The Annotated Toffler
The couple that predicted the world we live in today.
Think you've heard it all about the global financial crisis, the Internet distracting us into stupidity, dysfunctional and self-destructive politics, the demise of the nuclear family, and degenerating cities? Well imagine having predicted, written about, and imagined the consequences of all of these postmodern maladies -- before they ever happened. Meet Alvin and Heidi Toffler, the accidental futurists who have lived to see so many of their foresights become our daily reality.
As children of the Depression, the Tofflers met in New York City where both were students at New York University, he studying English and she linguistics. Considering themselves radicals, they ditched graduate school midstream and set off westward to join the industrializing masses in America's post-war heartland. Alvin worked in foundries and factories as a millwright and welder, while Heidi served as a union shop steward. But they didn't just live the blue-collar life, they studied it, gaining valuable insights into the changing behavioral patterns brought about by intensifying human-technology interaction. Returning to New York, Alvin became a correspondent for union newspapers and eventually Forbes, while Heidi worked in a business library. They gradually came into contact with IBM, Xerox, and AT&T, companies who sought their analysis while exposing them to technologies still invisible to the world. Their methodology always centered on listening, observing, and extrapolating, and they are credited with advising AT&T it would have to break-up a decade before it was forced to by the U.S. government.
The Tofflers effectively anticipated the Information Age before it had a name. Future Shock, then, was not only a book title but a phenomenon. Upon publication in 1970, it was called "explosive" and "brilliantly formulated" by the Wall Street Journal. Over 15 million copies have been printed in over 50 countries. With Future Shock and especially Third Wave (1980), the Tofflers became credited with formulating an entire theory of history. While much of the world had moved out of the purely agricultural "first wave" of civilization, most were stuck in the mass industrial landscape of the "second wave." The "third wave," by contrast, represented post-industrial societies in which knowledge was becoming as precious a commodity as monetary wealth. Not only is the transition from one wave to another hyper-disruptive, but many societies only make the transition partially, thus becoming existentially schizophrenic.
Think you’ve heard it all about the global financial crisis, the Internet distracting us into stupidity, dysfunctional and self-destructive politics, the demise of the nuclear family, and degenerating cities? Well imagine having predicted, written about, and imagined the consequences of all of these postmodern maladies — before they ever happened. Meet Alvin and Heidi Toffler, the accidental futurists who have lived to see so many of their foresights become our daily reality.
As children of the Depression, the Tofflers met in New York City where both were students at New York University, he studying English and she linguistics. Considering themselves radicals, they ditched graduate school midstream and set off westward to join the industrializing masses in America’s post-war heartland. Alvin worked in foundries and factories as a millwright and welder, while Heidi served as a union shop steward. But they didn’t just live the blue-collar life, they studied it, gaining valuable insights into the changing behavioral patterns brought about by intensifying human-technology interaction. Returning to New York, Alvin became a correspondent for union newspapers and eventually Forbes, while Heidi worked in a business library. They gradually came into contact with IBM, Xerox, and AT&T, companies who sought their analysis while exposing them to technologies still invisible to the world. Their methodology always centered on listening, observing, and extrapolating, and they are credited with advising AT&T it would have to break-up a decade before it was forced to by the U.S. government.
The Tofflers effectively anticipated the Information Age before it had a name. Future Shock, then, was not only a book title but a phenomenon. Upon publication in 1970, it was called “explosive” and “brilliantly formulated” by the Wall Street Journal. Over 15 million copies have been printed in over 50 countries. With Future Shock and especially Third Wave (1980), the Tofflers became credited with formulating an entire theory of history. While much of the world had moved out of the purely agricultural “first wave” of civilization, most were stuck in the mass industrial landscape of the “second wave.” The “third wave,” by contrast, represented post-industrial societies in which knowledge was becoming as precious a commodity as monetary wealth. Not only is the transition from one wave to another hyper-disruptive, but many societies only make the transition partially, thus becoming existentially schizophrenic.
