June 29th marked the death of the visionary futurist Alvin Toffler, whose groundbreaking ideas transformed our understanding of the Digital Age. We should all be celebrating the life of this brilliant and prescient mind.
Toffler’s death also provides a rare opportunity to pause and reflect on where we stand today in the onslaught of information that defines us. We live in the age of smart phones, Snapchat, and grueling 24-hour news cycles. Our devices are constantly buzzing. Our screens are perpetually lighting up. People and nations are supposed to be more connected to each other than ever before. But at what cost? And how are we defining “connection”?
“Future shock,” the title of Toffler’s revolutionary book, refers to what happens when change comes too quickly to a society, resulting in the disruption of social norms and the deterioration of regular decision making processes. In exploring this idea, Toffler popularized the concept of “information overload,” the state of being overwhelmed by a stream of constant and accessible information. It’s a state we all currently live in. And sometimes, the consequences can be dire.
There have been dramatic examples of information overload over the past several years. In 2010, when a U.S. military drone killed 23 Afghan civilians, including children, military investigators cited information overload as one reason for the grave mistake. The drone operator, bombarded by a volley of IMs, radio exchanges and video feeds, missed a crucial report revealing that children were present in the target area.
And then there’s the infamous 2015 Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal. Then-CEO Martin Winterkorn, inundated by the deluge of correspondence that characterizes the lives of most chief executives, supposedly “missed” a memo revealing irregularities in VW test emissions. The oversight cost him his job.
But these are the glaring cases. For ordinary citizens, the effects of information overload are wreaking a far more subtle, if no less noxious, havoc. What’s at stake is not civilian lives, or global warming. It’s our own capacities for empathy.
These are the facts: adults now spend more than 11 hours per day using electronic gadgets. We take in five times as much information today as we did thirty years ago. We’re substituting smartphone data for real, face-to-face interactions with friends and family. Or as cyber expert Sherry Turkle puts it: “We’re losing the raw, human part of being with each other.”
Where we once had to turn on a television or radio to get the news, now our phones buzz, chirp and beep a constant feed of alarming poll numbers, violent images and headlines, and all too graphic video footage. Supposedly, we’re more connected than ever. But all these headlines and images are turning us into numb consumers of information. And as Elie Wiesel once said to me: “Information is not knowledge.” We read an article, we watch a video, then we compartmentalize it and move on. It’s the only possible way to make room for the next inevitable headline.
Alvin Toffler’s death comes on the heels of a vicious news cycle. On June 12th, 49 people were killed by a gunman in Orlando, Florida. On June 24th, a Texas woman shot and killed her two daughters. On June 28th, 42 people died in a terrorist attack at the Istanbul airport.
Alone, each of these events is horrific and unthinkable. Combined in the space of a Twitter feed, they constitute the kind of news that, infuriatingly, has become the new normal.
It was Joseph Stalin who said: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” Today we owe it to ourselves to ask: is this the world we want to live in? If we all spent less time looking at our devices, and more time looking into the eyes of other people, we could nurture the kind of empathy that, according to Toffler, is essential to a thriving society.
“Society needs people who take care of the elderly and who know how to be compassionate and honest,” Toffler said once. “You can’t run the society on data and computers alone."