When I was in Graduate School in the ‘70’s, Alvin Toffler’s name was mentioned in every class, although the content of his book “Future Shock” was not discussed in any great detail. We just knew it was groundbreaking information that we should become aware of. My early attempt to read and understand Toffler’s treatise left me with more questions than answers. His book has sold over 15 million copies and has been widely translated.
Alvin Toffler’s death at his home in Los Angeles at the age of 87 was confirmed by his consulting firm, Toffler Associates, in Reston, Virginia. No cause was given. He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Heidi. The couple had one child, Karen, who passed away in 2000.
Alvin Toffler - Wikimedia
Alvin Toffler was born Oct. 4, 1928, in New York City to Sam and Rose Toffler, who were Jewish immigrants from Poland. When Alvin was a student at New York University, he met and married his wife Heidi in 1950. Before they were married, Heidi persuaded Alvin to finish his course work at N.Y.U. and graduate with a degree in English. They left New York and moved to Cleveland, Ohio where they both became factory workers. Toffler remarked that he learned that people working in factories were no less intelligent than people who worked in white shirts.
Writing was Toffler’s Forte
Toffler eventually acquired positions as a writer for several different companies, as well as becoming a White House correspondent for one newspaper. He and Heidi returned to New York City in 1959 when he was offered a job as a labor columnist for Fortune Magazine. After three years with Fortune, he began a free-lance writing career for scholarly journals, and interviews for Playboy Magazine. His interview with the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov was highly regarded.
Alvin and Heidi spent five years studying the underlying causes of a cultural upheaval that he saw overtaking the United States and other developed countries. The result of this research was “Future Shock” which catapulted Toffler to international fame. The book is still in print.
In 1996, Alvin and Heidi co-founded a consulting firm called Toffler Associates which helped clients to survive and thrive in an environment of accelerated change.
The term Future Shock has been described as social paralysis induced by rapid technological change. Toffler labeled it as a psychological state inherent in individuals as well as entire societies.
In “Future Shock,” Toffler concluded that the convergence of science, capital, and communications was producing such swift change that it was creating an entirely new kind of society. Rapid change produced measurable effects in humans which fractured marriages and overwhelmed families, manifested by an increase in crime and drug use as well as social alienation.
Toffler predicted the unfolding of what he coined “the Information Age.” He also coined the term “information overload.” He spoke about the three stages in the development of society and production: agrarian, industrial, and post-industrial societies. The agrarian stage diminished when the industrial revolution occurred in the latter part of the 18th century. The third stage began in the second half of the 20th century in the West when people invented production, robotics, and the computer. In this stage, the post-industrial society, the number of people occupied with brainwork greatly exceeded the number of people occupied with physical work. The so-called “brain drain,” which saw the emigration of European scientists to the United States, was both an indicator of the changes in society and also one of its causes.
In a post-industrial society, disposable goods, such as ballpoint pens, lighters, plastic bottles, and paper towels came into existence at a rapid pace. It is now possible to rent almost everything, thus eschewing the need for ownership.
Completion of the Trilogy
“The Third Wave” was published in 1980, followed by the completion of the trilogy with “Powershift” in 1991. Toffler’s impact was most evident in China, whose hope was to re-enact Silicon Valley as imagined by Alvin Toffler. “The Third Wave” was a best-seller in China.
Knowledge as a Resource
Toffler examined how knowledge became the main means of gaining power and wealth. He forecast that humans would be overwhelmed by the pace of change in everything from technology to politics. Toffler warned that people and institutions that failed to keep pace with change would face ruin. On an optimistic note, he recognized that knowledge, rather than labor and raw materials, would become the most important resource of advanced societies.
More than a dozen of Toffler’s books detailed the cultural shift that replaced manufacturing-based economies to those driven by knowledge and data in the 20th century. He advised American Telephone & Telegraph Co., now AT&T, that the company would have to break up, more than a decade before it was forced by the government to do so.
Workers Today May Have Many Careers
Workers today, in this post-industrial society, are sometimes forced to change professions because professions quickly become outdated. This often entails a change of residence, schools, and friends, and results in less contact with families. Workers now have many careers in a lifetime, thus eliminating the possibility of a pension after many years of service with one company.
Toffler claimed that his book “Future Shock” envisioned cable television, video recording, virtual reality, and smaller U.S. families. He foresaw the development of cloning. He also claimed to have foretold the breakup of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany and the rise of the Asia-Pacific region.
He stated “Nobody knows the future with certainty. We can, however, identify ongoing patterns of change.” Critics said Toffler was often wrong and failed to foresee humans’ ability to adapt to the pace of change. It has been a learning process which some, unfortunately, have not achieved.
Toffler’s Influence on World Leaders
Alvin Toffler’s work has influenced politicians, generals, executives, musicians and writers, including former Chinese prime minister Zhao Ziyang, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and some of the most prominent innovators of our time, including Ted Turner, Steve Case, and J. D. Power.