The Tofflers helped people around the world understand an incipient future they scarcely realized they were entering. Their writings played on what became the baby boomer’s anxieties about the uncertain impact of technologies on the home, workplace, and society.
Over the decades, their books have sold tens of millions of copies. Interestingly, to this day, Asia remains a major market for their insights. Perhaps this is because when it comes to boldly leveraging technology to re-shape entire nations, Asian nations such as Japan and South Korea are encountering the future before the rest of us — and the Tofflers, after four decades, remain the best guide to the unintended consequences and moral challenges.
Their books ring with echoes of the calamities and quandaries we face today — and should still be required reading. Below is a selection of some of the Tofflers most insightful and provocative passages going back 40 years — each eerily presaging themes and crises from today’s headlines. They betray a deep pessimism about the political class, realism about the promises and pitfalls of our growing integration with technology, and a willingness to present totally counter-intuitive scenarios that still resonate in today’s unsettled debates.
The Third Wave (1980)
The Corporate Identity Crisis: Kabuki Currency
The most immediate change affecting the corporation is the crisis in the world economy. For three hundred years Second Wave civilization worked to create an integrated global marketplace. Periodically these efforts were set back by wars, depressions, or other disasters. But each time the world economy recovered, emerging larger and more closely integrated than before.
Today a new crisis has struck. But this one is different. Unlike all previous crises during the industrial era, it involves not only money but the entire energy base of the society. Unlike the crises of the past, it brings inflation and unemployment simultaneously, not sequentially. Unlike those of the past, it is directly linked to fundamental ecological problems, to an entirely new species of technology, and to the introduction of a new level of communications into the production system. Finally, it is not, as Marxists claim, a crisis or capitalism alone, but one that involves the socialist industrial nations as well. It is, in short, the general crisis of industrial civilization as a whole.
The upheaval in the world economy threatens the survival of the corporation as we know it, throwing its managers into a wholly unfamiliar environment. Thus from the end of World War II until the early 1970s the corporation functioned in a comparatively stable environment. Growth was the key word. The dollar was king. Currencies remained stable for long periods. The postwar financial structure laid in place at Bretton Woods by the capitalist industrial powers, and the COMECON [Council for Mutual Economic Assistance] system created by the Soviets, seemed solid. The escalator to affluence was still ascending, and economists were so confident of their ability to predict and control the economic machine that they spoke casually of “fine tuning” it.
Today the phrase evokes only derisive snorts. The President wisecracks that he know a Georgia fortune-teller who is a better forecaster than the economists. A former Secretary of the Treasury, W. Michael Blumenthal, says that “the economics profession is close to bankruptcy in understanding the present situation – before or after the fact.” Standing in the tangled wreckage of economic theory and the rubble of the postwar economic infrastructure, corporate decision-makers face rising uncertainties.
Interest rates zigzag. Currencies gyrate. Central banks buy and sell money by the carload to damp the swings, but the gyrations only grow more extreme. The dollar and the yen perform a Kabuki dance, the Europeans promote their own new currency (quaintly named the “ecu”), while Arabs frantically off-load billions of dollars worth of American paper. Gold prices break all records. …
Indeed, the entire global framework that stabilized world trade relations for the giant corporations is rattling and in danger of coming apart. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade are all under heavy attack. Europeans scramble to bolt together a new structure to be controlled by them. The “less developed countries” on one side, and the Arabs brandishing their petrodollars on the other, clamor for influence in the financial system of tomorrow and speak of creating their own counterparts to the IMF. The dollar is dethroned, and jerks and spasms rip through the world economy.
All this is compounded by erratic shortages and gluts of energy and resources; by rapid changes in the attitudes of consumers, workers, and managers; by rapidly shifting imbalances of trade; and above all by the rising militancy of the non-industrial world.
This is the volatile, confusing environment in which today’s corporations struggle to operate. The managers who run them have no wish to relinquish corporate power. They will battle for profits, production, and personal advancement. But faced with soaring levels of unpredictability, with mounting public criticism and hostile political pressures, our most intelligent managers are questioning the goals, structure, responsibility, the very raison d’être of their organizations. Many of our biggest corporations are experiencing something analogous to an identity crisis as they watch the once stable Second Wave framework disintegrate around them.
