Back to the future: 1979-1989
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The Third Wave

A review of Alvin Toffler's book 'The Third Wave' and why this book matters.


  • Author:
  • A staff writer
    National Library of Scotland

In preparation for the Library's work on the 1980s I read Alvin Toffler's 'The Third Wave', and the question I am now asking myself is: Why aren't we all talking about this book all the time?

Alvin Toffler is regarded as one of the great futurologists. His three masterpieces ('Future Shock', 1970, 'The Third Wave', 1980, and 'Powershift', 1990), written in collaboration with his wife Heidi Toffler, were international bestsellers and influenced many world leaders in politics and business. When he died in 2016 there was widespread and respectful analysis of his importance. Assessments of Toffler tend towards an analysis of what he got right, and what he got wrong. How can I put this? Alvin Toffler is right about everything, even if you don't agree with him. Let me explain.

The timescale of 'The Third Wave' is the last 10,000 years, although most of the focus is on the last 300 years, and particularly on the 20 years up to 1980. This disproportionate skew of the book is a reflection of the topic itself: the development of human society from the agricultural revolution (the 'First Wave', which developed slowly over thousands of years) to the industrial age (the 'Second Wave', which developed relatively rapidly, over 300 years) to the information age (the 'Third Wave', which we are smashing into as I type) is accelerative by nature.

The accelerative nature of change

What Toffler does in epic style is to deconstruct these waves, and to show how each are far more than just economic systems of production — they are the total package of family, emotional, psychological, political, cultural, economic, and societal life that each person of those epochs experiences. While decoding each wave, he also shows how tensions arise when one wave is overwhelmed by the next. For the clash between First and Second waves, see: Ned Ludd. For the clash between Second and Third waves, see: most of the last 40 years.

A key feature of Tofflerism is his belief in the accelerative nature of change; that more change is happening, and more quickly. The incremental speed and impact of this change is so profound that it rips us apart in the process, throwing individuals and nations into a psychological state somewhere between panic and paralysis. Published in 1980, it is radical in what it dispenses with, such as socialism and capitalism as being especially exciting with regard to the bigger picture (and there is a bigger picture). It is also radical in what it observes and suggests along the way — the return of the prosumer (person who consumes and produces a product) after 300 years, the merits of universal basic income, the evaporation of the nuclear family, and the end of linear time; and radical most of all in what it presents as the future (minority power).

It would have been amazing to read 'The Third Wave' at its time of publication, as Toffler introduces new ideas and technologies beyond people's lived experience. As a child of the 1980s, it reads like the script of the TV show 'Tomorrow's World'. Whether a child of the Third Wave will find this exciting I cannot say, but here is Toffler on page 187 reporting on an idea that sounds quite like a Hive-Alexa mashup: 'You're at work, the phone rings. It's Fred, your house. While monitoring the morning news reports for stories of recent burglaries, Fred picks up a weather bulletin warning of pending heavy rain. This jogged Fred's bubble memories to run a routine roof maintenance check. A potential leak was found. Before calling you, Fred phoned Slim for advice. Slim is a ranchstyle home down the block.' And so on.

Here's Toffler describing something that sounds like Word and email, on page 205: 'Today, instead of typing a draft of a chapter on paper, I type on a keyboard that stores it in electronic form on what is known as a "floppy disk". … Once I have corrected the draft, I press a button, and a printer at my side makes a letter-perfect final copy for me at vision-blurring speeds. … But making paper copies of anything is a primitive use of such machines and violates their very spirit. … With the machines hooked up to one another and to phone lines, the secretary can instantly transmit the letter to its recipient's printer or screen.' Such has been the rate of technological change since 1980 that even a futurologist of Toffler's distinction has dated. 'Floppy disk', 'secretary'; LOL.

Here is something that sounds like Facebook being described on page 267: 'One can, for example, easily imagine a new computerized service — call it "Pers-Sched" or "Friend-Sched" — that not only reminds you of your own appointments but stores the schedules of various friends and family members so that each person in the social network can, by pushing a button, find out where and when his or her friends and acquaintances will be, and can make arrangements accordingly.'

And here is Toffler extolling the possible virtues of the world wide web, nine years before it was invented, on page 389: 'For a shy person or an invalid, unable to leave the 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 — dialled up instantly from anywhere in the country.'

