Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Books: Alvin Toffler's "The Third Wave."

In 1978, I read Alvin Toffler's classic "Future Shock." We'd seen a documentary based on it in a high school social studies class, and it piqued my interest.

A couple of years later, in 1980, when I was a college freshman, Toffler published his next book, "The Third Wave." I purchased it, started it, but put it aside. There was a lot of content that went over my head.

In 2006, my friend Mark Evans was shot to death in a botched robbery in front of his own home. I alluded to that loss in this blog and my old one. Mark was probably the best-read person I've ever known, and I never had an uninteresting discussion with him. He referred to "The Third Wave" frequently, so when I helped other friends and his family in boxing up and hauling away his belongings shortly after his death, his copy of "The Third Wave" was one of the handful of books and cd's I kept.

I'm glad that I waited to read it and that I finally got around to reading it this summer. Having gotten a bachelor's and master's in Political Science, I'm much more able to read it critically got much more out of it my first attempt to read it three decades ago. Plus, I was filled with a sense of just how prescient this book was in many cases. And I sure wish Mark was still around for me to discuss the book with.

Alvin Toffler and his wife Heidi, after getting graduate degrees at Eastern colleges, moved to the midwest and worked factory jobs for five years in order to get an insight on things. That time was well spent.

The Third Wave that Toffler refers to is the next economic/social/political shift. The first wave was the formation of agrarian societies about 10,000 years ago. This resulted in massive changes in human civilizations. The economics went from hunter/gatherer to cultivation. Social and political structures formed to deal with human needs; villages formed, trade came about. The extended family and the village became the center of life.

The second wave was industrialization. This change in the mode of production entailed, as he pointed out, a shift in economics. Instead of individuals consuming most of what they produced and trading or purchasing a little of what they needed, the exact opposite started happening; individuals became part of a production system in which most of what they produced was sold (usually not by them but by the owner of the means of production) and they purchased most of what they needed to consume.

Toffler argues that both Marxists and capitalists assume that industrial production will continue to be the main mode of production. He asserts that they are both wrong; that there will be a massive decentralization of life and production, a Third Wave, and that this wave will have economic, social and political changes that will come with it.

In 1980, when few people had personal computers, Toffler predicted that not only most homes would have computers, but that appliances and the homes themselves will have computer components in them. In this prediction, he was dead on.

On page 169, he points out a computer service called "The Source," which provided computer users access to news, stock and commodity market data, educational material, shopping, the ability to make hotel and travel reservations, etc. and even to play chess, bridge and backgammon with players thousands of miles away. This was, in short, the proto-internet, which then existed mostly as a mostly-unknown means for military and scientific computers to communicate. Toffler understood the potential significance of this, including the ability for it to allow a large portion of people to work from home.

He predicted many things. Among them: that vocal recognition programs, then in their infancy, would revolutionize computer use; that the connected computers would allow people with like interests find one another despite geographical separation (i.e. social networking); the rise in importance of cable television; he even suggested that there was the strong possibility of the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Much has not come to pass, though. He suggests that eventually former industrial societies will decentralize into "cottage industries;" that using improved agricultural technology combined with the electronic connectedness, people will be able to use enlightened utilization of technology to return to an echo of the not-so-rustic village past, this time much safer, comfortable and enjoyable.

While I believe that this future is possible, and certainly hope that we follow at least part of this vision of creating a sustainable civilization (he addresses the upcoming energy crunch and environmental destruction, things that are in our laps now), I think that he dismisses the fact that capitalist societies will allow industry to chase the lowest labor, and that frequently this means industrializing the most politically oppressed areas because unionization is also suppressed, resulting in ludicrously low labor costs. Mr. Toffler, a former Marxist, dismisses the differences in capitalist and Marxian societies a little too quickly. I would argue that what he was comparing was not capitalist and socialist societies, but capitalist and left fascist societies. Regardless, the former USSR and China have hurtled headlong into capitalism, and the United States continues to be stripped of its industrial jobs as capital chases the cheapest labor costs.

Still, overall, this is an amazing book and highly recommended. It will serve as an excellent blueprint for a more sustainable and humane human future.


mi said...

very interesting.
i think it will have to be something i read when i have time to dedicate to it, but i will keep it on my list, nonetheless.

Erik Donald France said...

Excellent review, man! The cottage industries paragraph still seems like a fine thing to aim for, for those who can. I guess it is sort of catching on in some places, like Denmark. May it spread. I dig "the Source" -- kind of science fictiony. Three cheers'

Churlita said...

Sounds like an amazing read. If I ever read more non-fiction, this will be at the top of my list.

Pat Tillett said...

Thanks for the review! I'll be adding this one to my list...

Barbara Bruederlin said...

This sounds like a fascinating book, and highly prescient. Great review.