Alvin Toffler’s models of change

Alvin Toffler’s futures. Image: Korea University Business School.

Alvin Toffler’s deserved reputation as a futurist hinged on two vastly influential books: Future Shock, published in 1970, and The Third Wave, published exactly a decade later. In the introduction to The Third Wave he described the pair as “complementary parts of a much larger whole.” But in the same section he also seems to undercut this assessment:

“While Future Shock called for certain changes to be made, it emphasized the personal and social costs of change. The Third Wave, while taking note of the difficulties of adaptation, emphasizes the equally important costs of not changing certain things rapidly enough. … In this book the lens is reversed. I concentrate less on acceleration, as such, and more on the destination towards which change is carrying us.” [TTW, pp17–18]

Returning to these two books after his death, I’m not completely persuaded by his distinction. In 2016, Future Shock reads more like a “used future,” while The Third Wave, in contrast, seems both prescient and to underpin much of the current thinking about the social, economic and political transitions of the 21st century.

In this article, I’m going to outline what I mean by this by looking at the context and content of the two books.

When I say that Future Shock represents a used future, it is because it represents a future that still exists in people’s imaginations, but not in a way that helps us deal with the range of futures now on offer. As Sohail Inayatullah writes in his “Six Pillars” paper, “Is your image of the future, your desired future, yours or is it unconsciously borrowed from someone else?”

Future Shock is a ‘used future.’ It exists in the imagination, but it is no longer helpful

And the used future that is in Future Shock is tremendously influential. We hear it every time a keynote speaker tells us that change is speeding up, or when they talk about “information overload,” a term from another writer that Toffler popularised, or when they tell stories of the coming impact of exponential change (the book talks about acceleration: “exponential” came into play from Moore’s ‘Law’.)

The tone is set from the very first page, when he writes about “the roaring current of change, a current so powerful today that it overturns institutions, shifts our values and shrivels our roots.” [FS, p11] Or, a few pages later, “the acceleration of change does not merely buffet industries or nations. It is a concrete force that reaches deep into our personal lives.” [FS, p19]

With hindsight, we know that Future Shock was written at a particular historic juncture. It was almost the last gasp of the long period of rapid economic growth that had come out of the post-war boom, at least in the richer world; the oil shock was still a few years into the future.

When you look at the evidence of acceleration he collates, much of it is economic evidence of change caused by this long boom, of the type of change you get in a world of 4–5% economic growth. We also know, reading Robert Gordon’s recent book The Rise and Fall of American Growth, that in the United States (and in Europe, which Gordon doesn’t write about) that the growth rates in that period from around 1950 to 1970 were both unprecedented and unrepeated. Gordon believes they are also unrepeatable.

At the same time, the long cultural shift to post-materialist values that was sparked by the 1960s was visible but at an early stage (the Stonewall riots likely happened while he was at work on the book), and some of the more impressionistic evidence of emerging issues comes from this side of the story.

The point is that these two currents of change are treated in Future Shock as if they are the same thing. The economic change had reached terminal velocity, and was about to go into reverse; the cultural change was about to accelerate. Toffler’s facility as a journalist — both books are very readable — weaves them together as one story. This may well have been how they seemed at the time, but with hindsight we can tease them apart.

Scientists are routinely over-optimistic about the speed at which their work is normalised into the everyday

Hindsight also allows us to note that one of the lessons of Future Shock is that scientists are routinely over-optimistic about the speed at which their work becomes normalised into everyday social institutions and behaviours. 
 Toffler was not alone in anticipating large scale underwater colonies (which would be in everyday use by 2020 [FS, pp174–75]). Human cloning, expected in a timescale of “zero to fifteen years,” is behind schedule. Some of the marketing initiatives he alights on as evidence of change seem likely to have been short-lived. I’m not sure, for example, how long TWA persisted with internal US flights themed by a range of national cultures and cuisines. There are cautionary tales here for all of us.

That said, some of the themes in Future Shock are exactly right, even when the detail is awry: the rise of experience, for example, or the “ad-hocracy”, or informal organisation [FS, p120]. And it was a brave author in 1970 who projected homosexual marriage and adoption [FS, pp227–228].

In contrast, The Third Wave, published in 1980, offers a more coherent story about how the future might unfold. The First Wave was the millennia of agricultural civilisations, and the Second the age of industry, described in the book as “a flash flood in history — a brief three centuries.” [TTW, p127]. Toffler argued that this second age was all but over.

“[T]his book flows from the assumption that we are the final generation of an old civilization and the first generation of a new one,” he writes as he discusses “the conflict” “between the dying Second Wave civilization and the emergent Third Wave civilization that is thundering in to take its place.” [TTW, p26]

The trend that was the genesis of this model was a decisive change in US employment patterns. In the decade after 1955, white collar and service workers in the United States outnumbered blue collar workers for the first time, with other countries following quickly on its heels [TNW, p28]. If this seems to have its roots in the work of the sociologist Daniel Bell, the model itself has a Marxist flavour, driven by shifts in the economic base, even if the motor of change here is not class conflict.

The economic world of Future Shock looks very familiar now

The picture he constructs of the business world in The Third Wave, following the economic logic, looks familiar to us 35 years on, even if, as with Future Shock, neither sea nor space are yet the homes of industry. He describes a world of the end of mass production, fragmenting media, intelligent environments, the death of the secretary (“white-collar proletarians”), and the arrival of remote working. At a corporate level, transaction speeds increase while the mass society of the 20th century breaks apart, something that also extends to family models, which becomes more diverse. There’s more, about politics and the need for new types of political institutions (he doesn’t put it like this, but a new base needs a different superstructure).

This new world is framed by what Toffler describes as “a pentagon of pressures”: from the biosphere, from the “socio-sphere” (a shorthand for new types of accountability), a new “info-sphere,” in which far more information needs to be exchanged between organisations, the “power-sphere” (meaning increasing complexity of government) and finally “moral pressure.” As a result of this, public “[b]ehaviour once accepted as normal is suddenly interpreted as corrupt, immoral or scandalous.” [TTW, p248]

As a set of futures ideas, those in The Third Wave have also found their way deep into the mainstream, for example every time someone mentions “the knowledge economy” or “the learning society”.

Toffler concludes that the coming struggle “is between those who try to prop up and preserve industrial society and those who are ready to advance beyond it.” [TTW, p446] This struggle has perhaps gone on for longer than he expected; the expansion of Second Wave industrial society to the world’s poorer economies is something of a blindspot. At the same time, as Dani Rodrik notes, China and India are already experiencing “premature de-industrialisation.”

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

All models are wrong, but some are useful, and they are useful to the extent that they have explanatory power. Despite Toffler’s claims, there are two competing models at play in Future Shock and The Third Wave, and perhaps we should not be surprised that the second one, developed in the decade following the first, has greater explanatory power.

But Future Shock had an effect in another way. As Stephen McGrail notes in his review of Jens Beckert’s Imagined Futures, economic actors compete by constructing future narratives.

The narratives built on Future Shock have been those used by Silicon Valley and their associated venture capitalists to justify practices that have the effect of making them richer at the expense of the rest of society. These stories, which are a smokescreen for monopoly, are about change creating constant disruption. Used futures, it turns out, have performative power even after they lose their explanatory value. Toffler, a lifelong radical, might have been disappointed. ◀︎

A version of this article was first published in Compass, the newsletter of the Association of Professional Futurists, in October 2016.