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.