Khanna: Need we say more? Even though it was written during the Carter administration, if you remove the dates from the passage above you have a template for most of today’s editorial columns on the aftermath of the current financial meltdown. It’s all here: the identity crisis of corporations, skyrocketing commodity prices, morally bankrupt economists, and currencies in flux and free-fall. The takeaway, however, is not simply that history repeats itself. Rather, the stakes are greater than ever given ecological stress, widening inequalities, and governments’ diminished fiscal position to actually make a dent in these gargantuan challenges. As uprisings from London to Athens to Cairo show, it takes only the slightest spark to light a pool of combustible brew beneath the surface. Importantly, while the focus of this passage is the corporate identity, the message is clearly targeted at all institutions of industrial civilization. Never is that more true than today, when not only companies, but also governments, universities, non-profits and all other sectors need to re-think their roles and prepare for an era of uncertainty even more tumultuous than the Tofflers saw coming in 1980.
The Third Wave
The Political Mausoleum: Private Armies
The dangers implicit in this power vacuum can be gauged by glancing briefly backward at the mid-1970s. Then, as energy and raw material flows faltered in the wake of the OPEC embargo, as inflation and unemployment spurted, as the dollar plunged and Africa, Asia, and South America began to demand a new economic deal, signs of political pathology flared in one after another of the Second Wave nations.
Nevertheless, these evidences of insatiability must make us wonder whether existing Second Wave political systems in each of the industrial nations can survive the next round of crises. For the crises of the 1980s and 1990s are likely to be even more severe, disruptive, and dangerous than those just past. Few informed observers believe the worst is over, and ominous scenarios abound.
If turning off the oil spigots for a few weeks in Iran could cause violence and chaos on gas lines in the United States, what is likely to happen, not only in the U.S., when the present rulers of Saudi Arabia are kicked off the throne? Is it likely that this tiny clique of ruling families, who control 25 percent of the world’s oil reserves, can cling to power indefinitely, while intermittent warfare rages between North and South Yemen nearby, and their own country is destabilized by floods of petrodollars, immigrant workers, and radical Palestinians? Just how wisely will the shell-shocked (and future-shocked) politicians in Washington, London, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo, or Tel Aviv respond to a coup d’état, a religious upheaval, or a revolutionary uprising in Riyadh — let alone to the sabotage of the oil fields at Ghawar and Abqaiq?
What happens, asks another chilling scenario, when Mexico begins in earnest to exploit its oil – and faces a sudden, overpowering influx of petro-pesos? Will its ruling oligarchy have the desire, much less the technical skills, to distribute the bulk of the new wealth to Mexico’s malnourished and long-suffering peasantry? And can it do so rapidly enough to prevent today’s low-level guerrilla activity there from exploding into a full-scale war on the doorstep of the United States? If such a war were to break out, how would Washington respond? And how would the huge population of Chicanos in the ghettos of Southern California or Texas react? Can we expect even semi-intelligent decisions about crises of such magnitude, given today’s disarray in Congress and the White House?
Economically, will governments already incapable of managing macro-economic swings in the international money system be able to cope with even wilder swings in the international money system, or with its complete breakdown? With currencies hardly under control, the Eurocurrency bubble still expanding unchecked, and consumer, corporate, and government credit ballooning, can anyone look forward to economic stability in the years ahead? Given skyrocketing inflation and unemployment, a credit crash, or some other economic catastrophe, we may yet see private armies in action.
Finally, what happens when, among the myriad religious cults now flowering, some spring up to organize for political purposes? As major organized religions splinter under the de-massifying impact of the Third Wave, armies of self-ordained priests, ministers, preachers, and teachers are likely to appear – some with disciplined, perhaps even paramilitary, political followings.
