Spare Us These High-Tech Utopias!


Previews and Premises, by Alvin Toffler, New York: William Morrow, 1983, 230 pp., $11.95.

The Roving Mind, by Isaac Asimov, Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1983, 350 pp., $17.95.

A few years ago I had a good deal of fun reviewing Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave for REASON (December 1980). Suffice it to say that I was not overly impressed by the book, finding it to be a tedious, pretentious, and pompous bore—a 544-page yawn, if you will.

The latest offering from Toffler, Previews and Premises, is a bit trickier to review, since it is not really a book by Toffler at all. The publisher has presented it as a book by Toffler for obvious reasons. Alvin Toffler is a best-selling author whose major books, Future Shock and The Third Wave, have sold millions of copies in dozens of languages around the world; so from a commercial standpoint, it is wiser to package Previews and Premises as a new work of Toffler's rather than as "a penetrating conversation" with Toffler, as its subtitle indicates. The book is really an extended interview with Toffler conducted by the South End Press, an avowedly leftist publishing group in Boston.

A book-length interview is a difficult project to accomplish successfully. After all, what we have here is nothing less than a 230-page conversation. Not only is it a Boston Marathon of a conversation, but it is not even an original dialogue unfolding fresh ideas.

In a prologue section attributed to the South End Press (why are leftists so reluctant to identify themselves individually?), the interviewers give us their reason for conducting the interview in the first place. They are perplexed by Toffler's claim that the third-wave world we live in today renders all left-right political distinctions obsolete. According to Toffler, both capitalism and socialism are relics of the past and, in any event, were never all that different. Toffler admits that he "leans toward" free markets, but he is "not a pure marketeer," he says. He is neither a leftist nor a rightist, since such distinctions no longer have any validity.

In the end, however, he does favor some sort of reindustrialization plan, as advocated by so-called neoliberals such as New York investment banker Felix Rohatyn and economist Lester Thurow. Neoliberals, groping as they are for a coherent economic program to offer as an alternative to Reaganomics in the 1984 election, have advocated quasi-fascistic government subsidies for newly emerging high-tech industries; the old second-wave industries like steel and coal, they propose, should be allowed to fade into oblivion.

The interviewers promise that their dialogue with Toffler will be full of fireworks, since they are firmly committed to the "importance of left politics and struggle." In other words, they promise us at the outset a sparkling debate between old-guard leftists who still believe in class conflict and Marxist dialectics and a squishy-soft neoliberal who thinks a free market is okay as long as it isn't too free and is coaxed along by a new generation of third-wave technocrats.

The book might have worked if this, in fact, were the sort of interview we actually got. Toffler on the hot seat, being grilled by a coterie of second-wave lefties still clinging to their sweatshop political mentality, would have made for some sprightly dialogue. According to South End, Toffler agreed to do the interview because "the project gave him an opportunity to deal with certain questions that arise from the left, and which are seldom asked of him by the mainstream press in the West. Toffler wanted to consider and confront questions having to do with such issues as ownership, class, political authority, racism, sexism, and, as he sees it, the severe weakness of Marxism."

What self-serving drivel! As it turned out, the groupies from the South End Press were so delighted to have "gotten" Toffler to do the interview that they were apparently terrified of offending him and having him walk out midway through the project. Nowhere in these 200-odd pages of dialogue do they seriously challenge Toffler's ideas. The interviewers' role consists of asking him a series of innocuous, open-ended questions that serve as a springboard for Toffler to rehash most of the ideas he already covered in minute detail in The Third Wave. Nowhere along the line is there any semblance of intellectual confrontation.

The book is thus a wonderful forum for Toffler—an extended classroom lecture, more than anything else. It provides him with an opportunity to update his ideas a bit, but there is certainly nothing new or substantially different here. Anyone who managed to get through The Third Wave without gagging on the section titles and lapsing into a comatose state already knows more than he needs to know about Toffler's semi-utopian prescription for the future. This book is a watered-down restatement of his views presented in the tantalizing guise of a political debate. False advertising, wouldn't you say?

Like Alvin Toffler, Isaac Asimov treats of the relationship between politics and technology in a new book. But unlike Toffler's Previews and Premises, Asimov's The Roving Mind both informs and entertains.

Asimov is so prolific an author that he could probably start his own book-of-the-month club offering monthly selections of his new titles. So I hesitate to call this his "latest" work, since there could be five others out before this review is printed.

In any event, The Roving Mind is a collection of 62 articles by Asimov, most of them previously published. The articles do indeed rove over a wide range of subjects, from attacks on the Moral Majority to his thoughts on population, pollution, extraterrestrials, Sherlock Holmes, neutron stars, black holes, cloning, computerization, and so on. You name it, and Asimov has an opinion on it. Most of the articles are well written—informative and entertaining both—and surprisingly brief for someone who has so much to say.

Asimov is at his best when he is attacking particular bêtes noires such as the theory of creationism, censorship, Jerry Falwell, and the Moral Majority in general, as well as when he is elaborating on a specific area of science. And he is at his worst when he enters the realm of politics and economics.

His best writing is sprinkled liberally with witty gems, sometimes several on a single page. For example, in a scathing attack on creationism, he serves up this illuminating paragraph: "There are many aspects of the universe that still can't be explained satisfactorily by science; but ignorance implies only ignorance that may some day be conquered. To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature up to this time, and it remains premature today."

He is equally on target when castigating President Reagan for saying, in effect, that no one who disbelieves in God and an afterlife can possibly be trusted. He then develops this theme with a stimulating refutation of the notion that you have to believe in God in order to be good. At his best, Asimov is a pleasure to read; he is lucid, civilized, and above all a man committed to reason.

With all his rationalism, however, those who know the value of free markets and political liberty will find Asimov's thoughts on politics and economics downright frightening. It is exasperating that a man who can be so brilliantly rational in other areas turns out to be such a political and economic illiterate. In an essay on population, for instance, Asimov states categorically that a woman who voluntarily has more than two children is "committing a crime against humanity." He goes on to advocate a world government that should be empowered, among other things, to "ration" child birth.

One would not want to live in a world run by Asimov. He is a "liberal" autocrat, a high priest of science who would impose his own version of utopia on the rest of the world with the same fervor with which the Moral Majority would impose its own, given the opportunity. While we can enjoy Asimov when he is at his best, pricking the hides of authoritarian religious fanatics, he is an equally dangerous enemy of liberty with his quasi-religious scientific plan for the rest of us. He is more literate and entertaining than Jerry Falwell, but he is perhaps even more arrogant and self-righteous because of his intellectual superiority.

Asimov seems totally oblivious to economic principles in the third part of this book. He blames just about everything, including inflation, on overpopulation: too many people means too much demand and, hence, rising prices. He overlooks all the inflationary evils of big government, including the fact that we actually pay farmers not to produce food in this country. If too many people cause inflation and economic depression, why is Hong Kong, literally teeming with people, so prosperous while socialistic, underpopulated countries stagnate?

Asimov makes an eloquent case for getting government off the back of science. He believes in free, unregulated scientific research, unhampered by governmental restriction. His field he would decontrol, while imposing Draconian controls over just about everything else.

What arrogance! What a pity he didn't extend his case for freedom to the whole arena of economic and social relationships. Alas, when reading Asimov, it pays to be discriminating. The man is witty, and he's a charmer. The Roving Mind is chock-full of stimulating, well-stated ideas. It's just that some of the ideas happen to be dangerous.

Jerome Tuccille is the author of numerous books, including It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand, Inside the Underground Economy, and How to Profit from the Wall Street Mergers.