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Alvin Toffler: still shocking after all these years

New Scientist meets the controversial futurologist

New Scientist, 19 March 1994, pp. 22-25


Alvin Toffler burst into the limelight in 1970 with the publication of Future Shock, a book that caught the spirit of the age with its challenging vision of a society being torn apart by the ``premature arrival of the future''. It became a worldwide best seller. Since then, he and his wife Heidi (who recently owned up to her half of the creative effort and put her name on their books too) have published a string of influential books. The Third Wave (1980) and Power Shift (1990) form a trilogy with Future Shock. Each one and the Tofflers' most recent book, War and Anti-War, takes a different lens to explore the technological and culture forces shaping the future.

Although the Tofflers are often thought of as the world's most famous futurologists, two words that are definitely not in their vocabulary are "predict" and "trend". "We believe nobody can predict the future," says Alvin. "We'll read the stuff that comes out of mathematical models, but we'll read it with a degree of skepticism. What we have constructed is a model of historical and social change."

That model is seen most clearly in The Third Wave, which maps out three gigantic waves of change. The First Wave corresponds to the agricultural revolution which dominated human history for thousands of years. The Second Wave - industrial civilization - is now playing itself out after 300 years of dominance. The Third Wave is crashing over us right now, having started with the birth of a postindustrial, high-technology, information economy in the 1950s.

The transforming power of technology always plays a central role in the Tofflers' books, but their first love was not science. Both studied English at New York University and then plunged into the Bohemian world of postwar Greenwich Village, writing poetry and planning novels. ``I was your typical liberal arts student. Math and science were absolutely the subject that gave me the most difficulty. But for some reason, I knew at a very young age that technology was important, that science was important, and so I took a course in the history of technology and then read, read and read.''

The Tofflers' interest in technology (plus early left-wing leanings) even extended to working on a factory production line in their New York days. After that came years of journalism, with the Tofflers writing for everyone from Fortune and Playboy to the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and acquiring a ``dogmatic belief in never becoming dogmatic''. Then, in the 1960s, the Tofflers were asked to write a paper for IBM on the long-term social and organizational implications of the computer. That gave them a period of immersion in technology. Future Shock followed soon afterwards, when they were living in Washington DC and Alvin was working as a correspondent for a Pennsylvania newspaper.


What led you to write Future Shock?
While covering Congress, it occurred to us that big technological and social changes were occurring in the United States, but that the political system seemed totally blind to their existence. Between 1955 and 1960, the birth control pill was introduced, television became universalized [sic], commercial jet travel came into being and a whole raft of other technological events occurred. Having spent several years watching the political process, we came away feeling that 99 per cent of what politicians do is keep systems running that were laid in place by previous generations of politicians.

Our ideas came together in 1965 in an article called ``The future as a way of life'', which argued that change was going to accelerate and that the speed of change could induce disorientation in lots of people. We coined the phrase ``future shock'' as an analogy to the concept of culture shock. With future shock you stay in one place but your own culture changes so rapidly that it has the same disorienting effect as going to another culture.

Were you surprised by the reaction to the book?
I think that it touched a nerve. Remember we were coming out of the Sixties, countries were being torn apart, change was almost out of control for a period. It touched a nerve, it gave a language, it introduced a metaphor that people could use to describe their own experience.

Looking back to 1970 when the book came out, how would you have done it differently?
The great weakness was the book wasn't radical enough, although everybody said it was a very radical book. The reason for that is that we introduced the concept of the general crisis of industrialism. Marx had talked about the general crisis of capitalism and the argument of the left was always that capitalism would collapse upon itself and socialism would triumph. We argued that both capitalism and socialism would collapse eventually because both were the offspring of industrial civilization, and that we were on the edge of a new way of life, a new civilization. Had we understood more deeply the consequences of that idea we would not have accepted as naively as we did the forecasts of the economists. If you think that economists are arrogant now, in the Sixties they were really riding high. They claimed we would never have another recession, and the reason was that we understand how the economy works, and ``all we have to do is fine-tune it'' as one economist told us. We were young and naive and we bought that notion. We should have anticipated that the revolution we were talking about would have hit the economy in a much deeper way.

