The future is a sort of god in America.
We're not talking about the future as in the weather tomorrow or what your brother-in-law thinks about the stock market. We're talking about The Future, an article of faith, an American religion, the pioneers heading west, the New York World's Fair of 1939, the atom bomb, Epcot Center, automation, the new Oldsmobiles, the coming recession, truth, justice and quality footwear for all.
Or it's like money. You keep thinking it's going to make you happy, and it never does when it gets here, but still you never get enough of it.
Or the future is like the food in the old Catskills resort joke:
First lady: The food is terrible at this place.
Second lady: Yes, and such small portions.
The Catskills scenario may be the most useful for explaining Alvin Toffler, who has just published a book about the future called "Powershift," the last in a trilogy that began in 1970 with "Future Shock."
What Toffler has done in these books is tell us not so much that the food is going to get better but that the portions are going to get bigger, a lot bigger.
"I coined the term 'future shock' to describe the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time," he wrote in "Future Shock."
It was an idea with a long pedigree in American culture.
"What is before us no one can say, what is upon us no one can hardly realize," said Daniel Webster in 1847.
"Here is an enormous, an incalculable force ... exercising all sorts of influences, social, moral and political; precipitating upon us novel problems which demand immediate solution; banishing the old before the new is half matured to replace it," said Charles Francis Adams Jr. about the transcontinental railroad in 1868.
"The wave of the future is coming and there is no fighting it." -- Anne Morrow Lindbergh in 1940.
And so on.
And now "Powershift," Toffler's new book, which says: "Today we are living through one of those exclamation points in history when the entire structure of human knowledge is once again trembling with change as old barriers fall."
Sitting in a hotel room on a recent publicity swing, he said:
"I'm a product of that tradition. I think Reagan is in that tradition. Although I have seen the future but I don't think it necessarily works. We were interested in utopianism, but in a post-Auschwitz world you can't be a blind technological optimist. We're working in the tradition of grand theory."
By "we" he meant himself and his wife, Heidi, whom he married when he was still a student at New York University in the late '40s and both of them were out to save the world. "Not many people are doing synthesis -- we don't have much competition. When you look back, there's Marx, Spengler, Toynbee. Nowadays, there's Braudel, there's Prigogine. ... "
Except he's got something they never did: He's a romantic in the American tradition of The Future. He is 62 years old, the kind of New Yorker they don't make anymore, heavy-lidded and far-seeing, tall enough that his limbs extend from his chair with an effect of languorous cantilevering. His hair flows back in curves that give him the look of a man staring from a hill that is high and windswept indeed, the look, say, of a hero from a Jack London novel.
London was on his mind when Toffler, a passionate Marxist and the son of a furrier, got his degree and headed out for the Midwest to work in factories, grinding and shoveling, real life.
"I wanted to be a writer. What did Jack London do? He sailed ships. So I decided to find real life, working in factories. There was a romantic element."
As Toffler watched the early '50s turn into an orgy of power and material optimism, he realized that America had "contradicted what Marx had said." The fascists would not take over, the proletariat would not rise, the middle class was in charge. He ended up writing for a union newspaper, then became a Washington correspondent for the York (Pa.) Gazette and Daily.
He read a lot of the sociology of the time, books that bemoaned the triumph of suburbia and warned of crushing conformity.
He recalled: "Books like 'The Status Seekers,' William Whyte in 'The Organization Man.' And you remember the Berkeley kids in the protests out there, they were against computers, back when the cards used to say 'Do not fold, spindle or mutilate.' But I came away thinking that this model we were supposed to be moving toward -- more uniformity and conformity -- was wrong."
Instead, he began to suspect that we were in for more diversity, niche-marketing, lifestyle segmentation and choice, so much of it that we'd be swamped, buried, overwhelmed.
After stints of freelance writing and working at Fortune magazine, he wrote "Future Shock," which sold more than 5 million copies.
" 'Future Shock' was the most exciting book to write," he said. "It was sort of our firstborn."
Toffler became an instant wise man, a prophet along the lines of Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller or Charles Reich. He had written a book you had to read to understand what was happening.
It seemed like so much was happening then. It had slowed a bit by 1980, when Toffler published "The Third Wave." Now, with the economy sliding toward recession, with words like "decline" and "abyss" and "the end of history" tolling through media reckonings of the state of the union, things are moving at about the pace of rapidly cooling lava. You think to yourself: We should be so lucky to have to worry about "future shock."
"The future used to be so much fun," says a computer company's ad in Time magazine. "It had allure. It had enchantment. It had verve. But sadly, it had very little to do with reality."
Toffler believes the future will keep shocking, waving, precipitating. His faith is unchanged, much like the format of his books.
All three future books look the same, in a quick leaf-through. He writes in short sections, no more than three pages each, and each with a catchy title. In the latest one: "Blood and Snow-Money," "On Zeks and Goons," "Tampons and Car Rentals," "Bach, Beethoven and Wang," "The Scent of Miss America," "The Double-Channel Ploy," "The Indiana Jones Code."
And he uses an aphoristic style that makes you feel as if you're reading the fortune-cookie messages you might get in the IBM cafeteria:
"Power in itself is neither good nor bad."
"In its infancy, the telephone was regarded as a luxury."
"Governments rely increasingly on computer-stored data bases."
History is "full of surprises."
Is this a cliche? Let it be a cliche then. Toffler has no fear of cliches. Whitmanlike, he draws cliches to his breast, makes them his.
"... straddled the earth like colossi ... watched awestruck ... came unglued ... gleaming model ... political powerhouse ... very survival is in doubt ... accepted their word as law ... political clout was enormous ... across the board ... danced attendance ... thumb their noses ... meteoric rise ... fall from grace ... a single common thread unites them ... tight choke-hold ..."
And we're only up to Page 7!
"I'm trying to be accessible," he said. He is not aiming at intellectuals, though he invokes their powers by using their jargon: "integrated loop," "win-win scenario," "intra-intelligent networks" and so on.
"I am pro-middle class," he said. "It's the bulk of America."
He writes for and about them, people who are worried either that change is coming or that it isn't -- he gets them either way. In "Future Shock" he cited examples of citizens of the new world of rampaging novelty, such as a man who "changed jobs at a mind-staggering rate, has moved his family 13 times in 18 years, travels extensively, rents cars, uses throw-away products ..."
Rents cars! Uses throw-away products!
And now, in "Powershift," plays video games! Uses car phones! "The fax machine in the car, the vest-pocket video, the laptop computer, the portable printer are spreading fast."
Buys books! Reads Toffler! Wants bigger and bigger portions!
The more things change in America, the more Alvin Toffler's latest book is apt to be a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club.