Alvin Toffler was a futurist writer who had a remarkable impact on my life and the lives of millions, literally millions, of people—shaping how humans understand the world and the era that we live in. He died in June of 2016 at the age of 87. His wife, Heidi, his wife and intellectual partner lives on. They were great thinkers and writers. Their view of the future had a profound effect on me as I gazed at a fax machine in 1985 and wondered how long it would be before it was replaced by something else.
Toffler’s first great breakthrough book, Future Shock, published in 1970, became a global best-seller. It gave rise to an idea, and a term, used widely to describe the vast transformation we were then living through: America was in a period of technological, social and political change. The pill was altering sexual mores. The first wave of feminism was challenging the traditional limits on women. The civil rights movement was creating hope, turmoil and conflict. Youth activism was challenging the habits and structures of older Americans. It was in this time of unrest that this book seemed especially relevant and convincing. But it was a decade later, in 1980, that Alvin and Heidi Toffler brought out their most important book, The Third Wave. It would be hard to overstate the impact of this book. Its argument was that the first wave in human history was the shift from hunter-gathering to agriculture; the second wave was from agriculture to industry; and the third wave—which we were beginning to live through —was from industry to information. This sweeping view of human history empowered people to think very differently about the world at that time.
Toffler predicted a knowledge-based economy would eclipse the post-industrial age, shifting focus from manufacturing and labor to information and data. “The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Toffler also predicted the spread of interactive media, online chatrooms and devices that remind you “of your own appointments.” “Advanced technology and information systems make it possible for much of the work of society to be done at home via computer-telecommunications hook-ups.” .
Though his predictions focused on the human condition more than scientific advancement, Toffler foresaw a future where a woman would be able to “buy a tiny embryo, take it to her doctor, have it implanted in her uterus…and then give birth as though it had been conceived in her own body.” His forecast that humans would breed babies with “supernormal vision or hearing” and other abilities may now seem a bit outlandish, but he did foresee the advancement of cloning. “One of the more fantastic possibilities is that man will be able to make biological carbon copies of himself.”
Toffler predicted a symptom of rapid change would be the dissolution of the family unit, noting that it would lead to a rise in divorce rates while society would also begin to embrace the LGBT community. He wrote, “we shall… also see many more ‘family’ units consisting of a single unmarried adult and one or more children. Nor will all these adults be women.. As homosexuality becomes more socially acceptable, we may even begin to find families based on homosexual marriage.”
He also acknowledged the societal shift in delaying the decision to have children.
In the age of Amazon and the proliferation of online marketplaces and share economies, Toffler’s thoughts on consumerism as a global trend ring true.
“People of the future may suffer not from an absence of choice but from a paralyzing surfeit of it. They may turn out to be victims of that peculiarly super-industrial dilemma: over choice.”
In coining the term “prosumer,” Toffler predicted the emergence of the combined role of producer and consumer, or the trend of do-it-yourself (DIY) in every aspect of life.
Thank GOD he wrote it down.