There seems to be some profound dislocation between this wave and all previous waves. Is there no going back?
I don't think you can understand today's changes without recognizing the revolutionary nature of these changes. We made a conscious choice to do that, and we say that our work springs from a revolutionary premise that what's taking place today is in fact a phase change, a fundamental transformation of some kind. We say we are going from a brute-force economy to a brain-force economy, and it's clear that skill and knowledge are becoming the central resource for economic activity.

If I had studied economics I would have been taught that the factors of production are land, labour and capital. ``Knowledge'' doesn't appear. Today, knowledge not only must appear in that list, it dominates the others. If you have the right knowledge at the right place at the right time, that means less labour, less energy, less capital, less raw materials and less time. All the other inputs of economic production for the conversion of natural elements into what we call wealth can be done far more effectively and efficiently through the application of knowledge.

Is it computers that have been mainly responsible for this shift?
We are talking about knowledge in a much broader sense. I don't mean just computer data, I also mean ideas. I think we use the word almost in a sense of culture. What's really interesting is that we believe the nature of technology and the nature of the economy will drive the nature of social change. Which makes us sound like technological determinists. However, it is the culture that increasingly drives the technology and the economy. The economy is based on knowledge and that is based on culture. It's Marx stood on its head.

Are there limits to how adaptable culture is? How far can we go?
There are obviously circumstances where you have to make the change to survive, and there are other circumstances where if you make them too fast, you destroy. A good example is Russia. We had these economists rushing in with their attaché cases stuffed with Newtonian models, telling the former Soviet officials that they had to change overnight. They had obviously not read Future Shock, [!] and had totally ignored non-economic realities - the social, political, cultural and religious realities. They were prime examples of Second Wave thinking, acting as though economics was a self-contained machine untouched by all these other forces and as though you could drive 250 million people into a new system in X number of days. That's ridiculous and dangerous, and what they have given us is Zhirinovsky. Cultures have limits.

As you travel to different countries how do you feel that different cultures have reacted to these changes?
I think that the US is still the spearhead of this change, is still the leading edge of the Third Wave, that a lot of our increasingly inflamed racial problems, our unemployment problems, are directly related to transfer from a brute force to a brain-force economy, which does not provide employment, for example, for uneducated people and even for some educated people.

Europe has made a number of fundamental strategic errors and they have a lot to do with the Common Market and the European Union. One of the things that has always struck me as absolutely stupid has been the contrast between the billions of dollars of subsidy for agriculture and the pennies put aside for research, Research budgets have been - in contrast with the US - minimal. And at a time when every major company is trying to flatten the hierarchy, the European Union takes 12 bureaucracies and puts another one on top. At a time when we are discovering that small businesses are more renumerable [sic], the Brussels folks still think in terms of economies of scale.

The European Union should not be a bureaucratic, nation-based union - it will have to be a Europe of regions. And it will have to recognize the importance of science and technology much more than even now, and it will have to break up the remaining centralized PTTs and accelerated the development of the electronic infrastructure.

But on the other hand if you're saying that knowledge is so important, that knowledge is a very portable item, does that mean that the leaps and overtaking will be so much more rapid?
They will, and they will come from strange places. Right now Silicon Valley is talking about the fact that there are companies buying cheap programming from India. The Third Wave technologies are not going to be monopolized, they are going to proliferate rapidly around the world. Ideas are going to be very, very hard to bottle up, and your lead time in controlling that information is increasingly short.

Isn't that a theme which you pick up in your new book, War and Anti-War?
The basic argument is that as new civilizations emerge they bring with them new forms of warfare and new forms of warfare emerge, new forms of peacefare are required.

