Toffler, Alvin (1928—)

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Toffler, Alvin (1928—)

Alvin Toffler, the most popular futurist in America, became a celebrity in the 1960s and 1970s for his predictions and suggestions for ways people could cope with the unprecedented rate of change initiated by new technologies. With the publication of his bestseller Future Shock in 1970, Toffler became a household name and won many admirers in government and business. The Third Wave (1980) made him internationally known, and with Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the Twenty-First Century (1991) and Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave (1994), Toffler became a prominent political advisor. Since 1993, Toffler's wife, Heidi, has begun to share authorial credit with him, although he claims that she co-authored all of his previous books as well. Together they are known as the couple "who brought futurism to the masses," as Michael Krantz has written in Time magazine.

In Future Shock, Toffler argued that Americans were experiencing confusion and denial about the changes they were witnessing in society. He called this "future shock," a concept he derived from the anthropological concept of "culture shock," which means the inability of members of primitive cultures to adapt to a more advanced culture. Very similarly, Toffler argued, Americans were growing unable to cope with the new culture that was coming into being as technology changed the way people worked and lived. Witnessing the social upheaval of the 1960s, Toffler believed that the mass hysteria of the protests and growing divorce and crime rates were signs that Americans were reaching a limit beyond which they could accept no more change. As remedies to future shock, Toffler argued that children should read more science fiction and that the study of the future should become a standard part of American education.

The main problem, according to Toffler, was that America was undergoing a fundamental shift from a Second Wave to a Third Wave society. The First Wave was the adoption of the agrarian way of life 10,000 years ago, the Second Wave was the urbanization and industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, and the Third Wave that began after the Second World War he called a "super-industrial revolution." This last phase of human development was fueled by the rise of technologies that were driven by knowledge rather than raw material power. In 1980 he predicted in The Third Wave that the personal computer would become a household item, three years before IBM (International Business Machines) introduced computers for home use. Toffler also believed that an information superhighway would become an important part of our everyday lives and that changes in our economy would effect a fundamental restructuring of our society; a "demassification" that would turn back some of the effects of centralization and standardization of the industrial era. Workers would return to the home, establishing living patterns similar in some ways to the First Wave of human development. The difference, however, is that people would be linked by new technologies that enabled them to communicate with others all over the world. And instead of having to purchase identical, mass-produced products, consumers would be presented with a growing number of choices as smaller industries became more feasible. Finally, in what became the focus of his last two books, the federal government would become less centralized as power shifted to smaller interest groups and local governments.

Toffler looked forward to the changes that would take place, arguing optimistically that a more direct democracy, more varieties of family structure and home life, greater utilization of renewable energy resources, a decentralized government, and a more accessible media would result from the Third Wave, effectively eliminating social hierarchies. He attempted to ease the fears of Americans about the rapid rate of change. In The Third Wave he argued that "we are the final generation of an old civilization and the first generation of a new one … much of our personal confusion, anguish, and disorientation can be traced directly to the conflict within us, and within our political institutions, between the dying Second Wave civilization and the emergent Third Wave civilization that is thundering to take its place." His optimism about the positive effects this shift would have on the quality of life and his urgent message that we must prepare for these changes rather than impede their progress drew many disciples, most notably Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich. Ted Turner even claimed to have gotten the idea for CNN (Cable News Network) from The Third Wave.

Alvin and Heidi Tofflers' main goal has been to prepare people for the changes ahead and to make them more comfortable with the concept of change. They want Americans to abandon their nostalgia for small-town life, the nuclear family, and employment stability of the past, and to embrace a future in which knowledge and flexibility will be the greatest assets. As Alvin Toffler told Charles Platt in Dream Makers, he wants to "open up the reader's mind to other ways of conceptualizing our political and social structures. I think that helps people adapt."

—Anne Boyd

Further Reading:

Judis, John B. "Newt's Not-So-Weird Gurus: In Defense of the Tofflers." The New Republic. October 9, 1995, 16-23.

Krantz, Michael. "Cashing in on Tomorrow: A Generation After the Tofflers' 'Future Shock,' Professional Prognosticators See Nothing But Blue Skies." Time. July 15, 1996, 52-54.

Platt, Charles. Dream Makers: The Uncommon Men and Women Who Write Science Fiction, Vol. 2. Berkeley, Berkeley Publishing, 1983.

Toffler, Alvin. Future Shock. New York, Random House, 1970.

——. The Third Wave. New York, Morrow, 1980.