Future Shock Levels

The first person to introduce the concept of Future Shock was Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book, Future Shock. The main argument is that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a “super-industrial society”. This change will overwhelm people, the accelerated rate of technological and social change will leave them disconnected, suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation” – future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems were symptoms of future shock.

A few years earlier, Gordon Moore in his now famous paper (PDF) introduced the idea that would eventually be called Moore’s Law, that states that the speed and density of microprocessor design will follow an exponential curve. This was at a time when computers had barely had any impact on society, nearly 20 years before PC’s made hardly a dent on the economic landscape. 30 years later we saw the explosion of the Internet into the world. Now 40 years later, microprocessors speed is doubling almost every year, and its effects are extraordinary. Not a day goes buy now when some scientific or technological advance isn’t hitting the front pages. As Ray Kurzweil suggest with his Law of Accelerating Returns, microprocessor are such an integrated part of our lives of economic progress, that now society too is caught up in this accelerating change, suggesting that we could see as much change in the next 25 years, as we saw in the last 10,000 years combined!

As one of the leading thinkers on the singularity, Eliezer Yudkowsky is someone accustomed to thinking about extremes of future technological change and advancement. After having many wide ranging discussions with futurists of all stripes, he noticed that certain technological implications can be too “far out” or shocking to some groups more than others. So he came up with what he calls Future Shock Levels or the level that different people find themselves in terms of their concept of the future, and what they are willing to consider, or which is too futuristic or even shocking for them.

Shock Level 0

Degree of Change: Flat.

Technologies: Same as today, maybe more TV channels, bigger cars or TV’s.

The legendary average person is comfortable with modern technology – not so much the frontiers of modern technology, but the technology used in everyday life. Most people, TV anchors, journalists, politicians.

For people at this level, the future is seen as pretty much the same as it is today. If you could chart their concept of the future on a graph, you would see change reaching a plateau today and leveling off from here on out. Almost every economic and political paper about the future I’ve read falls into this category. When they discuss wide ranging implications of their policy decisions, there is hardly any mention of technological change at all, and only in the most mundane ways with concepts of Level 1 being described as something to be afraid of, with dangerous out-of-control implications. The current climate of fear over cloning and stem-cell therapy falls into this level.

Shock Level 1

Degree of Change: Logarithmic, then hitting a relative plateau in a decade or two.

Technologies: Virtual reality, living to a hundred, e-commerce, hydrogen economy, ubiquitous computing, stem-cell cloning, minor genetic improvements.

At this level you will find the majority of futurists and future oriented publications. Modern technological frontiers as depicted in WIRED magazine and books like Future Shock and Bill Gates, The Road Ahead. Included in this group are most scientists, novelty-seekers, early-adopters, programmers and technophiles.

Placed on a chart, future progress will continue upwards in a logarithmic fashion, with each year bringing the same amount of change as last year. Eventually this incremental change will lead to people living to a hundred, and optimistically in a society with clean energy, general economic prosperity, and conservative space exploration scenarios.

In my experience most of the people described above think about the future in relatively conservative terms. If you ever read a future oriented article by one of them they often say things like, “This probably won’t happen in my lifetime, but perhaps my children or grandchildren will live to see it”, If you ever read a quote like that you know you’re reading someone at SL1. Almost every report that comes out of NASA is hopelessly stuck at SL1.

Shock Level 2

Degree of Change: Logarithmic to Exponential

Technologies: major genetic engineering, medical immortality, interstellar travel, and new “alien” cultures.

At this level you’ll find your typical SF Fan. Literary SF and cutting edge magazines like Mondo 2000, Omni or Future magazine of days past were filled with Level 2 ideas. Ironically, I don’t know of a single popular SF movie or TV show that exists comfortably at this level. Not even Star Trek qualifies for SL2, as it barely considers life spans past 100, with immortality remaining the exclusive domain of “super-advanced aliens”.

Up and until the 1980’s there wasn’t much discussion of future change past level 2, except in the most limited sense. This is probably because the concept of radical accelerating change was still beyond the radar of almost every forward thinking person at the time. Enabling Level 3 technologies like molecular nanotechnology were not even considered then. The only exceptions I know of are Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary, who were completely at home with post-human evolution (SL3).

Shock Level 3

Degree of Change: Exponential

Technologies: Immortality, nanotechnology, human-equivalent AI, intelligence increase, uploading, total body revision, intergalactic exploration, megascale engineering.

Clearly identifiable people didn’t exist at this level until the 1980’s when groups like the Extropians and transhumanists emerged. Writers like Robert Anton Wilson, and Timothy Leary with his SMI2LE concept were the first people to my knowledge who discussed this level in any depth. However, it wasn’t until Eric Drexler published his book Engines of Creation that finally set the stage for concrete, detailed technological speculation of SL3 possibilities.

