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Future Shock in the Present Tense

Keynote Address at Aspen Summit 1996

by Alvin Toffler

Just how stable is the American political system? To answer that not insignificant question, it may be helpful to look back to the early '90s when two brash personalities took center stage in the American political theater.

Let me begin with a question: What do Hillary Clinton and Newt Gingrich share in common? That question may seem amusing, but is in fact vital to understanding the notion of future shock in the present tense.

Let's start with Hillary Clinton. That smart, tough First Lady came to Washington hoping to make radical changes in the U.S. health care system. Hillary Clinton was slapped down. Newt Gingrich - who despite our political differences has been a personal friend of ours for more than 25 years - came back to Washington as Speaker of the House after the election of 1994 hoping to make even more radical changes. Brilliant, outspoken and imaginative, he envisioned changes not just in health care and welfare but in American society across the board, hoping, he said, to speed our transition to a Third Wave information society. Newt Gingrich, too, was quickly slapped down, although some of his proposals were later adopted and repackaged by President Clinton.

The way both of these people were treated reminded us of a conversation in the White House with Lee Atwater, a political campaign operative for President Reagan and later President Bush. What he said to us shortly after Reagan's first election was that "you're going to hear a lot in the days to come about the Reagan revolution. Don't believe a word of it. If we Republicans are lucky," he said, "by dint of heroic effort we may push the system 5 degrees in one direction to compensate for the 5 degrees that President Carter pushed it in the other direction."

Soon, both main political parties were engaged in the quadrennial mindless race toward what can only be called the obsolete middle. What Atwater knew, what the treatment of Hillary Clinton and Newt Gingrich suggested, then and now, and what each campaign seems to reaffirm is that the American political system resists any radical change. The system itself, the structure of collective decision making, the architecture of American politics, is itself ultra stable.

The End of Ultra-Stability

The idea that the U.S. political structure is ultra stable should in fact give pause to everyone, because by fueling a global shift from a Second Wave smokestack society to a Third Wave knowledge-based society, Americans are opening a path to tremendous benefits not only for America but for the world. The benefits will range from higher standards of living, economic standards, to better health, cleaner environment, etc.

But Americans -- and the populations of many other countries are being battered by the very acceleration and the pace of life that the knowledge revolution, instant communication and the Third Wave of change bring with them. Most Americans now feel hard pressed, stressed out, upset with conditions in the country. Many are angry. Most wish change would slow down and let them catch their breath. The Second Wave smoke-stack world that they knew is vanishing as the Third Wave future invades every aspect of American society today. Daily life is suffused with higher and higher levels of uncertainty and unpredictability.

This is not just true for individuals. Businesses and giant corporations are investing billions of dollars, sometimes even tens of billions. Essentially they are placing wagers on highly unpredictable outcomes. Many firms are caught up in incessant, traumatic orgies of restructuring. Many seemingly smart managers show all the signs of future shock and run like lemmings after the latest management fad: synergy, core competence, total quality management, EVA, vertical integration, re-engineering. Some of these may be helpful, but, by and large, most of these changes are made without any understanding of how the resulting organization will fit into the fast-emerging economy of the future, let alone the emerging social structure.

Meanwhile, the stress levels rise. We call it future shock, which is the distress and disorientation brought on by trying to adapt to too much change at rates faster than people can handle. We also believe that, in fact, today's most disturbing social, cultural and political developments can be traced precisely to this condition. Among these are the frightening fanaticism that we see in many corners of society - racial and religious intolerance, the spread of paranoia and conspiracy theories, anarchic terrorism, the purposelessness and moral paralysis among so many young people - or the technophobia that was so perfectly symbolized by the Unabomber (whose Luddite manifesto would have found many more supporters if its author had not, it appears, punctuated his paragraphs with blood ). What we really see are two ways of life, two civilizations, in collision. One is the fading Second Wave industrial civilization. The other is its fast spreading Third Wave replacement. The collision of these two will result in enormous and politically dangerous dislocations of various kinds.

Solidity and Flexibility of the Political System

Against this turbulent background, should Americans want an ultra-stable political system that focuses on the immediate and punishes the change makers? Or do countries undergoing such profound, high speed change need a political system that anticipates social change and mitigates its accompanying turmoil and social conflict? Do we want a political system that in all its basic structures was designed for the past to remain unchanged? Or do we want one that changes in sync with the changes in society? Indeed, is the political system in America really as stable today as it was when Lee Atwater suggested that it was? Is the American political system ultra-stable or even stable? Does the ultra-stability of our pre-digital system provide the modicum of order and predictability that society needs? Or by its obsolescence does it contribute to disorder by suppressing needed changes and essentially creating the conditions for a possible explosion of violence in the future?

At a time when all our industrial era institutions, our Second Wave institutions are in crisis -- the school system, the justice system, the legal system, the family system, the health system, the value system, and the energy system, not to mention the welfare system (which has neither been ended as we know it, as President Clinton now claims, or replaced with adequate safeguards for the helpless, as the Republicans claim) -- do we want our political system to be stable or do we want it to be flexible? Do we want it to stay as it is or do we want it to change?

In 1996 politicians of both parties were busy congratulating themselves about welfare reform legislation that finally passed the Congress and made its way to the White House. But are the changes that we celebrate today really as important as they appear in a media/political system that focuses intensely on now and not tomorrow? And the larger question is, are we capable of creating new replacement systems for those that are in crisis if the overloaded political decision-making apparatus is not itself dramatically and perhaps constitutionally improved?

