As my current research project deals with popular diagnostic books about the state of society from the 1970s and 1980s, I have been thinking a lot about Alvin Toffler, who died this past Monday. Here are some quick thoughts on his (and his wife’s) influence.
It was always easy to not take Alvin Toffler seriously. Who was he, after all, this former factory worker, White House correspondent and Fortune magazine writer, to tell the world what was in store for it?
The slew of news articles and obituaries that have come out in the wake of Toffler’s death this past Monday, June 27, emphasize this status. But they also point to the lasting legacy of a popular and influential voice commenting on the state of a world that perceived (and perceives) itself in turmoil. A voice that should be taken seriously, if not for itself, then because of the far-reaching consequences some of its utterances have had.
Future Shock… is “Where It’s At”
Alvin Toffler1 began making a splash in 1970 with Future Shock, a book about “the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future.” He was in truth though just one half, often the only credited half, of a writing team. His wife Heidi worked silently but vitally in the background.2 It was an arrangement seen not infrequently during a cultural moment when women’s roles in the workplace were changing, but the book-buying public was seemingly not yet ready to accept them as authorities in their own right.
Toffler, unlike others, was aware of the specificity of the arrangement. In the introduction to The Futurists, a volume of essays by leading figures in futurology — from Buckminster Fuller to Herman Kahn, from Robert Jungk and Olaf Helmer to Daniel Bell and Margaret Mead, to Betrand de Jouvenel and Ossip Flechtheim — that Toffler had edited in 1972, he wrote:
[H]usband-wife professional collaboration may, indeed, turn out to be a common feature of the future.”3
Toffler was also acutely aware of other factors of diversity in which the futurist movement lacked, apologizing for the overwhelming presence of the “white male middle-aged intellectual” in the volume: “I have deliberately chosen to reflect the movement approximately as it is right now, rather than as I think it ought to be.”4
The shorthand for Toffler in numerous short reports on his work is “futurist” or “futurologist”. But what was futurology or future(s) studies? As a movement, it had broadly grown out of US Cold War science and by the 1970s was a many-headed beast with transatlantic and further worldwide connections. The belief that there was one predictable future had eroded. Futures, with the plural s, were now to be posited and investigated. The futurists were an eclectic bunch, though. Both politically and in their approaches to what futurology was and should do, they differed radically. Herman Kahn at the RAND Corporation developed and employed the positivist computer-aided scenario method to calculate the probabilities of various futures. Others, such as German-born Austrian writer Robert Jungk stressed that the future was a malleable thing, co-creatable by the people it would concern in “future workshops” (“Zukunftswerkstätten”).
Was Toffler a futurist, even “[o]ne of the world’s most famous futurists” as his Guardian obituary claims? The New York Times obituary calls Toffler a “self-educated social scientist”, while the Washington Post termed him “the Buck Rogers of predictive sociology” in a not entirely favorable 1980 story, in which it also quoted Toffler weighing in on the matter:
I regard what I do as an enriched form of journalism,” he said. “I’m a generalist. The trouble with academic social scientists is that they’re trained to ignore reality.”
The Futurists, the above mentioned essay collection, points to a related vagueness surrounding Alvin Toffler’s role in futurology. Was he a futurist? On the one hand, he was only a popularizer of other people’s ideas and research. Then again, he and his wife coined terms and developed concepts of their own. Many futurists and academics thumbed their noses at the popular popularizers. Toffler had become an authority on everything everywhere, and to many was woefully underqualified. At the same time, it was Future Shock, that “had elevated futurism into the stuff of watercooler conversation.”5
As Jenny Andersson writes, “Toffler annoyed ‘futurists’ with his sensationalistic account of what to them was a most serious activity.” Still, it was he who had collected them under one roof for the book. This helped the serious undertaking gain more public visibility, something futurology, in Elke Seefried’s assessment, always needed to bank on to defend its relevance.6 Toffler included himself in the mix of futurists, complete with a short biography that boasted that he “[t]aught [the] first course in ‘sociology of the future’ at [the] New School for Social Research.”7
Academic futurists may not have considered Toffler one of their number, but as Toffler’s popularity grew, and the fate of futurology as a recognizable — if never unitary — movement dwindled, it became more salient to call the popular author a futurist. The uneasiness with someone hovering so clearly between the popular and the serious never went away in academia, but as Toffler remained influential and academic futurism did not, the issue went away. Toffler could now wear the futurist mantle by default.
