Skip to content →

Future Shock and Fast Trains

Here is a thoughtful obituary from NYT for a man and an idea: Alvin Toffler and his 1971 book, Future Shock. I say it’s an obituary for the idea as much as the man (Toffler died on June 27), because the shock’s worn off, and lately I’m feeling all we can do is strap in for interminable future nausea.

Speaking of nausea, the opening montage of this 1972 Future Shock documentary — narrated by Orson Welles — features some truly guttural synthesizers and provocative jump cuts between violence and riots. It would feel quaintly dystopian if we didn’t live in a time when snuff films widely circulated on mainstream US media lead to armed revolt against the police.

Anyway, the NYT profile neatly illustrates how Futurist forecasting, which was both a key propaganda tool and a useful legislative function during the Cold War, has been largely subsumed within the commodification of “innovation” best represented by Silicon Valley and its separatist, post-national world order. The brightest futurist minds in the West these days seem mainly preoccupied with building AI and imposing some stopgap ethical rules on its ascendance. Politically speaking, the problem of the future has been steadily exorcised from both sides of the US Federal government’s partisan agenda since the ’80s:

In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as the American government began to spend huge sums in the Cold War, futurists became the high priests of the coming age. Forecasting became institutionalized; research institutes like RAND, SRI and MITRE worked on long-range projections about technology, global politics and weaponry, and world leaders and businesses took their forecasts as seriously as news of the present day.

In 1972, the federal government even blessed the emerging field of futurism with a new research agency, the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which reviewed proposed legislation for its long-term effects. Futurists were optimistic about lawmakers’ new interest in the long term.


Newt Gingrich has long been enamored of science fiction — he wants to build a moon base. But when Mr. Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, became speaker of the House in 1995, he quickly shut down the Office of Technology Assessment. The government no longer had any place for futurists, and every decision about the future was viewed through the unforgiving lens of partisan politics.


“It is ridiculous that the United States is one of the only nations of our size and scope in the world that no longer has an office that is dedicated to rigorous, nonpartisan research about the future,” Ms. Webb said. “The fact that we don’t do that is insane.” Or, as Mr. Toffler put it in “Future Shock,” “Change is avalanching upon our heads and most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope with it.”

Yes, it is insane. Even on a cultural level, it seems we Americans are grotesquely unprepared to face the future, and will be at least until the weeping wounds of the past are addressed. We can’t escape from them into VR, and a real civil war would “disrupt” technological progress in a way not even the most hardcore Valley evangelist would find useful.

Pivoting to China, which has its own set of political problems vis-a-vis future shock (“historical nihilism”, “digital sovereignty”, et al), here are two things I read recently that demonstrate how much more prepared it is to mitigate some of the more potentially catastrophic future shockwaves.

One is this detailed, data-rich analysis of how China’s high-speed rail (HSR) system is working. (TLDR: very well.) According to one estimate, per-passenger greenhouse gas emissions from HSR travel are “13 times less than a bus (30g), 50 times less than a car (115g) and 70 times less than a plane (153g)”:

As far as I know, the only HSR currently under construction in the US is the California High-Speed Rail, which began formal planning in 1996 and broke ground… last year. They plan to have the first stations open by 2025.

The Chinese Ministry of Railways, meanwhile, began shopping around for the prototype of what would become its current standard gaotie (高铁) bullet train in 2003, started technology transfer in 2006, and had the first line operational by 2007. Now China’s HSR network looks like this:

China plans to use “railway diplomacy” to additionally construct HSR lines connecting out to Seoul (by 2030), Singapore, and Moscow. The US will at best have a line connecting Northern to Southern California in that timeframe. The idea of the Federal government coordinating a nationwide HSR system seems pretty far-future, even though Obama outlined a national HSR initiative in 2009:

Already, $8 billion from the stimulus plan has been dedicated to this initiative and the president has requested another $5 billion over the next five years. The Department of Transportation will begin distributing funds to projects before the end of this summer.

I’m curious where that money has gone. Certainly not into building trains. Obviously there are bigger fish to fry now, and we’re not likely to hear Trump or Clinton talk about high-speed rail at a time when identity politics and asymmetric war dominate the national conversation.

The other thing I read recently was this: China’s plan to cut meat consumption by 50% cheered by climate campaigners

Also doesn’t seem like a conversation we’re anywhere near having in the US.

Of course China has the advantage of leveraging a technocratic autocracy to address these problems of future, and I’m not sure where Americans might find a balance between our democratic principles — which are kind of loudly and lethally self-detonating right now — and the radical, top-level reorganization we’ll need to get ourselves on track.

That’s a train pun. Incidentally, a ride on a Chinese fast-train is very smooth.

Sorry if this long trip into HSR-worship seems like a digression. It’s not. Global Times, one of the Chinese government’s preferred propaganda blasters, has a warm obit for Alvin Toffler, “China’s favorite futurist”:

Named “one of the top 50 foreigners who have had the greatest influence on China in recent centuries” by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, Toffler’s influence in the country began in 1983, when he and his wife Heidi gave lectures on [Future Shock sequel] The Third Wave at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Shortly after, Toffler’s The Third Wave was translated into Chinese.


“We were in China about two years ago. People came up to us and told us that they can still remember bicycling 10 miles to watch The Third Wave television program,” Toffler said in an interview with in 2006.

NYT’s official obituary for Toffler adds:

Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang of China convened conferences to discuss “The Third Wave” in the early 1980s, and in 1985 the book was the No. 2 best seller in China. Only the speeches of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping sold more copies.

I doubt The Third Wave or Future Shock were as influential among the US political elite in the ’80s. Maybe that’s why I feel so sick today.

Published in China Politics