I write to make sense of the past. And I teach as a way to engage with the future. It's an opportunity for conversations with different timelines. A consistent back and forth where I seek out spaces where things can overlap and a chance to explore the instances where they disconnect.
The rhythms of this framing sit well with me. And yet, I currently struggle with what happens in that space in between - the present moment. By this, I don't necessarily mean 'being present' - it's more complex than that. It's the feeling that our sense of being anchored to the past, the present, and the future has become somewhat upended. To borrow from the great Kurt Vonnegut - there is a sense that we have become 'unstuck in time.'
Obviously, my initial feeling was that this fragmentation could be blamed on the pandemic. After all, I had read articles on how the COVID era had distorted our perception of how time worked. For some, it stood still; for others, it sped up - shaped by location, emotion, satisfaction, and levels of mental engagement. We all experienced some form of this. It was a period where time waxed and waned to the rhythms of our own personal actions and emotions. I dubbed it 'The Year of Change' and assumed that things would eventually return to a more consistent rhythm. In reality, this disruption seems to have been little more than a heightening of this feeling. Time has been coming apart at the seams long before we were all trapped inside.
Earlier this year, a clip of the comedian Bo Burnham went viral. In it, he talks of how social media is coming for every second of our lives. He stresses that this isn't even a conscious decision. Their entire model is based completely off of growth. “They cannot stay stagnant” he argues, they have to “get more of you.”
In the video, Burnham speaks of how, in the past, we used to colonise land: “That was the thing you could expand into, and that's where money was to be made.” He states that we colonized the entire earth and then, when there were no more places for capitalism to expand into, they realised that they could colonise human attention. “They are now trying to colonise every minute of your life”.
How could this not muddy our understanding of time's logic. We're endlessly dipping back and forth between the real and the virtual; the past and the present. Our phones endlessly leaping from the horrors of world events, to jokes, to cute animal videos. It's a relentless stream of everything screaming all at once and we never get an opportunity to process it. Like some dystopian retelling of The Magic Porridge Pot, we’re trapped in a state of endless distraction, expansion and disintegration. A reminder that, as Edward Abbey once put it: “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
In 1970, the American Futurist Alvin Toffler wrote about this disintegration. He argued that society was undergoing an enormous structural change and that this acceleration needed to be taken seriously. He called the condition ‘future shock’ — an anxiety brought on by ‘too much change in too short a period of time’. For Toffler, this psychological state was not just impacting individuals, but it was affecting entire societies. Stressed and disorientated, he argued that this overwhelming disconnect occurs when we encounter accelerated rates of social and technological change.
Written over fifty years ago, the book was published just at the dawn of the Information Age. In the years that followed we saw computers, the internet, smart phones, and the knowledge economy. So much change in such a short period of time. Now we live in a world where we are just as comfortable with virtual spaces as we are with real life. Advances in technology that we thought might potentially appear in the coming years now seem to appear within months — if not weeks. This year alone, writers were declaring the death of the college essay, while AI-generated artwork was winning arts competitions, illustrating children's books, and creating covers for The Economist. “Technology feeds on itself,” Toffler noted, “technology makes more technology possible”. We now live in a perpetual state of anxiety. An ouroboros of infinite uncertainty.
The author and educator Neil Postman also used the term ‘future shock’ in his 1969 book, Teaching As A Subversive Activity. He wrote that “future shock occurs when you are confronted by the fact that the world you were educated to believe in doesn't exist.” We are conditioned to imagine one future, and then, when that doesn't arrive, we feel isolated and alienated.
Postman suggested several ways that people respond to this condition, one of which is to "withdraw and allow oneself to be overcome by a sense of impotence." He suggested that many follow this path — not just educators, but leaders across all structures of power; be that political, social or religious. They transmit dead ideas, values, metaphors and information — relentlessly acting as if these thing are substantial and hold weight. For Postman, this behaviour undermines our chances of surviving as a viable, democratic society. This was 1969 and his fear was that we might not survive another generation of this.
While we may still be here, the enormous structural changes brought on by technology have reached a point of hyper-acceleration. What happens when the tasks that we are educated to perform become automated? What value does education serve if it can't prepare you for working in the future?
While this concern might be real, considering it purely as a challenge to employment in the kind of thinking that aligns with the dead ideas and values that Postman warned against. Good educators don't simply teach to serve a marketplace. Skills should not be taught solely in terms of their future ability to generate a profit. A good education, and – moreover, a good society – should teach skills that help us to think critically, to question things, to solve problems and to understand emotions.
If there are any silver lining to be found in the hyper-acceleration of technological change, it's that these machines may force us to become more human. As hard skills begin to be replaced by AI, it will be our soft skills that will set us apart. If we hope to have a chance to survive as a viable society, it will be through our curiosity, our creativity, and our humanity.
While I do find solace in this idea, it doesn't stop me from feeling a sense of duty to find potential signs that we may be moving towards this trajectory. Arguably, one could look to the writings of William Strauss and Neil Howe whose generational theory posits that there are four distinct generational types within the West, each with their own characteristics and roles to play in society. According to their theory, the generation that focuses on creativity, cultural innovation, and the arts is the Artist generation. These are people who enter childhood during a time of crisis — be that the Progressive Generation during the American Civl War; the Silent Generation during the Great Depression/World War II; or our current generation of Zoomers who are growing up amid the Great Recession, the pandemic and the Russo-Ukrainian War. Strauss and Howe argue that coming of age during a time of great change and upheaval can create a sense of openness and curiosity about the world.
Perhaps there are traces of this already starting to emerge. An article in the New York Times this month highlighted the Luddite Club — a high school group that promotes a lifestyle of self-liberation from social media and technology. “When I got my flip phone, things instantly changed,” one member says in the article “I started using my brain.”
While the internet may have dominated the mainstream culture of the 2010s, it homogenised and eroded the things that made subcultures unique. While I’m not proposing that everyone becomes a Luddite and completely abandon technology, it is a reminder that we always have the chance to reconsider how we operate within a culture. The Luddite Club is just one of many subcultures now emerging. Countless months of Zoomers in isolation on screens has seen a curious shift in the culture; a combination of addiction and an eagerness to break free from the mundanity of the online world. The next big cultural swing may well be a return to fragmentation. A new era of art, expression and creative innovation…
Back in March, I gave a talk to a group of students about my career. I told them the story of my creative journey and the things that I learnt along the way. I spoke about my own relationship to creativity – showing a timeline of technology: broadband, my first laptop, blogging, joining twitter, getting a smartphone, being on Instagram. I pointed to how each of these things led to opportunities – how they connected me to a wider world and to interesting people. I framed it as a positive. A story of connection. At the end of my talk I was asked if I had examples of ways of connecting with people and opportunities outside of the internet. I felt a bit stumped. Things like "friends" or "friends of friends" or "sending post" all felt so antiquated; so alienating; ‘unprofessional’. I was confronted by the fact that the world I was educated to believe in now no longer exists.
The interesting thing about timelines is that they often overlap and disconnect in interesting ways.
I ended my talk by saying that I had no real words of wisdom to depart with. I told them that, for me, wisdom demands certainty, and the only certainty I seem to have right now is in my own uncertainty. Yet, as I get older, I'm starting to realise that being comfortable with uncertainty is a good skill to have. It's a very human skill. It might not be able to protect you against ‘information overload’ or ‘future shock’ or any number of crises, but it does help you to cope. It helps you to embrace the chaos. It keeps you questioning and keeps you curious. And, perhaps most importantly, it keeps you human.