It is difficult to know how to present Toffler's text of 459 pages. The conclusion alone is 78 pages long. The 28 chapters are sub-divided into digestible sections, each one building a difficult-to-deny assessment of the world we know, and the world we didn't realise we knew. As an obvious fan of the entire work, I hesitate to draw attention to particular chapters, but chapter four ('Breaking the code'), chapter nine ('Indust-reality'), chapter 13 ('De-massifying the media'), chapter 16 ('The electronic cottage'), chapter 20 ('The rise of the prosumer'), chapter 23 ('Gandhi with satellites'), and chapter 28 ('Twenty-first century democracy') are particularly brilliant.

Characteristics of the Second Wave

Toffler spends a good deal of time at the start of the book describing the all-encompassing nature of waves. On page 38 we read that the Second Wave gave us ' … the tractor on the farm, the typewriter in the office, the refrigerator in the kitchen. … It gave us cubism and twelve-tone music … sit-down strikes, vitamin pills, and lengthened life spans'. He continues, 'To free workers for factory labour, key functions of the family were parcelled out to new, specialized institutions. Education of the child was turned over to schools. … [Industry] needed workers who would follow jobs from place to place'. And lo, the nuclear family was born; a tight portable nucleus of mother, father, and two or three children, with no burdensome relatives.

Toffler takes apart industrial society and shows how each component part works together. Industrialisation means larger audiences for concerts which means bigger orchestras to amplify the sound to the back of the hall, which leads to Beethoven's Ninth. He describes in great detail the massive impact of the separation of production and consumption. On page 55, he says of the Second Wave, 'it created, for the first time in history a situation where the overwhelming bulk of all food, goods, and services was designed for sale, barter, or exchange. … Everyone became almost totally dependent upon foods, goods, or services produced by somebody else'.

He places great emphasis on the end of marketisation later into the book (pages 300-305), by which he means not the end of capitalism, but the end of the process of building the apparatus of international commerce (railroads, telecommunications, exchange mechanisms, manufacturing and distribution capacity), and suggests: 'With the basic construction task now virtually complete, the enormous energies previously poured into building the world market system become available for other human purposes'.

Toffler leaves no stone of the Second Wave unturned

An entire section of Toffler's book is given over to deconstructing the six main features of the industrial economy and market place, which he states as being: standardisation, specialisation, synchronisation, concentration, maximisation, and centralisation. On standardisation he says: 'It is no accident that one of the first acts of the French Revolution, which ushered the age of industrialism into France, was an attempt to replace the crazy-quilt patchwork of measuring units, common in preindustrial Europe, with the metric system and a new calendar'.

Synchronisation of school bells, factory whistles, and transport systems; concentration of populations and energy sources; centralisation of political power and financial capital — Toffler leaves no stone of the Second Wave unturned. And what applies to the means of production applies to other things too. 'Once we understand the industrial need for integration, the meaning of the national state becomes clear … What we call the nation state is a Second Wave phenomenon: a single integrated political authority superimposed on or fused with a single integrated economy' (page 97).

Time bending

Toffler's deconstruction of the characteristics, functions, and apparatus of the Second Wave is relentless, and what he does with the building blocks is convincing. On the Second Wave concept of linear time, he says: 'Second Wave civilization did more than cut time up into more precise and standard chunks. It also placed these chunks in a straight line that extended indefinitely back into the past and forward into the future. It made time linear' (page 120). And if time is linear, then it fits a narrative that the civilisation you live in is one that is making incremental progress, one that is going forwards. It might even create a moral basis for colonising parts of the world that are 'not making progress'. And lo, imperialism. And therefore, military conflict. And therefore industrialised imperialism and industrialised military conflict.

He continues, 'Indeed, the assumption that time is linelike is so deeply embedded in our thoughts that it is hard for those of us raised in Second Wave societies to conceive of any alternative. Yet many preindustrial societies, and some First Wave societies even today, see time as a circle, not as a straight line. From the Mayas to the Buddhists and the Hindus, time was circular and repetitive, history repeating itself endlessly, lives perhaps reliving themselves through reincarnation'. It's common sense when you think about it; time is circular. The seasons are circular, the planet constantly rotates, and it completes a circle in a year. It's all circular. Now I've read this book, linear time feels so 2018 to me.

it becomes clear … that we are not all living in the same wave at the same time

This is the level at which Toffler operates: why working in factories means that we eat at the same time, and therefore require the stock exchange. The point of him doing this is to show us that if you grow up in, and live and work under the terms of a wave, it is extremely difficult and unlikely that you would choose to exist unilaterally outside of that wave, not least because the thought would never occur to you in the first place. What is interesting right now as opposed to any point over the last, say 250 years, is that younger people particularly are growing up having been born under the terms of a different wave. That's major, and it only happens at the points in history when two waves collide; in other words, not very often at all, and certainly not often enough for the human race to have mastered handling the process.

