« New Fast Company: 3 New Economies, Part II | Main | New Fast Company: Awareness is Everything »

Social Transition Stress Disorder

In 2002, I wrote Broken Dreams, a guidebook for the Steve Jackson Games "Transhuman Space" role-playing game series. Broken Dreams covered global traumas such as conflict, social disorder, economic decline, and intellectual property. Part of the book concerned how various societies reacted to the big changes underway in the world, and in that section I included a brief description of a common response: Social Transition Stress Disorder, or STSD.

Here's how the description read:

Social Transition Stress Disorder, or STSD, first identified in 2052, is a chronic memetic illness affecting millions of people around the globe. Originally described as a traumatic reaction to interaction with robots (hence the common name, "cybershell-shock"), STSD is now recognized as encompassing a broad range of psychological effects arising from rapid, discontinuous social change. Known triggers for STSD include significant economic disruption or transitions, encounters (particularly unpleasant or threatening encounters) with new technologies, and paradigm shifts resulting from assimilation of new memeplexes. Symptoms vary, but usually manifest as depression and apathy; less frequently, paranoid anxiety or irrational hatreds (sometimes including violence) can result.

Incidence of STSD rises with the speed, degree, and surprise of a given change, and is typically cumulative – a succession of moderate cultural shocks can be much more damaging than a single large event. STSD is most commonly found in societies undertaking a rapid transition from Third Wave (or pre-Third Wave) to Fourth Wave culture and technology, although cases have also resulted from advanced regions falling into rapid decline (due to environmental or economic disasters). Treatment, typically a combination of memetic therapy and designer drugs, is well-understood, and can be very effective. Unfortunately, many of those most in need of STSD treatment are those least able to afford it.

I intended STSD to be something arising in a world of too-rapid change, a more medical/psych update of "future shock" -- something appearing late in this century, in a world of uploaded minds, self-aware AI, bioengineered robots, and so forth.

Looking back on this, however, it looks more like a description of the present. Set aside for a moment the in-game jargon about "Third Wave" and "Fourth Wave," cybershells and memes, and just think about what's being described here: psychological dislocation triggered by the social effects of big technological (or political, or demographic) changes.

One could easily diagnose the "keep government hands off my Medicare" screamers at political gatherings this Summer as suffering from STSD; certainly, the paranoid delusions about Obama's ancestry fit here. And it's not just politics. Moral panics around Facebook and anti-vaccination fears seem like manifestations of STSD, as well.

So what does this all mean?

Honestly, I'm not sure yet. It's definitely not just "new technology freaks people out, man," nor is it "[fill in the blank] just can't handle The Future." It's something more subtle, about perceived losses of control attributable to a world that differs in significant ways from the world they believed to be real.

My guess is that we're going to be seeing a lot more of it in the years to come.


I never thought "future shock" lost any relevance in describing how people react to technological change. It was apt in 1970 and it's only more so now.

The Medicare screamers have an adaptation failure; their assessment of media credibility was formed in a time when you could trust (to some extent) what was in the newspapers and on TV as at least reflecting opinions that weren't completely insane.

Now they watch Fox and read email forwards with the same unfiltered trust. They're programmed for a different era.

when i wrote my magnus opus 1998-2003
i came up with the term
virtuality psychosis
it's a deep existential affliction
and seems to reflect your insight

be well!

How is this different from "future shock" as described (more and more presciently) by Toffler in 1970?

I don't think he is trying to say it is different (especially since he mentions future shock in his text); more that he is pointing out the applicability to current events.

It's interesting, especially in light of the shifting of the population demographics as the boomers slide inexorably into their 60's.

what you describe -- stsd and current-day manifestations -- relates to the occasional rise of millenarian thinking. this topic rarely receives attention in the blogs i follow (including yours). if the tie-in sounds interesting, i'd suggest you take a look at a rare post by charles cameron at mark safranski's blog, zenpundit, at:



If you liked this article, you might also enjoy:

I first heard about Future Shock from that Adam Greenfield post. And then, a couple days ago, I found a bright pink copy of the book at a thrift store. Cost me a quarter. Given how much I've been hearing about "Future Shock" (and related ideas, like STSD) lately, it seems like I'd better read it soon.

I completely share your assessment. I actually happen to own the books, out of sheer respect in paperback, and it hurts me to no end I was never able to find players (that would consent to playing it) over here.

I started a THS somewhere in 2003, and the setting was in the rings of saturn - some miners died of radiation poisoning and uploaded their minds in idealized/perfected versions of themselves upon death - the kids woke up and matured near the moon Promotheus.

The cynical thing is that exposing my normal entourage of RP people with this stuff caused in itself severe STSD. One player swore he would fight tooth and nail to make life extension not happen in the real world. Another player spat bile on the whole idea of anything like "non trek" travel through space. "only in the solar system? wouldn't that be like boring??". The last and most prominent player blankly balked at AI, desktop nano-replicators, uploading, and worst of all, this whole business where eveyone, all the time, had access to these high resolution virtual realities. Sobering notion, that was months before second life caught on. His argument "society would come to a standstill when VR would be so common".

Oh absolutely I agree, and I also think we are in a self-reinforcing spiral. Several key types of technology *ARE* speeding up. Bih media has its sights set on AR as the new thing to weather the continued erosion of piracy, and the charge of the light brigade is led by Cameron, with avatar.

I don't know about you but I can hear the rapids rumble in the distance, Jam, and I can see people lock in more every year, in response to incapacity or unwillingness to constantly recallibrate expectations or entitlements.

We are moving from system shock capitalism towards system shock globalization.

I just got back from a hiking trip. (Home base: A town in Washington that figures in a YA series about teenage vampires.) First big news item I encountered is that conservative parents don't want Obama inculcating their kids with socialist values via a high school speech about the importance of education.

I wish there were some way for the blowback from inaction and stupidity to be limited to those responsible for opposing reform and innovation. But we're all going to suffer the effects of the greenhouse effect, poisoned oceans, and rising energy costs.

Um . . . here:

"Modern science has imposed upon humanity the necessity for wandering. Its progressive thought and its progressive technology make the transition through time, from generation to generation, a true migration into uncharted seas of adventure. The very benefit of wandering is that it is dangerous and needs skill to avert evils. We must expect, therefore, that the future will disclose dangers. It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties. The prosperous middle classes, who ruled the nineteenth century, placed an excessive value upon the placidity of existence. They refused to face the necessities for social reform imposed by the new industrial system, and they are now refusing to face the necessities for intellectual reform imposed by the new knowledge. The middle class pessimism over the future of the world comes from a confusion between civilization and security. In the immediate future there will be less security than in the immediate past, less stability. It must be admitted that there is a degree of instability which is inconsistent with civilization. But, on the whole, the great ages have been unstable ages."
--Alfred North Whitehead,"Science and the Modern World," 1925.

For understanding of the phenomenon, it might be best to look at Islam as a model. That ideology got used to continued triumphs early on, and its adherents thought that it could never fail. The recent history of Islam may shed light on what happens when ingrained worldviews like that stop delivering on their promises.

Post a comment

All comments go through moderation, so if it doesn't show up immediately, I'm not available to click the "okiedoke" button. Comments telling me that global warming isn't real, that evolution isn't real, that I really need to follow [insert religion here], that the world is flat, or similar bits of inanity are more likely to be deleted than approved. Yes, it's unfair. Deal. It's my blog, I make the rules, and I really don't have time to hand-hold people unwilling to face reality.


Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Powered By MovableType 4.37