In the United States, it is not hard to imagine some new political party running Billy Graham (or some facsimile) on a crude “law-and-order” or “anti-porn” program with a strong authoritarian streak. Or some as yet unknown Anita Bryant demanding imprisonment for gays or “gay-symps.” Such examples provide only a faint, glimmering intimation of the religio-politics that may well lie ahead, even in the most secular of societies. One can imagine all sorts of cult-based political movements headed by Ayatollah named Smith, Schultz, or Santini.
Khanna: Everything from the Arab Spring to Mexico’s cartel wars to the sub-prime collapse can be read into this passage, but the fundamental insight at play is the potential for radical factionalism anywhere. How would leaders in Western capitals react to a coup in an allied Arab state? It would seem they’re trying to figure it out as it happens. But it’s not just Arab autocrats that should be worried about rising frustrations. Similar conditions of over-population, unemployment, corrupt governance, weak infrastructure, and fragmented authority are present across the entire post-colonial world — from geopolitical fissures in alliances to the fragmentation of supposedly stable states. The conditions of equilibrium, and thus stability, between partner nations or between ruler and ruled, are tenuous at best. Reaching for the gun — forming what the Tofflers called “private armies” — is man’s reflex of choice: the number of distinct armed groups in the world today now exceeds 1,700, according to recent data from Tufts University research. The Tofflers would surely note today that revolution knows no boundaries.
Future Shock (1970)
Information: The Kinetic Image
Mozart on the Run
In the United States today the median time spent by adults reading newspapers is 52 minutes per day. The same person who commits nearly an hour to newspapers also spends time reading magazines, books, signs, billboards, recipes, instructions, labels on cans, advertising on the back of breakfast food boxes etc. Surrounded by print, he “ingests” between 10,000 and 20,000 edited words per day of the several times that many to which he is exposed. The same person also probably spends an hour and a quarter per day listening to the radio — more if he owns an FM receiver. If he listens to news, commercials, commentary of other such programs, he will, during this period, hear about 11,000 pre-processed words. He also spends several hours watching television — add another 10,000 words or so, plus a sequence of carefully arranged, highly purposive visuals.
If the ad men, who must pay for each split second of time on radio or television, and who fight for the reader’s fleeting attention in magazines and newspapers, are busy trying to communicate maximum imagery in minimum time, there is evidence, too, that at least some members of the public want to increase the rate at which they can receive messages and process images. This explains the phenomenal success of speed-reading courses among college students, business executives, politicians and others. One leading speed-reading school claims it can increase almost anyone’s input speed three times, and some readers report the ability to read literally tens of thousands of words per minute — a claim roundly disputed by many reading experts. Whether or not such speeds are possible, the clear fact is that the rate of communication is accelerating. Busy people wage a desperate battle each day to plow through as much information as possible. Speed-reading presumably helps them do this….
Even in music the same accelerative thrust is increasingly evident. A conference of composers and computer specialists held in San Francisco not long ago was informed that for several centuries music has been undergoing “an increase in the amount of auditory information transmitted during a given interval of time,” and there is evidence also that musicians today play the music of Mozart, Bach and Haydn at a faster tempo than that at which the same music was performed at the time it was composed. We are getting Mozart on the run.
Khanna: In the decade where VHS and Betamax sparred for primacy, cassette tapes were king, and pocket calculators and the Apple II were the most advanced home computers, this elegant passage began to articulate the phrase with which Alvin Toffler is credited with coining: “information overload.” What might have then seemed like a substantial amount of time devoted to consuming print, television, and radio content has ballooned into a state of affairs in which we are exposed to packaged information nearly every waking minute. For some, the amount of time online exceeds the total amount of time spent watching television, listening to radio, or reading newspapers and magazines. Many youth today effectively live online, where most of their social interactions and physical memories are formed.
The notion of getting “Mozart on the run” foreshadows one of today’s most controversial debates, namely whether our brains are getting re-wired due to continuous distraction which creates a state of constant partial attention. These are scientific euphemisms for a deep concern that our ever-present technologies are making us biochemically incapable of focusing on any single task, and thus as multi-taskers, we are doing none of them well. Furthermore, since adolescents’ virtual lives are harder to control than their physical ones, the job of cyber-cop has to be added to most parents’ portfolios.
