What the future looked like in Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave and how he got most predictions right.
Known for the futuristic trilogy – Future Shock (1970), The Third Wave (1980) and Powershift (1990), Alvin Toffler needs no introduction. As a futurist, he made some sweeping forecasts about our society, economy and politics and guess what? got most of them right! Toffler along with Adelaide Farrell (popularly known as Heidi Toffler), his partner, collaborator and editor, worked as blue collar workers in a factory for five years. This phase helped them gain ground insights on industrialisation and the socio-economic changes taking place around them. This article highlights some incredible insights, themes and predictions from The Third Wave (1980), the second book in the Future shock trilogy and the most interesting of Toffler’s works.
The Waves of Historical Change
What is The Third Wave? And if there’s a third, what are the other two? To put simply, Toffler uses the grand metaphor of ‘waves’ to refer to the big civilizational shifts over time. History is viewed as a succession of rolling waves of change. These shifts or waves of change, often clashing and overlapping with each other, cause tremendous shocks, i.e. overwhelming stress and disorientation in individuals. However, these changes are not chaotic or random but they are cumulative – forming a sharp, clearly discernible pattern – a global revolution.
What’s interesting is that Toffler focusses on the discontinuities of history (its innovations and breakpoints) rather than its continuities. Each civilization has its own distinctive world outlook, code and norms, its own way of dealing with time, space, logic and causality. When that distinctive outlook gets challenged, it feels threatened by what’s to come. The level of preparedness for change then decides whether it will adapt or sink.
Let’s go over the three waves of historical change, based on agriculture, industry and information respectively. The first wave era from 8000 B.C to A.D. 1650-1750 witnessed an agricultural revolution. It was centred on land and a decentralised economy. Industrial civilisation was a product of the Second Wave. It was a social system that touched every aspect of human life and attacked every feature of the First Wave past.
The Second Wave Explained
It is important we understand the characteristics of the Second Wave in order to comprehend Toffler’s predictions for the Third Wave. This section explains the economy, society, and politics of the Second Wave. The shift from First Wave to Second Wave was visible in the shift from drawing energy from “living batteries” to irreplaceable non-renewable fossil fuels and from “necessary inventions” to “giving technology a womb.”
Toffler argued that the Second Wave had three distinct yet complementary spheres: techno, socio and info. The new technology empowered by a new energy system gave way to the Second Wave “techno-sphere,” characterised by mass production and mass distribution. The “socio-sphere” with its accompanying institutions, worked to accommodate the needs and style of the techno sphere. The “info-sphere” was created for producing and distributing information through the new inventions of telegraph, telegram, mass media-newspapers and television. An info-sphere, intertwined with and servicing the techno-sphere and socio-sphere, is what helped integrate economic production with private behaviour.
The Third Wave highlights how there is a direct correlation between change in work patterns and the change in family structures. The nuclear family, the factory-style school (mass education following a covert curriculum to prepare children for factory work) and the giant corporation (as immortal beings) became the defining social institutions of second wave societies. Altered family structures result in redefined sex roles. During the Second Wave, work shifted from the field and home to the factory, giving rise to the nuclear family. Sexual roles were redefined and a gendered division of labour was born. Men were producers whereas women were seen as consumers, men as objective and women as subjective, he moved into the future while she remained in the past doing housework (a low-interdependence activity). “Families stripped themselves of unwanted relatives, grew smaller, more mobile, and more suited to the needs of the new techno-sphere. “
While the self-sufficient First Wave economy maintained a unity in producer and consumer, Second Wave economy shifted from use to exchange. Distinction between producer and consumer emerged and created a “dual personality.” Economies become “marketized” and relationships become dehumanized. Karl Polanyi shows how the market, which was subordinated to the social goals of early societies, came to set the goals of industrial societies. A central role was allotted to the marketplace in all economies.
The six principles of Second Wave were standardization, specialisation, synchronisation, concentration, maximization and centralization. These six principles led to the rise of bureaucracy. The systems hunger for integration explains big government. Politicians were looked upon as efficient managers. Power was defined not by those who controlled the “means of production” (as proclaimed by Marxists) but by those who controlled the “means of integration.” Rule by specialists and experts became the norm. The new executive managerial elite propped up between owners and workers as paper work increased. Owner was not the integrator anymore with production becoming complex and division of labour more specialized.
