WE'RE NOT DOOMED after all. Far from it. The world has turned upside down, and things may get worse -- for some of us they'll inevitably get worse -- but the result of these upheavals could be the emergence of the first truly human civilization.
That is the central theme and message of this important new book by Alvin Toffler, the author of Future Shock. Since I've repeatedly said the same thing in my own works, it's hardly surprising that I heartily recommend The Third Wave. Lest anyone suspect otherwise, this is a rave review.
I say that up front because I do have reservations. While much of Toffler's overview of technology will be familiar to seasoned readers of science fiction, Toffler sweeps across space and time to integrate an astonishing array of information -- from family life to microbiology -- into a theory of history. One need not agree with the theory to be delighted and amazed at the sheer scope of The Third Wave.
The basic theme of The Third Wave is simply stated. Although human history is incredibly rich, and man has lived under a bewildering variety of civilizations and cultures, one may discern two major stages in the past: a "First Wave" civilization which grew out of the agricultural revolution; and a "Second Wave" which sprang up as a consequence of what historians call the Industrial Revolution. The Second Wave supplanted the First, although elements of the First remain (and there are still significant albeit doomed attempts to restore the First Wave); now the Second Wave itself, although in power just as present, is dying, and will be replaced by a "Third Wave" civilization. The death throes of the Second Wave and the birth struggle of the Third have created our present discontents.
So far this sounds as if Toffler has stolen Marx's stages of historical growth, collapsed the slave and feudal periods into one, and given the result new names, as in part he has done; but Toffler rightly demonstrates that Marx did not and indeed could not really understand industrial civilization. How cold he have? It hadn't developed very far before Marx died. Moreover, whatever Marx's value as historian, his record as prophet is dismal: He did not and could not have forseen the new technologies which are at this moment transforming the world. Toffler's picture of the future is far different from Marx's revolutionary vision.
Moreover, unlike the Marxists, Toffler does not pretend to know why the Second Wave industrial civilization burst onto the historical scene, nor does he assign any single reason for the emergence of the Third Wave. At best we can say that the Second Wave was highly structured, dedicated to creating vast unidimensional organizations, spreading the philosophy of the marketplace, and in general viewing the world through the lenses of what Toffler calls "indust-reality"; by contrast the Third Wave will be/is amorphous, dynamic, complex and decentralized.
But there, in my judgment, is the problem: Although Toffler finds much to admire in Second Wave civilization, by the end of the book "Second Wave" has become a term of opprobrium, a mere catch-phrase for all that Toffler finds distasteful. The Second Wave society is characterized by "meritocratic pretensions," "is tenaciously dedicated to preserving the core institutions of industrial mass society," and is filled with "Second Wave Orwellian uniformity"; while the Third Wave people are individualistic, "de-massifying," and, for all I know, courteous, kind, friendly, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.
By the end of the book, Toffler has slipped from analyst to tractarian. If today's elites will only "recognize the need for a broadened democracy, they can in fact join in the process of creating a Third Wave civilization." If they do not, if they "prove to be as short-sighted, unimaginative, and frightened as most ruling groups in the past, they will rigidly resist the Third Wave and thereby escalate the risks of violence and their own destruction."
Our institutions -- industrial, managerial, and most particularly political, including the Constitution of the United States -- are outmoded, and inevitably will be swept into the dustbin of history. Whirl is king, and we shall ride the whirlwind, like it or not; those who refuse will perish.
Moreover, we must not try to impose First Wave values on the new Third Wave; we must go beyond industrial technology, not merely reject is. This, Toffler says in an excellent passage, is the mistake of the extremists among the Appropriate Technology movement who decry "capital-intensive" solutions to world problems. Their "sudden love affair with labor-intensivity is subject to the charge that it is self-serving for the rich," says Toffler. "There is also, built deep into the First Wave strategy, a paternalistic assumption that while other factors of production need to be economized, the time and energy of the laborer needn't be."
All of which is patently true. Yet one wonders whether Toffler has not come to the right conclusions for the wrong reasons: if he does not reject the past simply because it is past, and embrace the future because it is inevitable. There is a strong flavor of Hegel and his 20th-century descendant, Bernard Bosanquet, about Toffler's book.
Some years ago, Joe Coates, then of the Office of Technology Assessment, tried to explain why philosophers are not much heeded in Washington. "You go to the academics for advice," he said, "and they give you a great theory; but they don't tell you what to do next Wednesday."
This is the final flaw of Toffler's book. He offers a menu of changes -- particularly changes in political structure -- but says little about what to do tomorrow morning. Now in one sense he has done quite enough; this book, flawed as it may be, is a magnificent piece of work, a book that anyone concerned with the future must read. Yet I wonder if his imprecision in prescription does not stem from something deeper: from a neo-Hegelian view that the Third Wave, being inevitable, will take care of itself. That course would be tragic: Buckminster Fuller has observed that the future is a race between utopia and oblivion, and there is little evidence that utopia is winning.
Toffler has given us an important work; it remains for someone else to tell us what to do next Wednesday, but reading The Third Wave will help.