As the Tofflers might have predicted, our response to drowning in information has been more technology to manage the overload. Experimental education programs that incorporate technology already abound, such as Quest2Learn in New York City, a school that primarily teaches through gaming and game design. Ultimately, then, the question is not whether the Internet is making us smarter or dumber, but rather who is adapting better to the realities of ubiquitous information.
Taming Technology: A Technological Backlash
As the effects of irresponsibly applied technology become more grimly evident, a political backlash mounts. An offshore drilling accident that pollutes 800 square miles of the Pacific triggers a shock wave of indignation all over the United States. A multi-millionaire industrialist in Nevada, Howard Hughes, prepares a lawsuit to prevent the Atomic Energy Commission from continuing its underground nuclear tests. In Seattle, the Boeing Company fights growing public clamor against its plans to build a supersonic jet transport. In Washington, public sentiment forces a reassessment of missile policy. At MIT, Wisconsin, Cornell, and other universities, scientists lay down test tubes and slide rules during a “research moratorium” called to discuss the social implications of their work. Students organize “environmental teach-ins” and the President lectures the nation about the ecological menace. Additional evidences of deep concern over our technological course are turning up in Britain, France and other nations.
We see here the first glimmers of an international revolt that will rock parliaments and congresses in the decades ahead. This protest against the ravages of irresponsibly used technology could crystallize in a pathological form — as a future-phobic fascism with scientists substituting for Jews in the concentration camps. Sick societies need scapegoats. As the pressures of change impinge more heavily on the individual and the prevalence of future shock increases, this nightmarish outcome gains plausibility. It is significant that a slogan scrawled on a wall by striking students in Paris called for “death to the technocrats!”
The incipient worldwide movement for control of technology, however, must not be permitted to fall into the hands of irresponsible technophobes, nihilists and Rousseauian romantics. For the power of the technological drive is too great to be stopped by Luddite paroxysms. Worse yet, reckless attempts to halt technology will produce results quite as destructive as reckless attempts to advance it.
Caught between these twin perils, we desperately need a movement for responsible technology. We need a broad political grouping rationally committed to further scientific research and technological advance — but on a selective basis only. Instead of wasting its energies in denunciations of The Machine or in negativistic criticism of the space program, it should formulate a set of positive technological goals for the future.
Khanna: While this passage importantly reminds us of the manifold technologies which have at various times stunned and scared us — in particular, nuclear power and weapons — there is some confusion and interchanging of technocrats and technologists. In the Manhattan Project era, these were seen as working hand-in-glove. Today, however, technocrats and technologists occupy different rungs in the popular consciousness. Economic mismanagement has made calls for “Death to Technocrats” stronger than ever, while technologists have become our greatest global heroes. Tim Berners-Lee, Craig Venter, Ray Kurzweil, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, and others have become venerated icons, jeered sometimes in boardrooms, but worshipped for their contributions to mankind.
And yet, if ever there were “reckless attempts to halt technology,” it is today. In America, where faith-based public policy has turned stem-cell research into a political football, demagogic politicians are demonizing science at the expense of long-term public welfare. Even if the public doesn’t understand the intricacies of the science, they have rightly lost faith in the officials who claim to neutrally regulate it. This means, however, that technologists hold almost all the cards. Thus if ever there has been a need for a movement for responsible technology, it is now.
Places: The New Nomads: Migration to the Future
There are however, important differences between the kind of people who are on the move in the United States and those caught up in the European migrations. In Europe most of the new mobility can be attributed to the continuing transition from agriculture to industry; from the past to the present, as it were. Only a small part is as yet associated with the transition from industrialism to super-industrialism. In the United States, by contrast, the continuing redistribution of population is no longer primarily caused by the decline of agricultural employment. It grows, instead, out of the spread of automation and the new way of life associated with super-industrial society the way of life of the future.
