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This question arises from an essay in a recent bird guide, in which the author imagines how ornithologists past would react to changes since their time, and which of these would interest them most.

This sort of hypothetical is often used to frame differences in perspective between past and present (e.g. what would Shakespeare think of movies?).

It is neither a conceit nor a folly. Is there some single word or handy phrase that conveniently describes this literary device?

"Through __ , imagining the reactions of past ornithologists, the author highlights changes in our understanding of avian diversity and distribution, and in particular how genetics and genomic analyses have changed our perspective on bird taxonomy"

  • Welcome to EL&U Spookpadda! You've described what kind of word you're looking for. At this site we also expect single word requests to be accompanied by a fill-in-the-blank sentence. Such a hypothetical sentence further conveys what context you would use the word in. It also provides a test for whether such a word is likely to exist - sometimes rhetorical devices are better described than labeled. For more info take the tour; have a great day! – TaliesinMerlin Mar 15 at 16:39
  • Thanks for the tip. I've edited my question to add an example sentence. – Spookpadda Mar 17 at 5:11
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There are two phrases that seem to best describe this.

The first is culture shock:

[Merriam-Webster]

: a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation
// Foreign students often experience culture shock when they first come to the U.S.
// Moving to the city was a huge culture shock for him.


The other is future shock:

[Merriam-Webster]

: the physical and psychological distress suffered by one who is unable to cope with the rapidity of social and technological changes

// His proposals include a substantial common budget to protect the eurozone against future shocks, as well as a European Intelligence Agency and an agency for disruptive innovation focusing on developments digital technology.
— Tom Fairless, WSJ, "Macron, Merkel Show Unity on Defense and Security," 18 Nov. 2018

// To help assuage the Luddites among us, automakers are gradually phasing in autonomous features that make our commute feel like time regained, but the real cushioning of future shock comes in the form of coddling driver-assistance tech.
— Kevin Sintumuang, Esquire, "The New Mercedes-Benz S-Class Might Be a Better Driver Than You," 20 Oct. 2017

This phrase was originally coined by Alvin Tofler in 1970, in the book of the same name. But I see it's now made its way into the dictionary.


Note that these are only generic terms. There is no way of knowing how specific people would react to specific things—or what would interest them (or dismay them) the most.

As Arthur C. Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I'm not sure how much study has been done with respect to this (perhaps among primitive cultures being exposed to modern technology) to indicate if it's a valid hypothesis or not. Or exactly what differing levels of technology would be required in order for the person from the less advanced state to think of the more advanced state as magic. Or what they would think of as interesting rather than just confusing or frightening.

  • Hi Jason, thanks for this. You are suggesting words that describe the reactions of people past to the present, or people present to the future. I like the Arthur C. Clarke quote. – Spookpadda Mar 17 at 4:48
  • However, what I'm really looking for here is a term for the literary device, rather than for these hypothetical reactions (in a similar way to how "alternate history" is a term used for exploring the possible consequences of historical events, by speculating on how things might have been different under other circumstances). – Spookpadda Mar 17 at 5:02
  • @Spookpadda Do you mean to say, what is the genre of people who are misplaced in time? (The title of your question seemed to be asking about the reaction.) – Jason Bassford Mar 17 at 13:23
  • OK, yes I see that. No I'm really asking whether there is a word for the literary device. – Spookpadda Mar 21 at 3:58

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