As Toffler is describing the Second Wave, it becomes clear, however, that we are not all living in the same wave at the same time, with some societies still living in the First Wave, and others well into the development of a Third Wave. Usually this tends to happen on the national or even continental level, but as the Second and Third waves collide, he shows that there is conflict and departure from one another not just internationally and within nations, but within families too. Individuals themselves may feel conflicted.


Early on in 'The Third Wave', Toffler puts to one side the rather secondary issue of capitalism versus socialism: 'Nor were capitalist employers, eager to squeeze the last ounce of productivity from their workers, alone in their admiration for [Frederick Winslow Taylor] … Communists shared their enthusiasm. Indeed, Lenin urged that Taylor's methods be adapted for use in socialist production. An industrialiser first and a Communist second, Lenin, too, was a zealous believer in standardisation (page 63). He spends pages 109-113 showing how the Soviet Union replicated the key characteristics of the Second Wave, developing its own imperial market through COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance). In so doing he shows that irrespective of the ideological wrapper, the building of a society based on industry and the separation of production and consumption will always require the same key component parts.

Having introduced us to the Second Wave as we know it, he sets about describing the crises it faces as the 1980s dawn: 'We find crisis in the welfare systems … Crisis in the international financial system. The nation state itself is in crisis. … Even the role system that held industrial civilization together is in crisis. This we see most dramatically in the struggle to redefine sex roles. … The collapse of Second Wave civilisation has created an epidemic of personality crisis. … Today we see millions desperately searching for their own shadows, devouring movies, plays, novels, and self-help books, no matter how obscure, that promise to help them locate their missing identities' (page 139). Or more succinctly on page 382: 'Millions of people are terminally fed up'.

What triggered this crisis is less important than the wholesale nature of its impact across every sector of modern life, but clearly the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 left deep economic and psychological scars on Second Wave societies. Toffler dates the Third Wave as emerging from the late 1950s onwards. But a key trigger, affecting most aspects of Second Wave life from culture and self-identity to politics, is what he terms 'de-massification'. He touches on this initially with regard to the media, and gives multiple examples of mass media outlets beginning to lose ground to more niche outlets. At the same time, this increased the number and variety of images and ideas people were exposed to. In 1980s Britain, the decade started with a 33 per cent increase in television, with the dawn of Channel 4; by the end of that decade, cable and satellite television had increased the menu severalfold. The logical conclusion of what he describes is Instagram, Twitter, Buzzfeed, and so on.

If only de-massification affected the media you could dismiss it as 'just' a cultural quirk. But Toffler shows that everything is breaking apart. Page 181: 'The de-massification of the media de-massifies our minds as well. … Today, instead of masses of people all receiving the same messages, smaller de-massified groups receive and send large amounts of their own imagery to one another. As the entire society shifts toward Third Wave diversity, the new media reflect and accelerate the process'.

Total transformation of society

What this process leads to is a huge growth in pressure groups, the breakup of political consensus, the increasing importance of advertising to the individual, customisation, and families eating at different times whist watching different programmes on different devices, or not living together at all. And, more importantly, what is to become of democratic systems that have been set up to deliver the will of a majority, if the idea of a majority itself is in decline? When Toffler talks about de-massification, he's not just talking about newspaper circulation statistics, he's talking about the total transformation of society as we know it.

It is the impact on the political institutions of Second Wave societies that forms the bulk of Toffler's conclusion. Working with the theme of the increase in diversity that stems from de-massification, he asks us to reimagine a democracy that puts minorities at the heart of things, rather than chasing after majorities that no longer exist. In short, as the Third Wave develops, and as more and more people find new ways to express and identify themselves, more and more people will find themselves either partially, or entirely, aligning with a minority group. Even within broad demographic categories such as age, race, gender, nationality, and sexuality, the subdivisions and variables within each will continue to diversify along myriad new lines such as lifestyle, tastes, aspiration, ethics, beliefs, and politics, bringing people together across the more traditional social stratifications, and splitting apart once seemingly cohesive groups.

