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Revolutionary Wealth

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Alvin Toffler
Futurist and Author
Tuesday, June 20, 2006; 12:00 PM

How will tomorrow's wealth be created? Who will get it and how? To answer these questions, Alvin and Heidi Toffler believe there must be an upheaval in our social, political and cultural institutions of values. In their new book, Revolutionary Wealth , they write about everything from education and childrearing to Hollywood and China, from everyday truth and lies to what they call our "Third Job" --- the unnoticed work we do without pay for some of the biggest corporations in our country. (Read the recent Washington Post Book World review here .)

Alvin Toffler was online Tuesday, June 20 at Noon ET to discuss his theories on our future economy.

A transcript follows .

The Tofflers are futurists known for having forecast the acceleration of daily life, the decline of the nuclear family, the spread of loneliness and rise of religion. Decades ago, they also anticipated cloning, virtual reality, niche markets, information overload, work-at-home, product customization, the "de-massification" of the mass media and other features of contemporary life.

Other books by the Tofflers include "War and Anti-War" and "Creating a New Civilization". Alvin Toffler is also the author of "Futureshock," "The Third Wave" and "Powershift."

About this series: Beyond the Future is a weeklong series of live Web chats with noted experts and Washington Post reporters examining the kinds of technological advancements the world could see in 20, 50 or even 100 years. Related news on the subject can be found on the Science and Tech Frontier pages of washingtonpost.com.

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Dayton, Ohio: I'm curious what you mean by "third job" - are you discussing the user-developed content that we purposely (or indavertently) create, when we interact with web sites, call centers, or retail outlets?

Alvin Toffler: I would include some of that under the category of "prosuming" by which we mean value created by users as distinct from "producers". The example you give is part of the much larger phenomenon symbolized by Linux.

As to the "third job" - the "first job" is the one we do for pay. The "second job" is the unpaid work we do when we prosume - e.g. clean house, paint garage, volunteer in the community, parent our children, etc. The "third job" is the result of outsourcing - not to China, not to India, but to the customer or user. The work we do at an ATM that used to be done by a teller inside the bank is a good example. Economists call it the "externalization of labor cost".

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Laurel, Md.: Have only read reviews...

But the first thing that caught my eye was the discussion of "speed" and how technology is moving at many times the rate of law, government and politics.

Are we losing the ability to regulate technology? A friend who fileshares told me "to find the best music-swapping site, look for who the Record Association of America filed their last lawsuit against." When federal court threatened Microsoft's monopoly, the company changed the features on which the ruling turned.

Can we prevent a technological social disaster before it occurs?

Alvin Toffler: It is clear that different parts of our society are changing at very different rates. No society can function without some degree of synchronization among its institutions.

For example, businesses are changing at high speed because of competition. If they don't change rapidly, they die. By contrast it took Congress 60 years to revise the basic law governing finance and banking. It took 62 years to revise telecom legislation - governing one of the fastest changing technological industries in the world.

Some degree of de-synchronization is necessary in every society, but America's institutions are so badly out of synch that large parts of our economy and infrastructure are in danger of collapse or of falling far behind in the global economy.

On a larger scale, we may find ourselves slowing down technological development in the period ahead instead of speeding up organizational change. Bad news.

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Dayton, Ohio: So "third-job" = "self-service", then. But certainly that's affected by technology in a different manner than the direct examples you cite. More of the clothes I buy today are wrinkle free, so I wash them myself with the rest of the laundry (at near-zero marginal cost) instead of taking them to the drycleaner. I wouldn't call that a third job, I'd call that insourcing!

Alvin Toffler: Correct! But it is an example of new technologies permitting us to do things outside the money economy and inside the prosumer part of our wealth system - in the non-money economy without which the money economy could not survive.

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Sterling, Va.: With so many "economic" transactions taking place outside the scope of monetary systems, what are the implications for governments' (local, state, national) ability to maintain a tax base?

Corporations have long externalized as many costs as possible -- e.g., environmental and health costs of oil production -- and the "third job" seems to be another way of doing that. How do people strike a balance with companies on how much work we are doing for them?

Alvin Toffler: Good questions. No good answers as yet. But people would not be using ATMs and potentially replacing tellers if some of them at least didn't find it adventageous. Some say they save time. Some say it "empowers them". More over we should not approach this question as Luddites who oppose new technologies on principle.

So there are both benefits and costs to these kinds of activities. The problem is that both the benefits and costs are largely unnoticed or ignored.

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Columbia, Md.: In yesterday's chat, Ray Kurzweil claimed that, in many ways, predictions about the future must take account of the fact that technology is progressing exponentially. He claims that too many predictions are based on linear extrapolations from the past, so they're doomed to be too pessimistic. To what extent do you believe this? And, if you do, how do your predictions take these exponential trends into account?

washingtonpost.com: Ray Kurzweil's Live Online

Alvin Toffler: First, Heidi and I try to avoid the use of the term "prediction" because it implies a certainty we don't claim to have.

Second, straight line extrapolation is a simplistic method.

Change includes chance, surprise, reversals and inputs from unknown or unnoticed parts of the context surrounding any given change.

Third, I do believe the future will see gigantic conflicts over the definition of the term "human" and changes in our relationships with technology and one another.

On the other hand, in most cases, the longer the time horizon, the greater the likelihood of error.

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Rockville, Md.: "Are we losing the ability to regulate technology?"

No doubt about it. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

Alvin Toffler: "Enjoying the ride" is far too passive a response. Even those of us who appreciate the enormous benefits that advances in technology have given the human race need to never forget the awesome threats of, for example, weapons of mass destruction.

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Winston-Salem, N.C.: The capitalist economic system seems to have produced the most good for the greatest number of people but is largely regarded with a certain moral ambiguity. Will another system be found that satisfies the demands of growing economies but is viewed as fairer and with less suspicion?

Alvin Toffler: The growing intangibility of wealth and importance of knowledge will compel redefinition of the very term "capitalism".

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Grayslake, Ill.: Alvin:

Couldn't you argue that with growing energy costs and the prospect of peak oil/gas production making our hydrocarbon-crazy economy even more costly to run that it will become much more difficult to obtain real wealth?

Alvin Toffler: See definition of wealth in "Revolutionary Wealth" chapter on "desire".

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washingtonpost.com: Our thanks to Alvin Toffler for joining us as part of our "Beyond the Future" series.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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