Shock Level 4

Degree of Change: Exponential to Hyperbolic (Accelerating Acceleration)

Technologies: Singularity, Matrioska “Jupiter” Brains, Powers, complete mental revision, ultraintelligence, posthumanity, Alpha-Point computing, Apotheosis, the total evaporation of “life as we know it.”

The only people I know who are comfortable discussing change at this level are Singularitarians, and some cutting edge psychedelic pioneers like Terence McKenna and John Lilly. Olaf Stapledon in his book Star Maker waxed poetic about SL3 megascale engineering and SL4 ultra-intelligences, and John Lilly discussed multiple encounters with a SL4 intelligences, which he gave names like “ECCO” and “Solid State Entities”. The first writer to bring this into concrete technological terms was Vernor Vinge in his 1993 paper . These ideas were soon picked up by Extropians and Transhumanists, but as far as I know it wasn’t until the Singularitarians that this level was embraced concretely and enthusiastically.

As Eliezer Yudkowsky says, If there’s a Shock Level Five, I’m not sure I want to know about it!

Eliezer goes on to say,

“If somebody is still worried about virtual reality (low end of SL1), you can safely try explaining medical immortality (low-end SL2), but not nanotechnology (SL3) or uploading (high SL3). They might believe you, but they will be frightened – shocked.

That’s not to say you can’t do it. In fact, you can take advantage of the future shock to carry the idea. You just have to be careful.

By a similar token, a Singularitarian can shock a science-fiction fan, but not an Extropian – the Extropian will be interested, perhaps enthusiastic, but not shocked. (Of course, if the person was already enthusiastic about Transhumanism, they might be wildly enthusiastic about the Singularity.) An Extropian can shock your average Wired reader, but should be careful about trying this with the “person on the street” – they may be frightened. And so on. In general, one shock level gets you enthusiasm, two gets you a strong reaction – wild enthusiasm or disbelief, three gets you frightened – not necessarily hostile, but frightened, and four can get you burned at the stake.”

Paul Hughes is Executive Director of Vivation International. This article was originally published on Paul’s blog Future Hi.

32 Responses

  1. Sayahn says:

    With respect to the Level 2 scene, Star Wars features many humans/humanoid species that live to over 100. Palpatine, several members of the Council and they are not “super-advanced Aliens”.

  2. Alex says:

    I am surprised there is no mention of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End here. The book was written in the 50s and starts with an SL0 society being thrown into SL1/SL2 and then the rest of the book is a progression up through SL4, and possibly SL5. I am not totally sure what SL5 is, but am fairly certain that egos will not exist. There will be no idea of self, no “I” or “Me” or “Us” there will just be.

  3. Trurl the constructr says:

    The Cyberiad – Fables for the Cybernetic Age – Stanslaw Lem -1968 in the original “behind the Iron Curtain” Polish, translated to english 1974. Followed by “Pirx the Pilot” and whatever else brainiac play he conjured. Aside from tales of biofashion fads, sentient planets, ontological conundra and so forth, I liked the one where Pirx goes to a planet inhabited by “HPLDs” “Highest Possible Level of Development” beings reside. Hilarity and insight (beyond all blatherations mentioned, alluded to, or imagined by the writer of this this goo-goo article and commenters) ensues.

  4. Peter Scott says:

    “Increasing acceleration” applies to exponential growth, since the derivative of an exponentially increasing function is an exponentially increasing function.

  5. Sebastian says:

    BTW, most of the links are broken, e.g. the ones to the glossary.

  6. Harry says:

    I really wished I’d read this article a few months ago. I got interested in transhumanism through Warren Ellis and Dresden Codak, then picked up The Singularity is Near. I moved from a 0-1 to a 4-5 very quickly and enthusiastically. Then I told my girlfriend about SL3-4 and scared her witless. She has flatly refused any sort of brain augmentation in the future and also immortality, telling me I can “go live in the big computer without her” 🙁 Hopefully she won’t notice the gentle progress towards this and be swept along in it like all the rest. Because as soon as Apple makes an iBrainchip, everyone will want one.

  7. Arthur says:

    The hydrogen economy is being eclipsed by the electron (or electrical) economy. For example, we see battery electric vehicles being commercialized, while hydrogen is still stuck at being ten to fifteen years out (and has consistently been that far way for several decades). Hydrogen is an inefficient carrier of energy (it’s not a source of energy). Hydrogen is useful only insofar as a carrier of electrons that can be liberated in a chemical reaction (with oxygen to make water). There are many other more efficient sources of electrons, such as batteries. We’re seeing an explosion in improvements in battery technologies. In contrast, we’ve only seen explosions in hydrogen.