He sets up a perfect storm with regard to generational conflict; but if we look beneath the surface, it isn't the generations that are in conflict, but the Second and Third waves: 'We are increasingly exposed to short, modular blips of information — ads, commands, theories, shreds of news, truncated bits and blobs that refuse to fit neatly into our pre-existing mental files. … Assailed by what they perceive as the bedlam of blip culture, Second Wave people feel a suppressed rage at the media. Third Wave people, by contrast, are more at ease in the midst of this bombardment of blips — the ninety-second news-clip intercut with a thirty-second commercial, a fragment of a song and lyric, a headline, a cartoon, a collage, a newsletter item, a computer printout' (page 182).

the nuclear family will no longer be the default model in the Third Wave

It is important to note here that neither I nor Toffler are saying that either Second Wave or Third Wave people (or First Wave people for that matter) are better than the other. No one has done anything clever, we are all just products of the entire system that has shaped our existence. Of course, there are always exceptions to rules. There will have been those who grew up in the Second Wave who could not wait to escape its standardised, synchronised, predictable code, and either longed to return to a romanticised earlier First Wave without the plague (see: Tom and Barbara in 'The Good Life'), or embrace the possibilities of an unscripted future (see: the avant-garde). Likewise there will be those who have only ever known the emerging Third Wave, and may well wish that they could enjoy the certainties and stability that the Second Wave appears to have offered (see: job for life, pension, house).

He describes how the nuclear family will no longer be the default model in the Third Wave, not because there is anything inherently bad about it, but because in order for it to remain the dominant model the following things would have to happen: a freeze of the development of computer technology; subsidisation of manufacture and a block on the development of the service sector; further centralisation of energy; a ban on new and alternative media; reduction in wages for women; reduction in wages for young people; a ban on contraception; a reduction in the standard of living to pre-1955 levels; widespread resistance to all changes in politics, the arts, education, business, or other fields that lead toward diversity; freedom of movement and ideas; or individuality (pages 226-7). Irrespective of how you might feel about change, you can see how many forces are stacked against the status quo.

The rise (or return) of the prosumer

Another key Third Wave hallmark that Toffler identifies is the rise (or perhaps return) of the prosumer: 'During the First Wave most people consumed what they themselves produced. They were neither producers nor consumers in the usual sense. They were instead what might be called "prosumers". It was the industrial revolution, driving a wedge into society, that separated these two functions, thereby giving birth to what we now call producers and consumers' (page 283).

He then focuses in on two particular aspects of the prosumer society: the relationship between the sector A and sector B economies, and the 'do-it-yourself' phenomenon. Sector A comprises the unpaid work done directly by people for themselves, their families, or their communities, whereas Sector B comprises the production of goods or services for sale or swap through an exchange network or market. He describes how Second Wave economists routinely factor out the economic impact of Sector A work. The invisible economy and unpaid work is an issue of importance both now and back then, but over and above the importance of the topic itself is how it interacts with a key phenomenon that emerged in the '80s, and has been developing ever since: the rise of 'do-it-yourself'; for what DIY means in short is the transference of more things from sector B to sector A, reversing the dominant trend of the previous three centuries.

When Toffler talks about DIY, he isn't only referring to botched attempts on bank holidays to wallpaper the lounge. Bereavement and addiction support groups, and the self-help movement are all examples of taking work out of the professional sector and doing it for yourself or others. The Library's collections reflect the explosion of the self-help and do-it-yourself philosophy in this decade, with everything from Jane Fonda's workout books and Delia Smith's recipe books to Harold Kushner's 'When bad things happen to good people' (1981) and Stephen Covey's 'The 7 habits of highly effective people' (1989). Many of these books have a distinctively '80s aspirational tone to them, whether it is for the body, mind, or spirit.

His analysis of DIY is thorough, and he sees evidence of it everywhere: 'Only 8 percent of US gas stations were on a self-service basis in 1974. By 1977 the number reached nearly 50 percent. … Industry experts say that it will soon be 70 percent of the total. Once more the consumer is replacing a producer and becoming a prosumer' (page 287). Electronic banking and automated teller machines, flat pack assembly, and supermarkets are all examples of the trend. We have since dispensed with other parts of the chain, such as the supermarket checkout assistant, and indeed visiting the supermarket at all (see: online shopping).

