Alvin Toffler, RIP

Death of a futurist


You're shaped in countless hidden ways by the things you read as a teenager, your worldview forged by whichever books happened to fall into your hands when you were young and impressionable. Some of these you outgrow, or think you outgrow; and then one day you realize how many of the attitudes you carry around were absorbed long ago from some paperback you hadn't consciously thought about for years.

So it is with me and The Third Wave, a 1980 tome by the futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler. (Only Alvin's name was on the cover, but he later acknowledged his wife as his collaborator.) When I saw the news today that Alvin Toffler had died, I opened the book for the first time in decades, and there it was: the world that, somewhere inside me, I kept expecting to see emerge. I thought I had put this book behind me, with its goofy neologisms ("prosumer," "practopia," "indust-reality"), its occasional lapses into Pollyannism, and its far-too-sweeping historical narrative that tries to squeeze the story of civilization into three big "waves." But lurking behind all that was the specter of a rather appealing future: a decentralized, destandardized society where the nation-state has splintered, the old industrial hierarchies have flattened, all sorts of experiments in living are tolerated, and the boundaries between production and consumption have come crumbling down.

Some of the book's forecasts, such as its portrait of an ever more de-massified media, hold up rather well. Others don't, or at best don't yet. (A subchapter on child-rearing, for example, imagines a shorter rather than longer adolescence, with young people adopting more responsibilities early in life.) But they add up to one of those Big Visions that are good to grapple with when you're young, and which can quietly influence your expectations years later. The Third Wave and its more antistatist sequel, Powershift (1990), did that for me. (I never did read the Tofflers' best-known book, 1970's Future Shock.)

There is plenty to disagree with in the duo's work, and they've attracted their share of unsavory admirers. (The Toffler fan club stretches from Newt Gingrich to the Chinese Communist Party.) But long ago they propelled my mind in many interesting directions, and I know I'm just one of millions of readers who can say that. So thank you, Alvin, and rest in peace.

Bonus links: I wrote about a film based on Future Shock here. Reason's original review of The Third Wave—an acerbic pan by Jerome Tuccille—is here.

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  1. I haven’t read The Third Wave, so I’m not sure if it addresses this, but one idea that I’ve wondered about is the creation of high level building materials that enable consumer production for end use.

    When I think about the things I create, very little of it is from scratch. I don’t chop down trees for lumber; I buy lumber from the lumberyard, rarely rough, and I make something out of it. I have more choice than ever before, not just for types, but for cuts. My parents never did any woodworking, and my grandparents rarely did, although the further back I go the more the generations produced on their own. It feels as if society delegated creation as far as it could and then, for certain luxury or recreational classes of goods, took a step back.

    I have a friend who worked for one of the major baking goods companies, and she was involved in formulating the recipes for cake mixes. If you look at the back of a cake box, you’ll notice that you almost always have to add three ingredients. That’s because they’ve found that, psychologically, people consider adding three ingredients to qualify as “homemade”. But the more ingredients you have to add, the less people want to buy it. Three ingredients is the sweet spot.

    There’s something about adding the end polish yourself that’s appealing.

    1. In my opinion, cake mixes are for the most part disgusting and lead to terrible cakes. The further away you are from the raw materials, the less you can control the quality of the resulting product and the fewer choices you have in customizing it. But to each his own, I guess. Time is the most precious resource and we have to choose how we spend it. However, everyone should build something, at least one thing, by themselves and strive for excellence. Or not.

      1. I agree, with one exception: light cakes. It’s hard to make a light cake from scratch, though there are very few cakes that really need to be light. I prefer dense German cakes with shredded zucchini for moisture.

        As to excellence, I feel like it’s less valued now than resourcefulness. My grandma’s generation grew up through the Great Depression, at least here in the Midwest, and they talk a lot about resourcefulness, but it’s separate from art or craft. They have a different appreciation of a well made redwood table than a crafty one made of oak barn wood. I don’t see my generation acknowledging that difference.

        1. Actually, that’s not true. I think my generation acknowledges the difference – as most would probably value the crafty one more – but they categorize both the same way under function. My grandma would never see crafty as an equal to quality and workmanship.

          1. just for my sanity, and because I’m too lazy to google it, I’ve read this post before and am not just having deja vu, yeah?

            1. Not from this handl…I mean, not from me.

              *gets up to go to Slate pitch meeting muttering “Stupid , Dave, stupid stupid stupid”*

      2. I loveJiffy Mix corn muffins. That is all.

        1. i forget which product had the recipe on it, i think it was one of the safeway corns maybe, but:

          Jiffy corn mix + sweet corn + cream corn = sweet, sweet, corn cake.

          also, corn.

  2. I remember trying to read “Future Shock” and not succeeding.

    1. +1 Infinite Jest

      1. I read the whole thing! *shudder*

    2. Technocrats are as bad as communists.

  3. Life cannot be controlled, it can only be suppressed..

  4. That review was SAVAGE!

    1. I mean, if you’re gonna Shark Sandwich your title as “Future Shock”, you’ve expect someone to step up to the tee.

  5. I never read this book. 1980 was the year I graduated from HS. I’ll look it up. RIP, dude who influenced Jesse.

    1. I’m the same age. Future Shock paperbacks littered the 1970s alongside The Late Great Planet Earth, Sybil,Chariots of the Gods, and Go Ask Alice.

      1. Don’t forget The Greening of America.

  6. “Imagines a shorter rather than longer adolescence, with young people adopting more responsibilities early in life”

    Didn’t that happen already? Like kids working the fields on the family farm or taking up arms to defend the village?

    You know, history before the Industrial Revolution.

    1. Yes, that was a rather bad prediction given the direction we were going at the time…

      1. They expected a lot of high-tech home-based production, and so they imagined post-factory counterparts to pre-factory practices.

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