As popularizers, the Tofflers succeeded spectacularly. Their broad, far-reaching syntheses were always clad in a watchful optimisim. Their prose flowed musically off the page, as hip as the multicolored paperbacks of Future Shock Bantam Books put on flashy display in 1971. Future Shock was the first and most successful of a series of books the Tofflers would write during the next decades. All dealt with the imminent or already occurring changes in what they called The Third Wave in their eponymous 1980 follow-up, leading to, book three, a global PowerShift (1990) away from established structures and elites to the new, cellular and granular world enabled and created by digital technology.
Toffler’s name has lost the cocktail party currency it had in the 1970s and early 1980s, but the influence of Tofflerian ideas, concepts and language is still with us. Future Shock became a household expression. (Toffler had not coined it himself, but instead popularized a little-known neologism first used by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner in a 1963 paper. They claimed it was “a relatively new phrase”). Curtis Mayfield wrote a song with that title.
Toffler terms are also familiar to those suffering from “information overload” or buying a “prosumer” camcorder. Both the words and their meanings come out of Toffler’s 1970 book.
The Third Wave was “a bible to many cyberpunks” and it influenced the creation (and name) of techno, the musical style. According to Toffler himself, it became the second-best selling book of all time in China. PowerShift had less direct influence in culture, but it had perhaps the most well-thought out theoretical backing of any book in the “Toffler trilogy,” culminating in a list of 25 assumptions on which it was based.
Toffler books wound up on millions of bookshelves, and they influenced many readers. Some of these readers would go on to achieve success in business and politics, quoting Tofflerisms and relying on Tofflerian frameworks to decode the world around them. Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim struck up a friendship with the Tofflers after having become rich by eyeing investment opportunities through the lens of their books. Steve Case, AOL’s co-founder even wrote a book also called, a bit confusingly, The Third Wave.
Former Speaker of the House in the US Congress Newt Gingrich, recently in the news again as a potential running mate for shock Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, has repeated often that he was deeply influenced by the Tofflers. (Not always to his advantage; during his 2012 presidential bid, Gingrich promised a colony on the moon by 2020, a notion widely ridiculed by the press, and one that can be traced back to his penchant for Tofflerian visions.)
Even as Gingrich held them up as his gurus, urged fellow congressmen to read their books, and wrote the foreword to a collection of essays excerpted from their works, the Tofflers and Gingrich disagreed on much. Ostensibly, the Republican firebrand and the former factory workers and once staunch liberals had little in common. Looking more closely, many Toffler books point toward, even seem to endorse the policies that have come to dominate business and politics. As cultural objects, they lend substance to Wendy Brown’s view that a “neoliberal governing rationality” dominates the era.
The Tofflers believed deregulation and market economies were, “basically right” although they warned that “[f]ree-marketism and trickle-downism twisted into rigid theological dogma are inadequate responses to the Third Wave.”8 But predictions of the inevitability of temp jobs and the “death of permanence” as early as 1970, or the implicit advice to readers that one needed to constantly re-learn to be prepared for the future,9 all fit within a world view in which the individual had to become an entrepreneur of themselves. This connects effortlessly with the fundamental tenets of neoliberalism. Today, the world is run according to such tenets.
In that sense, Alvin Toffler was truly a prophet of the future. A future that has become our present.
- “Future Shock by Alvin Toffler is ‘Where It’s At'” was Marshall McLuhan’s blurb for the book. ↩
- This working relationship makes it hard to pinpoint writings or ideas specifically to one or the other. For the purposes of this piece, I will use “Alvin Toffler” when the man Alvin Toffler is concerned, as well as when it appears in texts in which the author refers to themselves as “I” rather than we. The borders are sometimes necessarily and confusingly fluid here, however. ↩
- Alvin Toffler, “Introduction: Probing the Future” in Alvin Toffler (ed.), The Futurists. New York: Random House, 1972, 8. ↩
- Toffler, “Introduction,” 9. ↩
- Lawrence K. Samuelson, Future. A Recent History. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2009. 124. ↩
- Elke Seefried, Zukünfte. Aufstieg und Krise der Zukunftsforschung 1945–1980. Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2015. 124, 259. ↩
- Toffler, Futurists, xiv. ↩
- Alvin Toffler and Heidi Toffler, Creating a New Civilization. The Politics of the Third Wave. Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1995. ↩
- Toffler quotes Herbert Gerjuoy in Future Shock: “Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn”. Alvin Toffler, Future Shock. New York: Bantam Books, 1971. 414. This is likely the basis for a similar quote often attributed to Toffler himself. ↩