This becomes plain if we look at who is doing the moving in the United States. It is true that some technologically backward and disadvantaged groups, such as urban Negroes, are characterized by high rates of geographical mobility, usually within the same neighborhood or county. But these groups form only a relatively small slice of the total population, and it would be a serious mistake to assume that high rates of geographical mobility correlate only with poverty, unemployment or ignorance….
But there is a simultaneous “brain-drain” inside the United States, with thousands of scientists and engineers moving back and forth like particles in an atom….
This moving of executives from house to house as if they were life-size chessmen on a continent-sized board has led one psychologist to propose facetiously a money-saving system called “The Modular Family.” Under this scheme, the executive not only leaves his house behind, but his family as well. The company then finds him a matching family (personality characteristics carefully selected to duplicate those of the wife and children left behind) at the new site. Some other itinerant executive then “plugs into” the family left behind. No one appears to have taken the idea seriously — yet….
For millions, and particularly for the “people of the future,” home is where you find it.
Khanna: Migration is the face of globalization. We do not collectively transition or evolve to the future, but rather migrate into it at different speeds — with some stagnating and others even moving backwards. The digital divide appears to be narrowing with the ubiquity of mobile phones, but there is still the bio-medical divide and other gaping technological disparities. While we so often differentiate societies today on the basis of political and economic systems, we should just as much (or more) emphasize their degree or capacity to absorb technology. This tells us more than any ideology about a nation’s ability to meet future challenges.
In the early 1970s, the Tofflers wrote that about one million people already “lived” in the future; they were the “new nomads.” But now there are tens if not hundreds of millions of people who live the global nomadic lifestyle, from Australian backpackers to jet-set executives. Cities are where the war for talent takes place. Today’s “organizational man” and his modular family move on a far larger chessboard than just the United States. Dubai and Singapore are the leading avatars of this trend. The UAE’s population has grown from a mere 1.5 million a decade ago to close to nine million today, with almost all of that astronomical increase accounted for by either third-world construction and service labor or first-world managers who have laid down roots in the tax-free desert. Since the 1970s, thousands of American executives have also settled in Singapore, permanently enough to give up their American citizenship. As the ranks of the global nomads grow, an entire new kind of citizenship will have to be invented for — or by — them.
The Tofflers’ comparison between the United States and Europe is interesting in that the latter is portrayed as being a step behind. In some respects, the tables have now been turned. Europe is more urbanized than America, with higher broadband penetration, efficient public transportation across dozens of countries, and a substantial share (alongside Asia) of the world’s next-generation “smart city” developments, from Portugal to Holland to Sweden. Meanwhile, in America, the “internal brain drain” the Tofflers witnessed has become ever more pronounced. Hollowed out cities like Detroit contrast starkly with Silicon Valley, as thousands abandon their homes in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis and cross state boundaries — migrating, they hope, to a better future.
The Strategy of Social Futurism: Anticipatory Democracy
Technocrats suffer from more than econo-think and myopia; they suffer, too, from the virus of elitism. To capture control of change, we shall, therefore, require a final, even more radical breakaway from technocratic tradition: we shall need a revolution in the very way we formulate social goals.
Rising novelty renders irrelevant the traditional goals of our chief institutions — state, church, corporation, army and university. Acceleration produces a faster turnover of goals, a greater transience of purpose. Diversity or fragmentation leads to a relentless multiplication of goals. Caught in this churning, goal-cluttered environment, we stagger, future shocked, from crisis to crisis, pursuing a welter of conflicting and self-cancelling purposes.
Nowhere is this more starkly evident than in our pathetic attempts to govern our cities. New Yorkers, within a short span, have suffered a nightmarish succession of near disasters: a water shortage, a subway strike, racial violence in the schools, a student insurrection at Columbia University, a garbage strike, a housing shortage, a fuel oil strike, a breakdown of telephone service, a teacher walkout, a power blackout, to name just a few. In its City Hall, as in a thousand city halls all over the high-technology nations, technocrats dash, firebucket in first, from one conflagration to another without the least semblance of a coherent plan or policy for the urban future.
