ll be fitted with a telephone, a radio, and containers for coins, keys and candy for cuties.”

Just about describes your average Brooklyn hipster.

Thanks, Meredith

HALLUCINATORY ARCHITECTURE OF THE FUTURE

Dark Roasted Blend, one of our favorite portals for eclectic interestingness, has a wonderful roundup of “hallucinatory architecture of the future” — architectural retrofuturist urbanism that leans on the side of the far-fetched.

More here and here.

VISIONS OF THE FUTURE

Vision as well as sound, oh my! When British telecommunication giant BT imagined the future of communication technology — from videoconferencing to high-definition document transmission — they made their most conceptually innovative proposition, the notion of telecommuting, with a kind of facetiousness most ironic in the context of today’s remote-everything workplace.

Given all these facilities, the businessman will scarcely need to go to his office at all. He can do all his work in the comfort of his own home.”

TELEFUTURE

In 1980, a TV segment entitled Telefuture envisions a world of television-based information services. While at its core lies a fascinating and, in retrospect, remarkably accurate exploration of the exponential progression of technology — including transmedia experiences that even modernity can’t get quite right, like Internet TV — the excitement and language used to describe technologies we now find primitive is a disarming source of amusement. We held it together quite admirably, until the vintage-voiced man described basic 8-bit diversions as “incredibly complex games” — at that point, through tears of laughter, we wonder how his vocabulary of superlatives would hold up against the latest Halo 3 or Guitar Hero.

But don’t think of it just as a receiver of programs from networks or local stations — it’s becoming a central display terminal, able to show pictures from a growing number of electronic sources, including traditional broadcast stations, 40 or more channels of cable television, video cassette recorders with timers to record programs to watch at your convenience, video disc machines that don’t record but play back records of films, specials and so on, and games people play, incredibly complex games now programmed into your sets by small cassettes or cards or memory discs.”

For some quality present-day retrofuturism, we highly recommend What’s Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science — a fantastic, and not necessarily fantastical, anthology of 18 essays by leading scientists across evolutionary biology, anthropology, neuroscience and psychology exploring the future of ethics and the human mind.

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