Toffler goes on to look at the 'de-marketising' effect of the rise of the prosumer, and the impact it has on what we consider to be employment, and indeed leisure time: 'Once we recognise that much of our so-called leisure time is, in fact, spent producing goods and services for our own use — prosuming — then the old distinction between work and leisure falls apart. The question is not work versus leisure, but paid work for Sector B versus unpaid, self-directed, and self-monitored work for Sector A' (page 294). In the context of aspirational, image conscious, home-owning Western Second Wave societies of the 1980s, unpaid Sector A work was an investment in the future: a new job; a new relationship; increased equity.

An important consequence of the return of the prosumer is that as the Third Wave emerges, it connects back to the First Wave, making things cyclical rather than linear (fascinating isn't it). An awareness of the impact of the Second Wave on the ecosphere saw ecological consciousness also rise at the same time as the emergence of the Third Wave. 'Think globally, act locally', became a mantra of the late 1970s. Holism is a feature identifiable with both First and Third waves: 'In medicine, a "holistic health" movement has sprung up based on the notion that the well-being of the individual depends on an integration of the physical, the spiritual, and the mental. Mixing quackery with serious medical innovation, the movement gained enormous strength in the late 1970s' (page 319). If you don't think this is radical, think again — one of the things that is happening as part of this process is a break-away from the authority of the specialist, the expert.

Colliding waves

Although the overlap between Second and Third waves is the main focus of Toffler's seminal book, it's the interplay between First and Third that I found most intriguing: 'By astonishing contrast, Third Wave civilization turns out to have many features — decentralised production, appropriate scale, renewable energy, de-urbanization, work in the home, high levels of prosumption, to name just a few — that actually resemble those found in First Wave societies. We are seeing something that looks remarkably like a dialectical return' (page 354). I've been looking for an explanation for the rise in artisan bakeries and the return of facial hair to men's faces at the same time, and perhaps this is it. They will be selling scythes in B&Q next.

The 20-page chapter 'Gandhi with satellites' is too densely packed to do justice here, but the links to the themes in Christian Caryl's book 'Strange Rebels' come thick and fast (I have written another essay on that similarly impressive text). The innate imperialism of Second Wave nations is exposed, with Iran, India, and China all identified as countries adversely affected not only by exploitation by Second Wave nations, but by the imposition of the Second Wave model on top of their predominantly First Wave societies as a way of fast-tracking them into the network. Of the Shah's failed attempt to introduce the Second Wave to Iran, Toffler says, 'the millionaires, generals, and hired technocrats who ran the Teheran government conceived of development as a basically economic process …. They saw the world as increasingly standardised rather than moving towards diversity. Resistance to Western ideas was simply dismissed as "backward" by a cabinet 90 percent of whose members had been educated at Harvard, Berkeley, or European universities'.

Writing at the dawn of the 1980s, Toffler says of the headline writers, 'The Islamic uprising in Iran stuns them. The sudden reversal of Maoist policies in China, the collapse of the dollar, the new militancy of the poor countries, outbreaks of rebellion in El Salvador and Afghanistan are all seen as startling, random, unconnected events. … The eruption of a new civilization on earth could not but shatter old relationships, overthrow regimes, and send the financial system spiralling' (page 345). This process is clearly not over. On page 348, Toffler asks: 'Is classical industrialization the only path to progress? And does it make any sense to imitate the industrial model at a time when industrial civilization itself is caught in its terminal agonies?' To which Ayatollah Khomeini's short answer would be, 'no'.

It is an epic chapter and speaks both to the 1980s and to 2019. It is the chapter to read if you are interested in considering whether you can have your cake and eat it. It looks at whether First Wave principles can be accommodated into the Third Wave model. And importantly, it looks at how Second Wave nations developed a strategy to solve the problems of First Wave nations who had not been able to industrialise into the Second Wave. Toffler offers this critique on page 351: 'There is also, built into the First Wave strategy, a paternalistic assumption that while other factors of production need to be economized, the time and energy of the labourer needn't be — that unrelieved backbreaking toil in the fields or rice paddies is fine — as long as it is done by somebody else'.

