ALVIN TOFFLER’S “THE THIRD WAVE”

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In the 1970s, Alvin Toffler wrote the best-selling book Future Shock.  He followed it up in the early 80s with The Third Wave which I finished re-reading a couple of weeks ago.  Thirty-five years later, the book holds up quite well. [I thought it could do with some examples and anecdotes to flesh out some of his ideas, but as is, the book is over 400 pages long.]  This time around, I found it quite interesting to see if his prognostications for the future were even beginning to play out.  I think the world is not moving as fast as Mr. Toffler had thought it would (though, to be honest, he did not set time frames).  I also found it extremely interesting—and apropos—in light of recent political rhetoric.

For Toffler, the First Wave occurred when humans became food producers rather than food gatherers.  A settled, agricultural way of life revolved around the home with family units producing and consuming such things as they needed to survive and make life easier and more comfortable.  Anything extra, they sold in local markets.  This was the prevailing way of life all over the world for not just centuries, but for millennia.  Political organization—such as it was—tended to be patriarchal (despite an occasional female leader) and structured along a well-defined hierarchy that was, nevertheless, rather remote from most of the people.

The Second Wave (Toffler always capitalizes these terms) came with the industrial revolution and brought with it tremendous upheavals in society as populations were forced to move from the country to the city for viable livelihoods.  Their jobs required more structured (restrictive?) ways of doing things to ensure that standards were met.  This, of course, brought changes in social institutions, especially in government and education, which were expected to serve the needs of the new structures not only for the workplace but for most social interactions.  This period lasted for a few hundred years and Toffler argued in the early 80s that we were in transition from that age to the next.  We still are, for such changes literally take generations to achieve.

The Third Wave arrived with incredible advances in technology—particularly those dealing with communication.  The book was written before the advent of Facebook and Twitter and all those other instruments that allow us to communicate with others (after a fashion) while never encountering them in person.  Third Wave people are not as tied to the workplace as in previous times—they can live farther and farther from actual job locations—hence, the flood of Americans who have escaped to the suburbs and beyond.  Toffler sees the attendant changes in lifestyle as requiring new thinking about the institutions of government and education that were once designed to further the causes of the Second Wave.  He also suggests that these changes bring a degree of anxiety that have not been known before, and that many people keep looking to a past that no longer exists for guidance in choosing leaders for this new age.

His most profound points (for me) have to do with how external aspects of life have influenced how we think and how we form communities, large and small—our individual and collective personalities, if you will.  I found the book just as interesting this time as I did way back when (though I would still argue with him about a few of his conclusions!).

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