In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler presents us with his view of how people can easily become overwhelmed by change in the world around them including family, work, education, and technology.  The most compelling part of his argument comes in parts one and two of the book entitled “The Death of Permanence” and “Transience”, respectively.  In these sections, Toffler looks at the changing world in respect to the increasingly short-term nature of relationships with both people and things.   He operationalizes “transience” as the rate at which these relationships turn over (Toffler, 1990, p. 46), and in a sense he notes this as a low sense of commitment.

In terms of “things”, he cites the problem with a “throw-away” culture in which items quickly become obsolete (pp. 54, 67).  Advertising takes advantage of the desire for replacement by presenting a manufacturer’s newest items to consumers (p. 68).  Fads take the impermanence of products even further by generating a larger cultural relation with a product that lasts only briefly (pp. 71-73).  Underlying all of this is the idea that technology in whatever form it takes is about the next big thing rather than the purpose it serves.

For people, transience is just as strong of a factor.  The sense of belonging to a place has eroded as travel has become far easier (pp. 75-77).  He argues that diversity is no longer tied as strongly as the place in which one grows up because people not only travel frequently but also move with greater ease (p. 92).  Increased urbanization and mobility has significantly increased the number of people individuals encounter over any particular period; consequently, in his estimation, the depth of interpersonal relationships suffers (p. 100).  In a business context, people have less connection to the organization and the hierarchical structure of business relationships (p. 150); therefore, people are more focused on individual gains rather than collective returns.

Forty years have passed since the original publication of Future Shock, and some of the details of the book have been either come true or have remained unchanged from the time of his writing; however, even with mobility and technology becoming more deeply engrained in our daily lives, we must still ask whether the consequences of Toffler’s overall predictions have occurred as he believed they would.  One particular piece of his argument has been examined frequently as social networking applications have come to prominence:  connections among people become weaker because communication is increasingly performed in short bursts.

On the surface, his prediction appears to carry weight with applications such as Facebook featuring brief status updates, Twitter carrying a limit of 140 characters in a post, and text messages creating an adapted form of English to keep messages short.  As a platform, Facebook proves the easiest to investigate because its purpose is to connect people under a system framework that allows the sharing a rich combination of words, pictures, video, and other personal information.

The concept of social capital provides a basis from which to examine whether using a technology like Facebook aids or damages the connections among people.  Social capital encompasses the benefits gained from interpersonal relationships, and it takes two forms: bonding (close familial or friend relationships) and bridging (casual acquaintances) (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2011).  The quality of maintaining these forms of strong ties (bonding) and weak ties (bridging) allow us to analyze through the literature whether Toffler’s concern over transient relationships was justified in this context.

As pioneers in the area of social capital and online social networks, Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe contribute much to the understanding of this field.  In their most recent study, they find that using Facebook to learn more about previously “latent” ties upgrades these connections to “weak” ties, which, in turn, creates a sense of bridging social capital among the people performing the search (Ellison et al., 2011).  They also found that offline friends provide much greater social capital than online Facebook “friends” provide (Ellison et al., 2011).  Despite this, college students build self-esteem through the bridging form of social capital, and although Facebook creates a wide network of weaker ties, it nonetheless creates relationships crucial to social discovery (Steinfield, Ellison, & Lampe, 2008a, 2008b).

Suh and Shin (2010) looked at social capital and knowledge sharing through online social networks (OSN) and found that the quality of knowledge sharing, trust, and reciprocity all benefited from the capital gained via OSN.  Online communities not only provide a source for sharing information and knowledge but also serve to build bridging capital through social support, advice, and companionship (Chi, Chan, Seow, & Tam, 2009).  Young (2011) investigated adults’ use of Facebook and found similar strengths of preexisting relationships being maintained through OSN that otherwise would have dissipated; thus, OSN served as a tool to supplement offline bonds.  Through Facebook and online gaming, Skoric and Kwan (2011) discovered an increasingly hybridization of capital building through on/off line relationships versus a primarily offline experience of older generations.

This is analysis is limited by the amount of literature reviewed; however, the pieces chosen illustrate a contrast with Toffler’s vision of the future.  Although his picture of transience, namely the growth of the number of people we encounter daily, happened as predicted, the quality of relationships appears to have not diminished accordingly.  Although technologies like Facebook have stormed onto the scene as Toffler foresaw, the human ability to adapt, adjust, and assimilate has far outpaced his belief that we as a race would be too overwhelmed by change to accept it so easily.

 

Chi, L., Chan, W. K., Seow, G., & Tam, K. (2009). Transplanting Social Capital to the Online World: Insights from Two Experimental Studies. Journal of Organizational Computing & Electronic Commerce, 19(3), 214-236. doi:10.1080/10919390903041931

Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C., & Lampe, C. (2011). Connection strategies: Social capital implications of Facebook-enabled communication practices. New Media & Society, 13(6), 873-892. doi:10.1177/1461444810385389

Skoric, M. M., & Kwan, G. C. E. (2011). Platforms for mediated sociability and online social capital: the role of Facebook and massively multiplayer online games. Asian Journal of Communication, 21(5), 467-484. doi:10.1080/01292986.2011.587014

Steinfield, C., Ellison, N. B., & Lampe, C. (2008a). Social Capital, Self-Esteem, and Use of Online Social Network Sites: A Longitudinal Analysis. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29(6-), 434-445.

Steinfield, C., Ellison, N., & Lampe, C. (2008b). Net Worth: Facebook Use and Changes in Social Capital Over Time. Conference Papers — International Communication Association (pp. 1-23). Presented at the International Communication Association, Montreal, Canada.

Suh, A., & Shin, K.-shik. (2010). Exploring the effects of online social ties on knowledge sharing: A comparative analysis of collocated vs dispersed teams. Journal of Information Science, 36(4), 443-463. doi:10.1177/0165551510369632

Toffler, A. (1990). Future shock. New York: Bantam Books.

Young, K. (2011). Social Ties, Social Networks and the Facebook Experience. International Journal of Emerging Technologies and Society, 9(1), 20-34.

 

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