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The relevance of General Semantics.

I WAS HOPING TO SNEAK in here, because I am a rank amateur at General Semantics, but over the years I have had a memory of an evening with Korzybski at Columbia University years ago. And I, of course, read Science and Sanity.

On the way down here tonight I stopped to ask myself what I had retained. I think I can list very simply what stuck, and I can easily see how it connects with the work I have done since. Clearly, Korzybski was not my only influence-all of us are bombarded by stimuli and ideas from all over the place; but I think that many of the things that I have written are at least compatible with what general semantics would hold.

Among the things that I realized that stuck, were, first, the whole idea of non-Aristotelian logic, which was a completely new idea to me, but made an awful lot of sense. Reality did not come packaged with "eitherors"-at least to me-and I think that is still a part of the way I like to analyze things. I think in terms of multiple models, rather than a single model. I think of things overlapping, blending into each other, and so on; and change, which is my preoccupation, is really a complex process.

The second idea is time-binding. Time has been central to my writing because my writing has focused on the issue of change, and change is a function of time, or vice versa. In Future Shock, I wrote about the acceleration of change, about different cultures' perceptions of time and the different paces of life, all of them being time phenomena. And, of course, as one who is called a "futurist;" I spend a lot of my time thinking about the past as well. It seems to me that one is not fully a person if one does not see oneself in a temporal perspective that reaches back through the eighty billion human beings who preceded us since our own earliest beginnings and forward in time, as it were, to the stars, which somehow symbolize the future, though what we see when we look at them is, in fact, the past.

The third idea is that the Map is Not the Territory. It is a humbling notion for a writer because I am busy producing maps, and that is my function in life-aside from being human. In the introduction of Future Shock, indeed, I wrote about cartography and the need for even primitive maps. Primitive maps are better than no maps. Nevertheless I realize deeply the difference between the map I am writing about and the reality that I can't quite get down on paper, no matter how hard I try.

I remember one experience when I was a journalist in Washington, covering a Senate hearing. I went home that night to write the story. I had sat in the room for several hours listening to the speakers on disarmament statistics, ballistic missiles, and nuclear weapons, and so on, and I sat down to write the story. I had about 500 words to condense it into and knew that my story would be on page one the next day. But no matter how many times I wrote it, and how many different approaches I used, somehow I knew that I couldn't capture the full reality. That led me to think about the front page of that newspaper-or any newspaper. I knew my story would run on page one alongside nine or ten others stories by other journalists who were also writing, who were also not capturing the full reality they were reporting. Some of them may have been more intelligent than I, or some less, and some more responsible, some less. So that since then, I have regarded page one of the newspaper as a kind of fiction, a distorted map of a territory, too complex and too fast-changing to map. Nevertheless it is a fiction that we live by.

Finally, the Map is Not the Territory leads me to the notion that all assumptions should be challenged. We live in a maze or what I call an "architecture of assumptions" We build assumption upon assumption upon assumption, and we wind up with abstract notions like "productivity" that become obsolete as accelerative change undermines them. The result is the idiocy of the conceptual categories used by, say, economists--categories that don't match the territory, but categories that they somehow can't give up. That takes me from categories to metaphors and names.

Naming is very important to an author, and titles sometimes register and sometimes don't. I have often been asked about the origins of the concepts of "Future Shock" and the "Third Wave" The process by which "Future Shock" was arrived at was basically analogy. I was interested in the phenomenon of "culture shock" and was interviewing a psychologist one day, a friend of mine, asking her about the symptoms of culture shock and what causes culture shock. As we spoke, it occurred to me in the course of that interview that if you could be disoriented by being relocated in space, that you could also be disoriented by being relocated in time, and that the rapidity of change has a similar effect on our culture and our people. The idea of future shock sprang from that analogy with culture shock, a transposition from space to time.

In the case of the "Third Wave;" there are many theories of economic and social development. Rostow wrote a book in the fifties called The Stages of Growth, which became one of the dominant, texts on the strategy of economic development in the third world. My wife and I thought the notion of stages too static and unidimensional, while the image of waves of change suggests a less mechanical and potentially multidimensional process. As you know, we use the "first wave" to mean the processes associated with agriculturalization and the agrarian era; the "second wave" to mean the processes of industrialization and the industrial era; and the "third wave" to mean the changes forming a new society today. That is the way we use the metaphor of waves. And the nice thing about it for us is that waves suggest change, motion and process. But even better, it is also possible for multiple waves of change to course through society simultaneously. It is also analogically interesting because when waves collide, you get conflict, you get crosscurrents. For these reasons, we felt the metaphor of waves offers a powerful way to characterize periods of fundamental change in society. But again, it is just a metaphor, and so all of the questions that are raised by Science and Sanity are inherent or should be inherent in the work of any thinking writer or communicator.

In short, the emphasis on process that Korzybski stressed is present in all the intellectual work my wife and I have done over the years. I thank you for what you are doing. I popped in on just a whim, knowing I was just an hour away, and I thank you for letting me crash your party.

Alvin Toffler (born October 4, 1928) is an American futurist and former associate editor of Fortune magazine who has long been considered one of the world's best known thinkers on the dynamics of social and cultural change. He has authored many influential works including Future Shock (1970), The Third Wave (1980), Creating a New Civilization (1990), and War and Anti-War (1995). This article first appeared in ETC Volume 46, Number 3 (Fall, 1989) and the following comments appeared in this first printing: "Dropping in at the 1988 International Conference on General Semantics at Yale University, Alvin Toffler was invited by program chairman William Exton to speak. These are his remarks" (p. 197).
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Title Annotation:FROM THE VAULT
Author:Toffler, Alvin
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Essay
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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