This is not to say no one is planning, On the contrary; in this seething social brew, technocratic plans, sub-plans and counter-plans pour forth. They call for new highways, new roads, new power plants, new schools. They promise better hospitals, housing, mental health centers, welfare programs. But the plans cancel, contradict and reinforce one another by accident. Few are logically related to one another, and none to any overall image of the preferred city of the future. No vision — utopian or otherwise — energizes our efforts. No rationally integrated goals bring order to the chaos. And at the national and international levels, the absence of coherent policy is equally marked and doubly dangerous.
It is not simply that we do not know which goals to pursue, as a city or as a nation. The trouble lies deeper. For accelerating change has made obsolete the methods by which we arrive at social goals. The technocrats do not yet understand this, and, reacting to the goals crisis in knee-jerk fashion, they reach for the tried and true methods of the past.
Khanna: Our best thinkers on complex systems could not have better articulated the contemporary conundrum of formulating policy in a world of constant feedback loops and unintended consequences. What is striking, of course, is the choice of the city meme to illustrate the point, for it is only in the year 2010 that the world became officially urban, meaning that more people live in cities than in rural areas, and publications across the world began to engage in broad analysis of urban governance.
Interestingly, this passage is equal parts Jane Jacobs, the itinerant and subversive urban theorist who celebrated the innovative chaos of public spaces, and Geoffrey West, the Santa Fe Institute physicist who aspires to reduce cities to a series of complex algorithms. It jibes at officials’ elitism and grand infrastructure projects (or promises) while also calling for “rationally integrated goals.” Urban planning today has become a science, but calls for more bottom-up approaches and citizen participation are also in crescendo. Innovation in urban iPhone apps is still coming from San Francisco, not Shenzhen. What technocrats have yet to figure out, it seems, is how to build healthy chaos into their plans.
The Third Wave
The New Psycho-Sphere: Telecommunity
The popular fear that computers and telecommunications will deprive us of face-to-face contact and make human relations more vicarious is naïve and simplistic. In fact, the reverse might very well be the case. While some office or factory relationships might be attenuated, bonds in the home and the community could well be strengthened by these new technologies. Computers and communications can help us create community.
If nothing else, they can free larger numbers of us to give up commuting — the centrifugal force that disperses us in the morning, throws us into superficial work relationships, while weakening our more important social ties in the home and the community. By making it possible for large numbers of people to work at home (or in close-by neighborhood work centers), the new technologies could make for warmer, more bonded families and a closer, more finely grained community life. The electronic cottage may turn out to be the characteristic mom-and-pop business of the future. And it could lead, as we have seen to a new work-together family unit involving children (and sometimes even expanded to take in outsiders as well). …
As communications begin to replace commuting, we can expect to see a lively proliferation of neighborhood restaurants, theaters, pubs, and clubs, a revitalization of church and voluntary group activity — all or mostly on a face-to-face basis.
Nor, for that matter, are all vicarious relationships to be despised. The issue is not simply vicariousness, but passivity and powerlessness. For a shy person or an invalid, unable to leave home or fearful about meeting people face-to-face, the emerging info-sphere will make possible interactive electronic contact with others who share similar interests — chess players, stamp collectors, poetry lovers, or sports fans — dialed up instantly from anywhere in the country.
Khanna: When telecommuting meets public budget cuts, you get a world where WiFi hubs become the locus of civil society. The technologically empowered — and thus professionally liberated — segment of the middle and upper classes can be seen dropping children off at school and picking them up, playing in the park in the middle of the afternoon, and perhaps partnering with creative youth to launch DIY labs and businesses — all face-to-face. Technology can indeed empower the local, enhancing rather than mothballing the community. Of course, it’s not just the shy or invalids anymore, but just about everyone, who are participants in communities of the virtual sphere. From Second Life to Facebook groups to diaspora networks, we are entering not just a post-sovereign but also a post-territorial era: These communities can have as much real power as they are willing to seize.
