POWERSHIFT Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence At the Edge of the 21st Century By Alvin Toffler Bantam. 586 pp. $22.95

IF YOU'VE been living in a punk commune or storm sewer for the past 10 years, this is a book you need to read. Otherwise, Alvin Toffler's latest panoptic romp through a decade's worth of headlines will leave you with a four-Bufferin headache from wondering where you've seen this de'ja` vu before.

Powershift, a frenetic survey of how information technologies are changing business and government, is intended as the culminating volume of a trilogy begun with Future Shock (1970) and The Third Wave (1980). Unhappily, it has all the weaknesses but only half the strengths of its predecessors: It is pretentious, bombastic, repetitive, infuriatingly facile, shamefully simplistic and more or less entirely right. Future Shock, despite its trademark redundancy and prose bloat, provided a truly valuable way of looking at "the disorientation and stress brought on by trying to cope with too many changes in too short a time." And The Third Wave -- which traced social organization from agriculture to the industrial revolution and thence to a third (present) stage whose shape will be determined by "computers, electronics, information, biotechnology, and the like" -- had a certain utility for those who felt up against the wall of change but had somehow missed the handwriting on it.

But by now, thanks to the oracular likes of Vance Packard, Marshall McLuhan, Tom Peters and -- ironically -- Toffler himself, the average reader of op-ed articles or biz-mag cover stories is all too aware that power is shifting away from nations and corporations distinguished by heavy "smokestack" industry or brute military might and toward entities that can hoard, exploit and manipulate new forms of information. What was once an electrifying thesis has been galvanized into cliche. As a result, Toffler's whiz-bang exuberance often seems ridiculous, as if he were introducing the Pythagorean theorem to a class that has moved on to calculus. This effect is exacerbated by the rampaging haste and thematic incoherence of the exposition -- which ricochets from topic to disjointed topic within a single page, or even a single paragraph -- as well as by the incessant use of intensifiers such as "astonishing," "colossal" and "enormous," which Toffler pours on in the desperate manner of a backyard chef squirting out ever more lighter fluid to get his charcoal to burn.

The title, a superfluous neologism, says it all: "A power shift is a transfer of power. A 'powershift' is a deep-level change in the very nature of power." Call it what you will, Toffler's lushly documented thesis remains unsurprising: As civilization evolves away from heavy manufacturing and into micro-targeted, customizable knowledge and service industries, we develop a new system of making wealth -- one that is "totally dependent on the instant communication and dissemination of data, ideas, symbols and symbolism." This convulsion in turn alters the types of power that nations, groups, businesses and individuals have and wield. As personal computers make information more democratically accessible, old bureaucracies and hierarchies become obsolete. (Toffler makes greed-meister Michael Milken into a sort of martyr to New Age Capitalism for "freeing thousands of companies from {financial} dependence on banks and insurance companies.")

Data-banks supplant ore and fiber as the new raw materials of the "super-symbolic" economy, raising demand for new kinds of government and mercantile intelligence and threatening new kinds of violence, from computer crypto-terrorism to advanced weaponry in the Third World. New alliances arise among businesses and nations, tailored to shifting exigencies. (Toffler encourages the notion of a U.S.-Japanese trade axis to achieve the best of both worlds.) Threatened institutions turn Draconian and repressive in an attempt to slow the momentum of change. To no avail: The new "ravenous information market will demand new products" (whatever they are), the sheer bulk of which will produce an "analysis paralysis" requiring "a completely new approach to knowledge" -- whatever that might be. And so forth da capo.

LIKE SOME maniacal hummingbird, Toffler never alights on one of the book's 200 mini-topics for more than six or eight paragraphs, flitting from product bar codes and "real-time" computerized inventory to the role of Fax machines in the upheavals of Eastern Europe to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism to Mazda's assembly lines. Making these radically disparate subjects fit his Procrustean argument leads Toffler to repeat the method he made famous in Future Shock, a three-stage system of tendentious inference we might call hype-augury: First, sketch in two or three ostensibly related red-hot developments; then declare them to be key indicators of momentous trends; then extrapolate from them a breathless pronouncement on the future.

This can lead to absurd conclusions. For example, Toffler insists that because ordinary mortals can now call up computerized on-line medical databases, watch doctor-training lectures on cable TV or browse through the "PDR" (a pricey prescription-drug reference volume written in arcane terminology), it therefore follows that "the knowledge monopoly of the medical profession has been thoroughly smashed. And the doctor is no longer a god."

This, of course, is hogwash. It is certainly true that there is more reliable medical information written for and available to the lay public than there was 25 years ago. But nothing significant has changed because a tiny fraction of the populace can dip into a database at $8 a minute. After all, for the past century or so, anybody who wanted to second-guess his doctor could always waddle down to the library and consult the same texts used in med school. Nobody did -- because they couldn't read the stuff. They still can't. The biotech jargon of medical papers is not miraculously comprehensible just because it's on line; which is why you tend to see so few of your neighbors interpreting their own CAT scans or removing their own gallstones.

But never mind: There's little time for qualification or nuance. Toffler has only 600 pages in which to get the new global order properly laid out and relabeled. Consequently, many fascinating subjects are left unelaborated, such as the fact that many industries that once left the United States to exploit cheap off-shore labor are now returning -- to exploit even more profitable computerized manufacturing and distribution systems here. Moreover, the galloping compression leaves many misimpressions. To cite only one: Toffler confuses reverse engineering -- a perfectly legal practice in which you take a competitor's product apart to see how it works -- with industrial espionage.

What is finally most dismaying about Powershift, however, is not that so much energy is expended in beating so many long-deceased futurological horses. It's that the only social value this techno-rhapsode recognizes is "wealth creation," as if that were the crowning attainment of human life. Sometimes, it seems, you can't see the trees for the forest. Curt Suplee is a writer and editor for The Washington Post's Outlook section.