  8. Fabrizio says:

    Uh, a Venus Project house I see. Nice choice. 😀

  9. Paul Tiffany says:

    I used to be a future shock junkie. As I’d attempt to proselytize the transhumanist movement, I’d get off on making SL1 minds swim in their cerebral fluid (usually professors). Most of my audience was SL2 (students), and I became quite successful at introducing singularitarianism. However, I’ve sort of given up, as I’ve realized most people, even if they do due diligence to validate my claims, are powerless or unwilling to effect change. I’ve tried and failed countless times to start H+ groups in my area; now I just count the time until I can live more immediately to my intellectual peers. Internet doesn’t really cut it.

  10. I’d love an analysis wih shock level variants 1B and speculative intermediary and maybe a 5 and an SL3 institute and maybe a SL4B seperatists branch of neo-singulartarian libertopians. 🙂

    Extropia ftw.

  11. Maybe the fifth level would involve concepts such (1) as hyperbolic acceleration of subjective time, allowing us to experience more and more “life” in less and less real time (eventually, say, trillions of years of subjective experience in seconds of real time), (2) the complete escape from the physical universe (being just one layer of reality within and containing others), and (3) accelerating cascading singularities, leading to a new steady state of sorts (like orbiting electrons create a solid-ish shell).

    Maybe that’s what some of those big words, like apotheosis and alpha-point, mean.

    • nehopsa says:

      Actually, your comment of accelerating subjective time reminds me of a description by Faustina Kowalska of “Heaven” she had a glimpse of experiencing. I am only afraid this vision is somewhat incompatible with Technological Singularity frame of reference.

  12. Rod Brock says:

    Whenever I read articles that broach the matter of constantly accelerating science and technology, this acceleration takes place in the context of some hypothetical “society” that does not conform to the way the world is divided up now. It’s like there’s some sort of New World Order, or pan-global government where all the nation states are on the same page. Yet consider that there are societies out there where reliable refrigeration is not in any sense “ubiquitos.” Not to mention warring nation states, not to mention milions who have been displaced by war and eke out the most miserable of existences in refugee camps.

    All of these an more will have the potential to throw wrenches into the cogs of evolution. I can see a dystopic world forming, where the “primitives” live in the shadow of the might of the advanced society.

  13. damjancd says:

    Actually Alvin Toffler dabbles in the idea of the technological singularity.

  14. Also, the shock-levels are not arranged correctly, for the technology in Shock Level 2 to appear human-level AI is *essential*.

    • Roxolan says:

      The levels are not about the order in which the technologies will appear; they’re about how people react to the idea. Some relatively low-tech changes can seem weirder, scarier than higher-tech ones.

  15. The first scientific article about singularity was written by the great pioneer of mathematical AI Ray Solomonoff himself in 1985:
    “The Time Scale of Artificial Intelligence: Reflections on Social Effects,”
    Human Systems Management, Vol. 5, pp. 149-153, 1985

    In this paper Ray named the phenomenon infinity point, however, it was of course hypothesized early on by I.J. Good as explained in the Vinge paper.

    Ray nonetheless was certain of human-level AI even several years before the Dartmouth conference!

  16. Mark Plus says:

    Writers like Robert Anton Wilson, and Timothy Leary with his SMI2LE concept were the first people to my knowledge who discussed this level in any depth.

    “Depth”? I can’t believe you wrote that with a straight face. Back in the 1970’s, these bohemican druggie clowns deluded themselves into thinking that we’d have “immortality” by now. How has that worked out for them lately?

    The Future Hi provides an example of this delusion:


    However, it wasn’t until Eric Drexler published his book Engines of Creation that finally set the stage for concrete, detailed technological speculation of SL3 possibilities.

    Uh, no to that claim as well. Drexler has made a career of promoting vaporware which probably can’t exist in our universe because it gets the physics wrong.

    By contrast, people who went into neuroscience or genomics as careers in the 1980’s probably have something tangible to show for their efforts.

    • John Barrington says:

      Dude, you really like splitting hairs don’t you? The ad hominen attacks are completely unneccessary and lend an air of immaturity to your argument. Argue the facts. Valling people names, especially dead people, is in poor taste. This is not the Extropian List.

      That being said, Robert Anton Wilson formulated a perfectly logical framework for understanding the Life Extension Escape Velocity (LEEV)- the point at which life spans increase faster than we age. This was a very inspirational article, and many people become advocates for Life Extension based on that 1978 article. LEEV is very interesting concept and it is what drives many of those working in the field today. That Robert Anton Wilson was off on the dates when this would happens is irrevelvant. He was saying we could, not would. There are many people, including Ray Kurzweil, who make equally spectacular claims that people his age can catch a ride on the LEEV.