The Third Wave
Twenty-First Century Democracy: The Coming Super Struggle
The need for new political institutions exactly parallels our need for new family, educational, and corporate institutions as well. It is deeply wired into our search for a new energy base, new technologies, and new industries. It reflects the upheaval in communications and the need to restructure relationships with the non-industrial world. It is, in short, the political reflection of accelerating changes in all these different spheres.
Without seeing these connections, it is impossible to make sense of the headlines around us. For today the single most important political conflict is no longer between rich and poor, between top-dog and underdog ethnic groups, or even between capitalist and communist. The decisive struggle today is between those who try to prop up and preserve industrial society and those who are ready to advance beyond it. This is the super-struggle for tomorrow.
Other more traditional conflicts between classes, races, and ideologies will not vanish. They may even — as suggested earlier — grow more violent, especially if we undergo large-scale economic turbulence. …
The most important political development of our time in the emergence in our midst of two basic camps, one committed to Second Wave civilization, the other to Third. One is tenaciously dedicated to preserving the core institutions of industrial mass society — the nuclear family, the mass education system, the giant corporation, the mass trade union, the centralized nation-state, and the politics of psuedorepresentative government. The other recognizes that today’s most urgent problems, from energy, war, and poverty to ecological degradation and the breakdown of familial relationships, can no longer be solved within the framework of an industrial civilization….
The defenders of the Second Wave typically fight against minority power; the scoff at direct democracy as “populism”; they resist decentralization, regionalism, and diversity; they oppose efforts to de-massify the schools; they fight to preserve a backward energy system; they deify the nuclear family, pooh-pooh ecological concerns, preach traditional industrial-era nationalism, and oppose the move toward a fairer world economic order.
By contrast, the forces of the Third Wave favor a democracy of shared minority power; they are prepared to experiment with more direct democracy; they favor both transnationalism and a fundamental devolution of power. They call for a crack-up of the giant bureaucracies. They demand a renewable and less centralized energy system. They want to legitimate options to the nuclear family. They fight for less standardization, more individualization in the schools. They place a high priority on environmental problems. They recognized the necessity to restructure the world economy on a more balanced and just basis….
The super-structure between these Second and Third Wave forces, therefore, cuts like a jagged line across class and party, across age and ethnic groups, sexual preferences and subcultures. It reorganizes and realigns our political life. And, instead of a harmonious, classless, conflict-free, non-ideological future society, it points toward escalating crises and deep social unrest in the near-term future. Pitched political battles will be waged in many nations, not merely over who will benefit from what is left of industrial society but over who participates in shaping, and ultimately controlling, its successor.
Khanna: In many parts of the world, government as we know it is already dead, yet few grasp or appreciate the necessary complexities of the diffuse governance that has replaced it. In the Tofflers’ terms, the Second Wave order has come to rely on Third Wave actors and resources to remain relevant. Public-private partnerships offer the most obvious and convincing evidence. From America’s national innovation strategy to charter schools, inclusion — even outsourcing to — of the private sector has won the day. It carries risks, but trusting the government is no longer even an option. Devolution and local accountability — at the municipal and community level — are the new priority. Our every individual decision seems to deepen the systemic entropy by which we find alternatives to “pseudo-representative” democracy and take matters into our own hands. E-vote and direct democracy may soon be possible, but will the results matter if Fourth Wave communities build firewalls to shield themselves from unwanted results?
Interestingly, this is a global trend that cuts across what we would traditionally think of as first, second, and third wave — or world — divides. India, for example, remains an extremely poor country on a per capita basis, but its companies are the driving agents behind its most fundamental public policy initiatives such as large-scale infrastructure investment in better roads and mobile telephony. The third wave, then, can be attained by anyone. Indeed, some first-wave societies might skip over the second wave altogether. Such a large-scale disruption to our global models wouldn’t surprise the Tofflers at all.
Ayesha and Parag Khanna are co-directors of the Hybrid Reality Institute. Ayesha is author of Straight Through Processing for Financial Services. Parag is senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and author of How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance.
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