The Industrial Revolution did not simply industrialize the economy, it industrialized warfare. The machine age gave us the machine gun. Societies organized around mass-production, culminated in nuclear weapons, the ultimate in mass destruction. We argue that to the degree that knowledge is in fact becoming central to the new economy, it is also becoming central to the new form of war. The US Air Force has just bought 300,000 personal computers. There will be more computers in the armies of the world than there will be guns. Just as in the economy you need skilled workers, you need skilled soldiers.

One of the things we discovered in writing this book was that you need smart generals. The generals we met researching this book, are super, supersmart. They have studied everything from aerospace to computer sciences to international relations. That came as a revelation to us. Never having had much contact with the military, we shared the common stereotypes.

The other thing that interested us in the book was how an institution as large and recalcitrant to change as the US military went from complete demoralization after Vietnam - drug-drenched, bureaucratic, bloated and despised - to its performance in the Gulf War. If you can speak of war as elegant, that was elegant.

You paint in the book a very chilling prospect of this lean, mean intellectual, elegant fighting machine that can zap the hell out of First and Second Wave civilizations ...
Yes, but the other thing I say is that you can't keep secrets and you can't monopolize this technology. The proliferation of Third Wave technology has a profound military implication because the weapons of the future are going to come from civilian production - that's a fundamental change - and it's going to be possible for poor countries with minimal amounts of money to smarten their weapons. They're doing it right now.

You don't feel it's possible for the more advanced nations to constantly keep ahead?
War is not going to be fought just with material weapons, but with electronic terrorism. We know a former US intelligence officer, who is also deep into artificial intelligence and computers, who says that if you give him 20 people and $1 million, which is peanuts, he can shut America down. There are a few nodes that are highly vulnerable - he knows exactly where.

They could shut down every computer, they could shut down the banking system, the ATM machines, the hospitals, transportation systems. You only need one superhacker, he could work for Terhan, he could work for Zhirinovsky. So it isn't that the West or the US in particular has this lifetime lead. On the contrary, I think we are exceedingly vulnerable and the vulnerability is magnified by the ignorance of the public and the self-confidence. You know: ``We won the Gulf War, look how well we did, we can do that to anybody, any place.''

So knowledge isn't necessarily wisdom?
Right now I don't think there is a clue in the White House as to what the interests of the US are in the emerging world. I think that a vacuum exists because there is an intellectual error being made, a profound error.

For fifty years, the model was the Cold War and that explained everything. Now it's the end of the Cold War that explained everything. And if we look back on this period in a hundred years from now, the historians will say, yes, there was this thing called the Cold War - it was like some big tribal conflict in ancient times, they had these big bombs they could kill each other with. But in fact the most important thing that happened in that period was the emergence of a new civilization. You can call it postindustrial, Third Wave, or technotronic.

Basically the change in the relationship of knowledge to production and other social processes means that everything has begun to change. It has cultural dimensions, religious dimensions, and certainly scientific dimensions. You're getting models of change that are what I would call essentially Third Wave models, certainly not mechanistic.

You mean complexity, chaos?
Yes, and these are not the classical theories of the industrial age. If science begins to change its assumptions about change itself, that's pretty profound. If we are beginning to shift from the popular use of machine models to describe various things, to computer models, to biological models, then to ecological models, we are moving into a multi-logic culture. There is a logic that goes with print, and we call that literal logic. Video has arrived and video has its own logic. Pictures have their own grammar, and computers too. We are going from a culture dominated by literal logic to a culture in which there are clashing logics. And I think we are moving into an era in which we are going to explode existing cultures.

Heidi and I are asked all over the world, "Can we become Third Wave and stay Chinese, or English, or Mexican?" The answer is you can't stay anything. The Third Wave permits and even encourages cultural diversity. You can define your own unique culture, but it isn't going to be the culture of the past and it's going to be configured out of elements that come into your culture from outside.

When you have messages beamed to you automatically translated into your own language, and you watch television from Nigeria, or Fiji, or anywhere in the world, gradually yo pluck pieces or elements from those cultures and you put them together. Then you create your own unique English-of-the-future culture, or Japanese-of-the-future culture. People do not simply relive the past.

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