I liked the 1980s, with its promises of the Third Wave delivered conveniently to me through Second Wave apparatus. But then it's easy to like Second Wave society and the improved standard of living and security that it brought (despite its nuclear arms race) when you live in a country that has benefitted particularly well from it, and when you have not had to pay the price other nations did in order to fuel that Second Wave. Toffler is good on this point, and gives sobering examples of shameful Second Wave practice: 'We will look back on today as the twilight of Second Wave civilization, and be saddened by what we see. For as it came to a close, industrial civilization left behind a world in which one quarter of the species lived in relative affluence, three quarters in relative poverty — and 800,000,000 in what the World Bank terms "absolute" poverty. … It left behind a world in which some 20 to 30 industrialized nations depended on the hidden subsidies of cheap energy and cheap raw materials for much of their economic success … It left many of the poor countries with one-crop economies twisted to serve the needs of the rich' (page 345).

It's also easy to remember the '80s fondly if you weren't a British coal miner. The Miners' Strike of 1984-5 that took place in Britain feels to me like a good example of Second Wave crisis, and the regions most affected by the closure of coal mines and other heavy industry arguably paid the price for the rest of the nation as it transitioned towards, if not the Third Wave entirely, then certainly the Information Society.

The whole time the clash of the waves has ebbed and flowed, one thing has been progressing regardless, and Toffler makes no mistake about what the most pressing crisis of all is: the cost to the biosphere. I have underplayed it in this essay, but more than anything, energy production and ecological damage to the biosphere are what lurk behind many of his observations about the crisis of the Second Wave. If you look at what has happened since the publication of 'The Third Wave' in 1980 (continued over-consumption of resources and over-production of waste by Second Wave societies, famine in Africa, a warming planet, contaminated oceans, industrial clearance of rainforests, and the destabilisation of entire ecosystems), the sense is that we are still living in an extended period of Second Wave twilight. So what has happened to Alvin Toffler's Third Wave?

The future, now

One thing that didn't happen was what Toffler called for on the penultimate page of his book: 'We must, as a first step, launch the widest public debate over the need for a new political system attuned to the needs of a Third Wave civilization. We need conferences, television programmes, contests, simulation exercises … to unleash an outpouring of fresh ideas'. In 1980s Britain we didn't even manage to get our heads around how to accommodate the Social Democratic Party, let alone adequately deal with something as intense as the pain of the Miners' Strike. I certainly don't remember a leaflet coming through our letterbox about the arrival of the Third Wave.

What I suspect happened in the 1980s was that extra time was bought for capitalist Second Wave societies by harnessing a de-massified society to consumerism, fuelled by aspirational advertising and underwritten by the increasing availability of consumer credit. This bought time until the Crash of 2008. Since then, 'quantitative easing', nationalism, and protection of domestic markets have emerged as possible solutions to shore up the Second Wave for some, whilst others wait for jobs that will never come, to pay no tax on no earnings which will contribute no revenue to fund pensions or healthcare for an ever aging population; the Second Wave crises that Toffler so accurately described.

Elsewhere, state-controlled societies appear to have used military power and nationalism combined with political and religious doctrinarism to keep de-massification at bay. It is more difficult to know what might be happening in these societies, but these methods also seem to have worked up to now. But whether it is the United States, the UK, Iran, China, Russia, Venezuela, or pretty much any other nation state (or even group of nation states), there is a sense in 2019 that these methods may struggle to keep at bay the pressures of accelerative change forever, especially in the age of the internet. Which method will buckle first, and will any nation prove to have a 'winning formula'?

Another thing that appears to have happened — especially with regard to the techno-sphere — is that the egalitarian and emancipating trappings of the Third Wave have been co-opted, commodified, or otherwise transfigured by Second Wave practices. The last few years have seen a steady flow of regretful Silicon Valley luminaries expressing their disillusionment with the technical gadgets and platforms that they helped to build. Elsewhere, Third Wave technologies have been put to use in imperial ways (see: fake news, manipulation of elections, cybercrime, cyber-terrorism). Perhaps the Third Wave has arrived, and it's just that it isn't as nice as Toffler suggested it might be.

If there is a better futurologist of recent times than Alvin Toffler, then perhaps it might be David Byrne of Talking Heads. In an interview that appeared in the New Musical Express on 28 July 1979, he expressed his opinion on the future: 'Calculators will be cheap. It'll be as easy to hook up your computer with a central television bank as it is to get the week's groceries. … Everything else will be crumbling. It doesn't bother me too much but it isn't something to look forward to. Government surveillance becomes inevitable, because there's this dilemma when you have an increase in information storage. A lot of it is for your convenience, but as more information gets on file it's bound to be misused.' David Byrne, take a bow.