“Time obsessed people glancing at their wrist watches” captured Second Wave reality the best. Synchronization and linearization of time took place. Space too was specialized and organized. Descartes became popular. Physical atomism led to a belief in philosophical atomism-assault on the notion of oneness and breaking the universe into smaller and smaller fragments. Universe consists of independent separable parts and sub-parts. Atomic model of reality that benefitted markets-new conception of the individual as an atom and the universe as an assemblage of atoms.
Modern nation state stood for a unified political and economic system. National political consolidation was necessary for the national market for commodities and capital. Beneath the nation lay the familiar imperative of industrialism; the drive toward integration.
All political systems of the Second Wave were built from the same blueprint based on machines. Universal representation kits (against feudal, hereditary politics) replicated the world over irrespective of political ideology. Elections didn’t change the structure of mechanical power. “Democracy machines” became the means of integration by which managerial elites maintained themselves in power. Elections performed a cultural function for elites. Elections were used as a mass ritual to assure citizens that democracy was functioning systematically and rationally as a machine. “Elections took the steam out from protests from below.” Union leaders also became part of the international elites. Representative democracy was pseudo representative, an industrial technology for assuring inequality.
Second Wave also transformed petty imperialism into grand imperialism that wrought deep changes in the social life of the world’s non-industrial populations who were given a choice to trade or perish. The world was divided into integrators (tussle between USSR (socialist imperialism) and USA (capitalist imperialism) for organizing and reintegrating the second world system) and integrates. Both USA and USSR were part of the world economy, driven by the same resource needs, benefitted at the expense of their adversaries and wanted integration of world economy. Imperialism, thus accelerated industrial development and a Second World mentality.
The Third Wave and the 5 Predictions Toffler got Right
”The collapse of second wave civilization has created an epidemic energy (second wave energy base is unsustainable and non renewable) and personality crisis.”
1960s onwards, the Third Wave, characterised by an information age gathered force in the US and gradually spread to other rich industrial high technology nations. The Third Wave is what Toffler calls a post-industrial society, highly technological and anti-industrialisation. It is the age of “information overload”.
Third Wave frees us from mechanistic time. Computers and drugs alter the perception of time. Though night shift and part time work is rising. Schedules are becoming personalized instead of massified, synchronized and universal. Toffler predicted that in Third Wave societies, nation states will be attacked and there will be a change in the character of democracy itself. It will transform from rule by periodic polling to direct interaction between the government and people. It will contribute to a more open, democratic, decentralized style of “anticipatory democracy.” Monetary wealth will be replaced by knowledge and information as the primary determinant of power and its distribution.
Prediction #1 Rise of the internet and work from home
Third Wave predicted a knowledge-based economy would eclipse the post-industrial age, shifting focus from manufacturing and labour to information and data.
Third Wave manufacturing does not require a workplace or factory. It is post-Cartesian or “wholistic.” Office based on a factory-like caste system (manual and non-manual workers) and dehumanizing repetitive dull work is being challenged. The electronic office compresses work functions and eliminates the role of a secretary. The level of employment is not merely a reflection of technological advance. It is the net result of many converging policies.
Production can be geographically dispersed. Home becomes the centre of work once again. There is a transition from centralized work to the electronic cottage or smaller work centres. Companies can be described as “people huddled around a computer.” “Put the computer in people’s homes, and they no longer need to huddle.”
The transfer of work and the reduction of commuting will also reduce pollution. Shared work will bind families together. The home centred society will lead to a chain of consequences like greater participation in community life, decline in energy requirements, rise of independent entrepreneurs, more secured emotional relations with close ones etc.
Prediction #2 Remaking of the corporation and the rise of the ‘prosumer’
The crisis in the world economy and industrial civilization itself threatens the identity of the corporation. Marketplace and labour market are breaking into smaller, more varied pieces. The growing differentiation of goods and services also reflects the growing diversity of actual needs, values, and life-styles in a demassified third wave society. Groups that fought to be integrated or assimilated into mass society are now refusing to melt their differences. Ethnic identities reassert their identities and demand long denied rights to jobs, income and advancement in the corporation. Corporations are being held responsible not just for economic performance but for its side effects on everything from air pollution to executive stress. Corporations are being revamped by focussing on their non economic goals as well-its social performance index.
