Surfing Through Time

The author of Future Shock takes another look in his crystal ball.


The Third Wave, by Alvin Toffler, New York: William Morrow, 1980, 544 pp., $14.95.

When you read a book by Alvin Toffler, you somehow get the impression that you are getting The Word directly from God. Toffler sounds as though he has been around since the beginning of time; he has observed the progress of the human race over the millennia and nothing, but nothing, has escaped his all-encompassing vision. Whether it is the attempt of some tribesman in far-off Papua to build a feeble fire or the effort of our European forebears to crank up the first industrial engine, Toffler has seen it all.

What we have here from the author of Future Shock, is, alas, more future schlock. The tone of The Third Wave can best be described as cosmic biblical. It reads as though Toffler decided one day that the Old Testament had grown rusty with age and, since he had nothing better to do, he might as well sit down and give us an update. He could just as well have called his tendentious tome The Bible of Tomorrow.

It's not that one minds so much being lectured to on occasion. A few words of wisdom from an instructive master can be enlightening. But Toffler is such a humorless God. He is tedious and cranky. And he is a wrathful God, at best: either you accept his vision of tomorrow, or it is just too bad for you. You are doomed to be swept away with all the other blind reactionaries. No forgiveness is possible.

Just in case you've been leading a sheltered life and don't know what's been going on, the human race has been inundated by a couple of enormous waves over the centuries. These waves have been ripping from one side of the planet to the other, crashing and colliding, pulling the human race back and forth, battering civilization something awful. The first wave was the agricultural revolution, which commenced around 8,000 B.C., give or take a few decades, and then started cascading around the planet for 9,750 years until it started to lose its momentum in the late 18th century. The second wave was the industrial revolution, which started colliding with the first wave in 1750 or thereabouts, banging and slamming against the first wave and causing all kinds of conflict and grief, before it built up a head of steam of its own and kept on roaring right on down to the present day. Next came the third wave, a space age-technological-electronic revolution. This new wave started as a ripple back in 1955 and only now is starting to reach tidal wave proportions.

It would be easier for all of us if one wave left off before another one began. But, alas, these giant waves refuse to cooperate with humanity. There is the touchy problem of the overlap factor. A new wave kicks up while an old wave is still in the process of winding down, and this creates all sorts of turmoil for stubborn reactionaries who refuse to ride with the new trends. Believe it or not, there are those among us who want to hang on to the old waves; some of us even want to turn the clock back to the first wave, to the agricultural revolution, and forget about the second wave, industrialization, altogether.

These blind people who refuse to accept space age technology and lifestyles, who insist on swimming in the dying currents of the first and second waves, are not going to be around much longer though. The third wave is irresistible, you see. It's just starting to gather towering force and momentum. Pretty soon it will wash the first and second waves completely under, taking those who insist on surfboarding with them, and flood the entire planet. Third wave people who have learned to adapt to the new styles of working, loving, living, and politicking are going to do just fine. They will have learned to swim with the new tide and have nothing whatsoever to worry about.

All this would be great fun if the author had a shred of humor or irony in his makeup. But no. Just in case we miss the point he is making in the first thirty or forty pages, he proceeds to bombard the reader with a mind-numbing enumeration of detail that goes on and on for eternity, it seems. His choice of chapter titles is indicative of the pop-pretentious style he had utilized to hype up his message: The Technological Womb, The Vermilion Pagoda, The Integrational Engine, The Represento-Kit, The Ultimate Why, The Presto Effect, Kabuki Currency, The Sleepless Gorgon, Prosumer Lifestyles, The Cosmic Playroom, The Concept of Practopia, The Decisional Implosion, ad nauseam. All this is delivered up with great seriousness, mind you, without any hint that Toffler's tongue is lurking anywhere inside his cheek.

Those who are involved in politics will be pleased to know that their struggles have been more illusionary than real. Our notions about politics and government, individualism versus collectivism, socialism and capitalism have been rendered obsolete by the third wave. There never was any real difference between capitalism and socialism in the first place, you see. Both systems were variations of the same illusion, which Toffler calls the represento-kit. The components of this kit include citizens who are allowed to vote for representatives; legislatures such as parliaments, congresses, and assemblies; and executives who are called presidents, prime ministers, or party secretaries. The only difference between socialism or communism on one side and capitalism on the other is that, in the former system, there is only one political party to vote for while, under capitalism, there are two, three, or more to choose among. The end result is all the same really; we have been living under the illusion of freedom, but in fact we have all become victims of a now-obsolete industrial machine.

This industrial machine, the second wave, made people money-oriented and grasping. It created a giant invisible wedge between producers and consumers, between men and women, between the workplace and the home. This is true of both capitalist and socialist societies. This is now being changed, however, by the third wave revolution. The third wave is bringing us a new synthesis. Instead of electing representatives to govern us, we will be creating a semidirect democracy to govern ourselves. During the first wave we suffered under the dictatorship of the elite; in the second wave it was the dictatorship of the majority; from now on it's going to be a mini-majoritarian world where various minority groups vote electronically, synthesizing their interests into a miraculous new working majority. Under this new system we may allow some representatives to cast, maybe, 50 percent of the vote, but the rest of us folks out there, scattered about the planet, will cast the other 50 percent to pass laws that reflect the real interests of the people. Simply by sitting home and pushing a button in our living rooms we can synthesize our diverse interests and have a more equitable world society.

Toffler merely sketches the broad outlines of this third wave political system. He has done his job by showing us the way. Now it is up to us to read his handwriting on the wall and flesh in the details. Or else. After all, even the Lord God Almighty spoke only in parables. It is up to us mere mortals to figure them out. Correctly.

But enough. It is impossible to do full justice to this book in the space of a brief review. I have barely hinted at the full pretentiousness and pomposity of The Third Wave. Toffler's latest is a 500-page sleeping pill. Read it and treat yourself to a good month's snooze.

Jerome Tuccille works for a securities firm and writes. His most recent investment book is Mind over Money, and his biography of the Hunt brothers, The Kingdom of Hunt, will be published this spring.