Alvin Toffler, an author whose visions of accelerating social change guided Chinese leaders, American politicians and business moguls through the best-selling books “Future Shock” and “The Third Wave,” died June 27 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 87.
Toffler Associates, the Reston, Va.-based consulting firm he co-founded with his wife, Heidi Toffler, announced the death but did not give a cause.
Mr. Toffler wrote more than a dozen books charting the cultural shift from manufacturing-based economies to those driven by knowledge and data in the 20th century. Working with his wife, he predicted the unfolding of what he coined “the Information Age” and became a guru of sorts to world statesmen.
“Nobody knows the future with certainty,” he said in an interview with the China’s People’s Daily newspaper in 2006. “We can, however, identify ongoing patterns of change.”
China’s Zhao Ziyang, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and South Korea’s Kim Dae-jung tapped his views as Asia’s emerging markets increased in global significance during the 1980s and 1990s.
In 1994, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) urged members of Congress to read Mr. Toffler’s latest book, “Creating a New Civilization.” Mr. Toffler’s works also influenced Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, who became the world’s richest person and a friend of the writer’s. More than 15 million copies of “Future Shock” have been sold, according to the Tofflers’ website.
Mr. Toffler’s impact may be most evident in China. In 2006, the Communist Party named him to a list of 50 foreigners who significantly influenced the country in recent centuries. “The Third Wave,” published in 1980, was a bestseller in China, and a video version, produced by Heidi Toffler, was distributed to schools nationwide. The couple said that both were pirated, so they did not earn any royalties.
“Where an earlier generation of Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese revolutionaries wanted to re-enact the Paris Commune as imagined by Karl Marx, their post-revolutionary successors now want to re-enact Silicon Valley as imagined by Alvin Toffler,” Alexander Woodside wrote in a 1998 essay in Daedalus, a journal published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
“Future Shock,” published in 1970, described society’s development as a series of waves, from the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic Age to industrialization in the 18th century to the Information Age after the 1950s. Toeffler warned about a perception of “too much change in too short a period of time” and warned of the dangers of not adapting to the technological and informational tsunamis to come, or as he put it, “the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future.”
After “The Third Wave,” “Powershift” in 1991 completed the trilogy, examining how knowledge became the main means of gaining power and wealth, presenting challenges for the nation-state and opportunities for corporations. Mr. Toffler forecast that humans would be overwhelmed by the pace of change in everything from technology to politics.
The Tofflers claimed on their website to have foretold the breakup of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany and the rise of the Asia-Pacific region. He said in the People’s Daily interview that “Future Shock” envisioned cable television, video recording, virtual reality and smaller American families.
Critics said Mr. Toffler was often wrong and failed to foresee humans’ ability to adapt to the pace of change, but he said that futurist debate is essential to making social progress.
“It makes you think,” he said in a 2010 interview published on NPR’s website. “It opens up the questions of what’s possible. Not necessarily what will be, but what’s possible.”
Alvin Eugene Toffler was born in New York on Oct. 4, 1928. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland.
He studied English at New York University, where he met Adelaide Elizabeth Farrell, known as Heidi, who was starting graduate linguistics study. They dropped out, worked for Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party, and moved in 1950 to Cleveland, where they married and became factory workers. He was a millwright and welder, while she was a union shop steward in an aluminum foundry. They soon became disillusioned with aspects of their extreme left-wing views, including a coming social revolution.
“It became apparent that the immiseration of the worker wasn’t happening,” Mr. Toffler told the New Republic, referring to a Marxist theory about economic impoverishment. “We either had to give up the theory or give up on reality. The most important thing I learned was that there were ways of looking at history as something that was more than episodic. We came away with the idea that there is such a thing as a model and that you could think of social change in a systematic way.”
Mr. Toffler then worked for a newspaper backed by the International Typographical Union, followed by a stint as the congressional and White House correspondent for a Pennsylvania newspaper, the York Gazette and Daily. Returning to New York, he joined Fortune as its labor columnist before writing about business and management for the magazine and immersing himself in “futurist” circles at the Rand Corp. studying technology and the ways it was changing government policy as well as home and work life.
After leaving Fortune in 1961, he wrote a paper on the social and organizational impact of computers for IBM. He advised American Telephone & Telegraph Co., now AT&T, that the company would have to break up — more than a decade before the government forced it to, according to the Tofflers’ website.
Survivors include his wife. Their daughter, Karen, died in 2000 of complications from Guillain-Barré syndrome, a neurological disorder.
The couple co-founded a consulting firm, Toffler Associates, in 1996. A decade later, they published “Revolutionary Wealth,” examining nonmonetary wealth in a global economy that has blurred the distinctions between producer and consumer, creating what they call a “prosumer.”
“We futurists have a magic button,” Mr. Toffler said in a 2006 interview with Strategy & Business magazine. “We follow every statement about a failed forecast with ‘yet.’ ”
Adam Bernstein contributed to this report.
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