In coining the term “prosumer,” Toffler predicted the emergence of the combined role of producer and consumer, or the do-it-yourself (DIY) trend in every sphere of life. He defined prosumers as people who produce some of the goods and services entering their own consumption. They can be found making their own clothes, cooking their own food, rearing their own cars, and hanging their own wallpaper. All of these services could be purchased in the marketplace.
Prediction #3 Emergence of ocean technology and floating cities
Third Wave, according to Toffler, would be driven by processes and products that are miserly in energy requirements. Future will witness ocean floating platform technology that will create floating cities for the purpose of offshore housing. “Corporations seeking tax havens and adventurers seeking new lifestyles may build floating cities and declare them to be new states. These may achieve formal diplomatic recognition…or become a vehicle for ethnic minorities to achieve their independence.”
While the decline of cities didn’t happen, the idea of floating cities is soon going to be a reality. Maldives is building the first ever floating city than can house upto 20,000 people.
Prediction #4 De-massification of media
The Second Wave multiplied the number of channels from which the individual drew his or her picture of reality. Mass media broadcasted standardized images transforming them into icons globally. Example: Churchill making the V sign or Hitler raging at Nuremberg or Marilyn Monroe’s skirt blown by the wind all became standard parts of a universal file-image. This centrally produced imagery injected into the “mass mind” by the mass media, helped produced the standardization of behaviour required by the industrial production system.
Third Wave accelerates informational flows and transforms the deep structure of information on which our daily actions depend. It leads to a demassified media -explosion of new magazines aimed at small, special interest, regional, local markets. There is diversity in print, radio and television and even audiences are getting demassified through cable systems and interactive video games (from passive receivers to message senders as well).
“Commercial television can no longer dictate what to watch and when to watch.” Demassification of media de-massifies the mind. Consensus shatters in the background of “blip culture” (fractured transitory images).” For the more diverse the civilisation – the more differentiated its technology, energy forms, and people – the more information must flow between its constituent parts. ”As people become more individualized, more information is needed to predict their behaviour and control things.“
We’re facing a crisis that is not susceptible to cause and effect analysis’ but would require ‘mutual dependence analysis’; not composed of easily detachable elements but hundreds of cooperating influences from dozens of independent, overlapping sources. ”Shift from identical, standardized mass products to partially or completely customized products.”
Prediction #5 The demise of nuclear families and the advent of genetic engineering
Third Wave will make room for a variety of families or more non-nuclear family types-singles culture, single parent, child free adult centred, aggregate families, homosexual families etc. Just as the nuclear family was promoted by the rise of the factory and office work, any shift away from the factory influences the family. The forced proximity due to working together at home would lead to more commitment and “love plus” in marriage – something more than love while selecting a partner like responsibility, brains, self discipline etc. Children will grow up seeing their parents working at home. They won’t be disconnected from their parent’s working place. They will value work and will imbibe a work ethics that might even approve of child labour. De-massification of the family will lead to a change in gender roles. Housework may be shared and paid for soon. While the latter still hasn’t happened, the demand for it has only been growing in recent years.
Toffler foresaw a future where a woman would be able to “buy a tiny embryo, take it to her doctor, have it implanted in her uterus…and then give birth as though it had been conceived in her own body”. He was a proponent of genetic engineering and foresaw the advancement of cloning.
- 5 predictions that The Third Wave got right summarised:
Prediction #1 Rise of the internet and work from home.
Prediction #2 Remaking of the corporation and the rise of the ‘prosumer’.
Prediction #3 Emergence of floating cities.
Prediction #4 De-massification of media.
Prediction #5 The demise of nuclear families and the advent of genetic engineering.
For Toffler, in a time of exploding and accelerative change, asking questions about our future is not a matter of intellectual curiosity but a matter of survival. The “super-struggle” for tomorrow is not about the ‘what’ and ‘when’ of civilisational change, rather it is about ‘who’ shapes this change.
Toffler’s work is often criticised for being biased towards highly industrial societies, using the US as the vantage point or yardstick for comparing civilisations. One model fits all might not work out in a world where intensified forces of globalisation affect different nations differently (even internally). Despite this shortcoming, The Third Wave helps make sense of the pattern underlining chaotic events in the world. It offers clarity and hope for the world.
Pooja Bhatia is the Co-Founder and the Editor-in-Sheep of The Blahcksheep. She is a public policy and advocacy professional who tweets at @theblahcksheepx You can find all her writings on The Blahcksheep here. If you’d like to discuss an idea with her or just say hello, drop her a mail at email@example.com