      Secondly, neither Tim nor Robert thought we’d have immortality right now, only an ongoing life extension revolution that kept adding years to our life – which means that eventually it results in immortality for all practical purposes.

      Regarding Drexler, are you kidding me? Who cares what he is doing right now, and/or how much vaporware he is producing. This doesn’t change the fact that his thesis and book, “Engines of Creation” was not a seminal work that changed the thinking of many, MANY people. Additionally he laid out the basic ideas in a fairly robust theoretically technical manner. He stated there was lots still to learn at that level, but the basic idea that we could manipulate and create self-replicating machines was sound. Life is a living example such a thing is possible.

  17. I’ve been Shock level 6 for awhile. I simply don’t talk about things like String Level replicators able to produce entire solar systems in a single operation. People think I’m crazy enough just talking about changing my appearance to be a succubus. If they really understood what I see, I’d probably be hunted with torches and pitchforks.

    To truly understand the future, you have to eliminate the limitations that most of humanity is comfortable existing in. You have to viscerally understand that WE WILL BE WHAT WE HAVE ALWAYS THOUGHT OF AS GODS.

    Dr Manhattan is the closest ANYONE has ever come to portraying post humanity.

    • James says:

      Shock Level 6? Shock Level 5 is not yet defined on this scale, and you are defining level 6 as “being what we have always thought of as Gods” – which is commonly known as Apotheosis, clearly defined in Shock Level 4.

      Level 4 at it’s top end is talking about not only humanity becoming God-like, but humanity becoming something beyond all “general” current human knowledge and imagination. Correct me if I’m wrong, but God is a concept that humanity has been idly toying with for quite some time now. Creating new solar systems is a function of “God”.

      The question is: What comes beyond God? What comes beyond time and space and how do we get there?

      • Alan says:

        God has long been presumed to be beyond time and space.

        To God, “a thousand years is like a day.”

      • Patrick says:

        In order to understand what comes after Apotheosis, we must first define what it is to be a God conceptually. I am of the opinion that it is an impossible feat to conceive of what happens after Godhood in our current state. We lack the physical hardware and the ideas (software) to even come close to modeling what this will look like. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
        – Ludwig Wittgenstein

  18. Steven R. Hilliard says:

    As Eliezer Yudkowsky says, If there’s a Shock Level Five, I’m not sure I want to know about it!

    My idea of Shock Level Five would be to wake up and find out that this world is just somebody’s ancestor simulation after all.

    • Arjac says:

      Actually that could make a very good topic for a short story, person living in Shock Level 0 society discovers he/she has actually been living in type 4 all along, seeing the reactions to being introduced to post-humanity.

    • Roxolan says:

      That’s… probably around level 3, actually. The Matrix is mainstream, so people are familiar with the idea. And it’s not unusual for transhumanists to have conversations in which the simulation argument is taken seriously.

  19. Improbus says:

    Don’t scare the primates. They might hit you with a holy book. Seriously, the “average” person doesn’t care about the future or what it looks like. They are to caught up in day to day travails and entertainments to care. Stupid primates. I am actively preparing for the future and I am hoping to live long enough to live as long as I want. You are going to be dead a long time. Why rush?

  20. genomik says:

    Yeah I have been hovering around 4 or 5 for 10 years now……… Really kicked into gear listening to Bill Joy at Stanford debating Kurzweil. The last few years I have been trying purposeful ignorance. I enjoyed being in 2 or 3 better. I have harnessed the slight belief that sheeit will hit the fan to enjoy living every day as much as possible. That is how to hedge against future possible volatility, by enjoying the now, which, by the way, is pretty awesome. I have believed we are living in the Golden Age of innovation at any moment I have been alive (48 years). This is why, however, I rarely try to explain higher levels to people, it can trip people out, or I could look crazy. So i am here, enjoying every day here with ringside seats and perhaps an inkling that the game could be much more volatile than most could conceive.

  21. Prakash says:

    Hmm.. Is there a generalised shock level or is it dependent on the specialised knowledge of people?

    Consider the case of a construction worker constantly working with today’s construction material. He would welcome nanotechnological products like carbon nanotubes to use in scaffoldings or as a substitute for steel rebar.

    Or a cook working in molecular gastronomy, creating artificial organisms to generate new textures and tastes would not really surprise him.

    Though both of these people might be shocked by exponentially better nanotechnological tissue repair. But that would not shock a trauma nurse who would have wished a hundred times in her life for a product like that.

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