Twenty-first century democracy

And so to the final chapter, 'Twenty-first century democracy', with the radical placing of minority power at the core. For those who are turned off by or even opposed to that concept, it is worth considering that in a de-massified society, increasing numbers will identify in some way as not being part of a majority. Accelerative change is very difficult to stop (even if you felt it was desirable to do so) and all the while that it is happening, society is constantly being re-shaped. What Toffler proposes is that political systems should better represent this reality. The alternative is to enable a totalitarian society. He forms these thoughts into 'the coming super-struggle'.

He throws into the mix a final difficult-to-deny reality linked to the accelerative pace of change: the unsustainable decision-load on governments. In a nutshell, the inter-connectedness, complexity, number, and frequency of issues that require a decision, and the consequences of those decisions, are simply too much for governments to handle. Although he doesn't set out to inspire compassion for inept leaders, there is a sense that we have unrealistic expectations of human beings to be able to process the late 20th and early 21st centuries. But the solution he proposes isn't to feel sorry for them and carry on voting, but to look with fresh eyes at political processes and representation. His suggestion on page 441 that we should elect some of our leaders by simply drawing lots doesn't feel especially 'out there' once you have read about the undeliverable burden that the exponential growth of the decision load has placed on fallible people.

If Toffler is right about the accelerative rate of change, we should all expect to experience the fear and confusion that often accompanies sea-change. As a member of Generation X, I'm a product of the Second Wave and an early witness to the emergent Third Wave. I have benefitted from both because I live in Britain, without having had to do very much at all. On the final page of the last chapter, Toffler says this: 'The responsibility for change, therefore, lies with us. We must begin with ourselves, teaching ourselves not to close our minds prematurely to the novel, the surprising, the seemingly radical … It means fighting for freedom of expression — the right of people to voice their ideas, even if heretical'. So how's this for heretical in the echo chambers of 2019: we should acknowledge the historic levels of complexity that face us, and perhaps be more wary of voices of certainty.

Although Toffler is clearly a firm advocate for the Third Wave, you needn't share his vision in order to find his tome useful. We can and should disagree about solutions, but I can't help thinking that anyone who read this book would at least agree on where the problems were coming from: the collision of the waves. What this personally looks like to me is asking myself, for example, whether the European Union (EU) is a late effort to shore up the institutions and practices of the Second Wave, or an early attempt to deliver the Third? Even if we were to assume that it is a Third Wave attempt (and it may not be), it is clearly at least partly (or even entirely) made up of Second Wave nation states.

I don't think I have heard Alvin Toffler referred to once during the last three years of talk about Brexit. Although I'm not sure what the answer to my own question above is, it strikes me that it would have been a more useful question for us all to have been asked back in 2016. Entry to the EU depends on a variety of factors, but wave alignment isn't one of them. And how could it be a qualifying condition, when the component nations are not even united under one of the waves themselves? Perhaps I have over-thought this, but if I haven't, then this conflict will not only need to be addressed in Britain.

We need to start asking better questions that consider things at appropriate scale; this would be a great step forward in itself. Perhaps this is the ultimate achievement of this exceptional book — it provides a suitable lens to see the past, present and future through, presenting an explanation of the conflicts we face, and a vision for the future to discuss, one that may well turn out to be far less frightening than the present. We need to talk about Alvin Toffler's 'The Third Wave'.

Further reading

  • 'Future shock' by Alvin Toffler (London: Bodley Head, 1970) [National Library shelfmark: NC.286.a.12].
  • 'Jane Fonda's workout book' by Jane Fonda (London: Allen Lane, 1982) [Shelfmark: S8.82.71].
  • 'New Musical Express', 28 July 1979 (London: New Musical Express) [Shelfmark: HJ10.22].
  • 'Powershift' by Alvin Toffler (London: Bantam Books, 1990) [Shelfmark: QP1.93.7].
  • 'Strange rebels: 1979 and the birth of the 21st century' by Christian Caryl (New York: Basic Books, 2013) [Shelfmark: PB8.218.415/7].
  • 'The Third Wave' by Alvin Toffler (London: Collins, 1980) [Shelfmark: Q4.80.295].
  • 'When bad things happen to good people' by Harold S Kushner (London: Pan, 1982) [Shelfmark: HP1.82.3799].


All 'economics and employment' essays