I read this book as a young teenager. I re-read it this month, 53 years after its first publication. The Tofflers got a lot right.
Writing his 1970 book Future Shock (5 million copies sold) in his Manhattan apartment with Heidi, his wife and uncredited co-author, Alvin Toffler’s personal stance is somewhat politically conservative. At its core the book is concerned with white America’s cultural identity and psychological health, inadequate economy-focused definition of “progress”, and lack of bottom-up preparations for its future. The Tofflers do not speak warmly about alternatives of the time, eg McLuahn, Hippies, Marxists, Marcuse, Black Power, or Woodstock.
The Tofflers mostly speak for, and from the perspectives of, Western affluence, US positivism and the insularity common to the majority of Americans at the end of the 1960s, and to this day. There is no discussion of centuries of colonialism and post-war decolonisation, genocide of native Americans or any engagement with wealth creation from slavery. In all this, the Tofflers are a product of their time.
But all that is overwhelmed by their deep and useful thinking, though you do have to discount some of their fixations and numerous speculations that dominate the middle of the book.
In style Alvin Toffler is limited and strengthened by his first profession of journalism. He sprints in the first 100 pages letting loose an avalanche of important facts of the decades before the year of publication, 1970. He then dawdles with attempted up-beat talking up mere expectations about the future in what he terms “super-industrial societies” and their shift to consumerism’s “economics of transience”. Pulling out of that in the last chapter a prolific and thought-provoking volley of suggestions are made for societies recognising the importance of attempting to shape their futures, rather than the present based on their past.
The Tofflers get a lot right, viewing developments through their post-war boom, warnings of dislocations ahead, spectacles.
A great deal is covered, here’s a partial list – the productivity of the US workforce due to their geographic mobility; the increase in part-time or temporary employment; the viral operation of advertising in shaping values and objectives; the need of workers to unlearn what is no longer operational; the growth of project management and the decline of pyramid business structures; the shrinking of extended families into nuclear of families; the rise of goods rental instead of purchasing them; the necessity to change what is taught to school children with a greater focus on their “future autobiographies”; the decline of widely held (imposed?) societal values and rituals; the significant growth of the services economy; the desire of consumers for experiences (he refers to this as “the psychologization of goods and services”); the utility of not just nation-state five year plans but ten, twenty and fifty year plans; the measuring of economic indicators as contrasted to the almost complete failure to measure societal health with ‘social indicators’; the proliferation of novelties and fads receiving popular culture attention; and celebrity worship.
There is much more than that list. About celebrity fixations he writes: “No previous generation in history has had so many fictional characters flung at it.” (p. 146) Relevant to that he later refers to the “psychologization of the economy” (p. 206).
In the Tofflers’ set of observations, readers familiar with late 1960s USSR society, bureaucracy and trends will recongise how well industrialisation advanced in the USSR, then faltered and failed as the information era grew and top-down, centralised decision making, and information transfer restrictions remained. Those factors, among other external and internal factors, limiting possibilities for the USSR experiment resulting in its abandonment in 1991.
Dislocation of people’s lives in the US, and alienation with formation of cults become central concerns that snowball and propel the book. Readers may project four decades ahead of the book’s publication in 1970 and recall how after about 2007 emerged social media and its myriad of negative societal consequences.
Reflecting on the 19th century Euro-American emergence of democratic liberalism, the Tofflers see no future in bureaucracy which they regard as an organisational form suiting the industrial past. Approaching the end of the book, with their repeated expectation of “super industrialism” ahead, they call for example for greater participatory democracy, engagement with “Red China”, and re-definition of what “progress” should mean.
Their arguments about the acceleration of urban life and technological invention in developed economies have proven to be sustainable and supported. So too the environmental consequences of global boiling and the rape of the once-in-a-universe possibility of tree life creating fossil fuels. From them humans have extracted petroleum propelling planet-reshaping consequences and the series of coups and wars the United States instigated, first in 1953 in Iran, to today against Russia. The cause of many has been to access and satiate the US’s oil dependency and to block the possibility that its perceived competitor nation-states might grow more powerful from their oil revenues.
In some respects Toffler expectations involve straight-line thinking, something they know should be avoided. The Vietnam War is mentioned a few times, merely a word here and a word there, and not in the index. Yet the war’s financial consequences in 1973 ended the Bretton Woods System. Western oil dependence emboldened certain leaders to raise oil prices (first Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, then months later by the Shah of Iran, Arab nations and others followed later still). Each took political and national security risks in boldly increasing oil prices. The process led to the formation of the OPEC cartel. Inflation and stagnation followed in the West in the 1970s.
Then the 70s, 80s and onwards never resembled the West’s economic sunshine era of say 1946 to 1973. The new eras bred politicians to suit, Nixon and Reagan, and in Australia Howard and Frazer and Howard again, the second longest serving of Australia’s prime ministers.
In the 2020s few imaginations have caught up to understand what was unique about 1946 to 1973, so national politics and geopolitics remain fueled by myths and disinformation and unreformed economic models (eg the systemic gridlock of FIRE industries – Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate), much of it agitated by chauvinist nationalist rhetoric that is now commonplace in political utterances in numerous nation-states against others, migrants, refugees and internal minorities.
Accelerated change that so concerned the Tofflers hit the United States as much as it did its satraps, such as Iran in 1979. In Iran’s case, it involved hyper levels of change from the mid-60s and throughout the 1970s. Development was interpreted differently by the underprivileged, a revolution in 1979 began supported by many and ultimately in many respects backfired. Negatives mounted as the US, USSR, France and other nation-states militarily supported and sustained Iraq’s invasion of Iran to grab near Basra and nearby, the world’s greatest concentration of oil reserves. I refuse to refer to the subsequent two wars in the area as the “First and Second Gulf Wars”, it is more historically or perhaps only rhetorically appropriate, to label them as the second and third.
The Tofflers were aware of the potential of computers. It is likely to have surprised them that it was LSD, Eastern philosophy and hippie preferences in the 1960s that played some role in propelling the 1970s invention and development of personal computers near the same epicentre of all that, San Francisco. Economically California had a head start, being arguably the most significant state for production of gear used by the US military-industrial-complex.
Ultimately the book is about US culture and what technology and late capitalism after the Second World War were doing to culture, and the need to not have change unrestrained and unmanaged and be dominated by “econocentricism” (p. 428). The same debate is present in 2023 as regards generative AI. About generative AI, as well as the Tofflers’ core concerns, this sentence from the book resonates: “Lacking guidelines or precedents, we flounder over the moral and legal questions.”
Four choice quotes
“Specialisation increases the number of different occupations. At the same time, technological innovation reduces the life expectancy of any given occupation.” (p. 105)
“One needs imagination to confront a revolution. For revolution does not move in straight lines alone. It jerks, twists and backtracks. It arrives in the form of quantum jumps and dialectical reversals.” (p. 173)
“It has been observed, for example, that if the last 50,000 years of man’s existence were divided into lifetimes of approximately sixty-two years each, there have been about 800 such lifetimes. Of these 800, fully 650 were spent in caves. Only during the last seventy lifetimes has it been possible to communicate effectively from one lifetime to another – as writing made it possible to do. Only during the last six life-times did masses of men ever see a printed word. Only during the last four has it been possible to measure time with any precision. Only in the last two has anyone anywhere used an electric motor. And the overwhelming majority of all the material goods we use in daily life today have been developed within the present, the 800th, lifetime.” (p. 22)