22 December 2010

The Shape of Things What Were

Oddly enough, I recall stumbling on this film as a kid; it being shoved into some block of late-night programming to fill airtime, being run as a documentary or whatever. I remember watching just enough of it to be unnerved by the bit towards the beginning where you see the robot couple walking in the park, accompanied by a soundtrack of discordant electronic score.

What we have here is a promotional, merch-oriented film masquerading as a documentary. A faux doco, if you will; a precursor for your more contemporary infomercial. As it finally reveals, the product it's ultimately hawking is Alvin Toffler's 1970 "futurist" pop-sociology best-seller Future Shock. I can't make any claims for how prescient Toffler's book might've been, but -- in terms of market quantatives -- it certainly was timely. Society was changing rapidly, and there was a lot of residual dread and uncertainty in the air. After the mainstream success of Marshall McLuhan's books, a certain portion of the populace was looking to cultural theorists and explainers-in-residence who might be able to provide some sort of prognosis. Did a dystopic and "dehumanizing" future lie just around the corner? Future Shock's various chapter and section titles include: "The Throw-Away Society," "The Economics of Impermanence," "The Demise of Geography," "The New Ad-hocracy," "Training Children for Turnover," as well as the equally intriguing "Hippies, Incorporated," "Communes and Homosexual Daddies," "The Cyborgs Among Us," and "Subterranean Cities."

At the very least, in Future Shock Toffler recognized that the big post-Fordist shift was well underway, and that we were heading into a "post-industrial" economy -- whatever that might entail.1 He's also been given credit for introducing the concept of "information overload."2

But as far as the film is concerned -- it's a dazzling plethora of newfound "age of anxiety" cliches; pitching its topic in the most sensationalist fashion, targeting the insecurity and paranoid and post-modernity malaise of its audience. Sub-nanotrends inflated to the scale of broad paradigm shifts and upheavals, a good many moments of unintentionally hilarious pseudo-profunditude, and the grand sales pitch at the end. And, most importantly, there's Orson Welles gliding through the whole thing -- always in motion from one destination to another, cigar smoke and ill-fitting library music trailing in his wake, his mercenary presence lending the whole thing an air of ponderous weight and dignity, even though he was doing little more than picking up another easy paycheck to help fund his next project (which, I'm guessing, at this point in his career would be the brilliant F for Fake).

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1. What he didn't foresee, apparently, was the huge financial cratering that follow during the 1970s. All of which would send Toffler off to spend the next decade retooling his thesis.

2. This, it turns out, wasn't such a new or novel idea. For example: In his 1892 fin de siècle tome Degeneration, Max Nordau had complained that (then-)modern men were already suffering from fatigue and cogntiive depletion due to the overbombardment of information that arrived in the form of daily newspapers.


Will S said...

see Simon Reynolds' Generation Ecstasy for a great discussion of this book and its influence on Detroit Techno

Greyhoos said...

Wow. It's been over a decade since I've read the book in full, so I'd totally forgotten about that he'd included any mention of Toffler's book. I'll have to pull it off the bookshelf and look that up. (And wondering if anyone's written about Toffler's post-Fordist prophesies and the waning of Detroit industry in those years, too.)

Greyhoos said...

And I suppose in the previous I should've put the word prophecy in ironic quotation marks or something.

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