Future Shock Levels

cid68By Paul Hughes

The first person to introduce the concept of Future Shock was Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book, 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: SingularityMatrioska “Jupiter” Brains, Powers, complete mental revision, ultraintelligence, posthumanity, Alpha-Point computingApotheosis, 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 Terrence 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 Eli says, If there’s a Shock Level Five, I’m not sure I want to know about it!

Eli 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.