When the Industrial Revolution launched a Second Wave of change in history roughly three centuries ago, political systems were transformed. Monarchies toppled; "divine right" went out the window; modern nations were formed; mass political parties were organized. In country after country, politics eventually came to reflect the industrial order. Politicians began to speak in terms of machine analogies: they spoke of checks and balances, political machines, of railroading legislation, steamrollering a bill, capturing the state machine. Trotsky talked about the flywheel revolution. All of these metaphors reflected the industrial Second Wave technologies of that era.

Vast social dislocations followed the arrival of industrial civilization on the planet. Conflicts and even wars resulted from the clash between the old First Wave agricultural elites and the rising urban industrial Second Wave elites. That is the historical background we should not forget as we now go through a process of transformation from a Second Wave to a Third Wave civilization. Today, everything is caught up in this vortex of transformation - our economic, social and cultural systems are essentially up for grabs.

The Economy of the Future

What the United States has is not an economy. What the United States has are two economies or a bisected economy, with remnants of the old Second Wave, mass production, bigger-is-better, assembly-line economy of the industrial age, and alongside it, the rising and rapidly growing Third Wave economy. Our economists chattering away on C-SPAN and CNN and in the newspapers constantly talk about the future of the economy. I think it is time to stop talking about the future of the economy and start talking about the economy of the future.

Talking about the future of the economy implies a continuation of the economy as we have known it. Talking about the economy of the future implies something dramatically different. It is an economy in which we will be compelled to redefine the fundamental concepts that we have lived with since Adam Smith, Karl Marx and the Industrial Revolution. All the fundamental terms of economic thinking now require radical redefinition. What is productivity in an information-based or knowledge-based economy? What is property and what is capital as they go from tangible to intangible? Money itself is subjected to a new law as it becomes informationalized and as information becomes monetized. The nature of work changes.

We are moving into a world in which for many the job may no longer be the primary source of income. We are moving into a world in which the faster the rate of change, the more complex the society, the more information must be generated, stored and transformed into knowledge, the more information must be exchanged and the more competitive the global economy becomes. We are creating an economy with less and less room for uneducated or less skilled workers. Indeed, even highly skilled workers can have the wrong skills at the wrong place at the right time and find themselves vulnerable. We may be moving from a economy based on employment to one in which we do not have employees but have in fact "entreployees", some cross between entrepreneur and employee.

Everyone talks about symbol manipulation or knowledge work, but little has been done to categorize its forms. There is more to mind work than just computer data. Not all knowledge is or must pass through our digital technology. Face to face communication remains vital, as well. What is really interesting is that one can build a typology of knowledge work. People work at different levels of abstraction, from the data entry clerk to the research scientist to the financial planner or the corporate strategist.

You have different functions going on inside companies that in the past were regarded as essentially wasteful and unproductive. Some people in companies bring information from the outside world into the firm. Other people are paid to take information from inside the firm and export it. Then you have people that are essentially like relays; they internally carry information from one part of the firm to the other. Then you have those that are creative, the people who come up with crazy ideas, one out of ten of which is really powerful and useful. Then you have another team of people who say, "Wait a minute; that will not work," who essentially filter the creative ideas as they are raised. All of these knowledge processes are going on inside every organization, but have never been mapped, categorized and or valued very highly.

In fact, in the Second Wave, the assumption was that there were two fundamental sources of added value, one was physical or manual labor and the other was capital. Ideas, people who dealt with this information and knowledge, were regarded as paper pushers, pencil pushers, who were unproductive and provided no value added. We now know the reverse may very well be coming true. These are just a handful of the changes that the economy is going through, and if you look at them closely they are not incremental changes but in fact are transformatory.

The New Role of the Family in Society

If all that was happening was a shift from a manual labor economy to a knowledge based economy, that would be pretty revolutionary. But at the same time, we are also transforming the social structure as deeply as the economy.

Take the role of the home, once the center of society. There were exceptions, of course, but, as a rule, in First Wave agrarian civilizations around the world, the typical family structure was an extended family with multiple generations living under the same roof. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and sometimes non-blood relatives identified as relatives were brought into the households. These large households were the center of work, with the family serving as a production team, going out together to work in the fields or in the cottage itself.

The family had a lot of fundamental functions in such societies. The family not only did the work, the family took care of the health of its members. If you were sick, there was no place else to go. The family educated the children because for most people there were no schools. The family took care of the sick and the elderly because there was no was no state welfare; there was no external support. The family also was indeed a media system, so that if the state or the church wanted to communicate with the children and form that new generation, it had to do it through the family. The family was a transmission link in communication from the powers that be or were.

With the Industrial Revolution family structure changes. Family size shrinks, and, instead of a big household with a lot of people all living together, the nuclear family becomes the norm. In the United States that was defined that as: mother stays home, father goes to work, two children under the age of 18. The nuclear family, thus, became the Model T, the standard family form and everybody was expected to grow up into that. You're going to get married, you're going to have kids, you're going to live in house with a white picket fence. You are going to grow up in a nuclear family, and, in turn, you are going to create a nuclear family.

In industrial society, the old, fundamental functions of the family are stripped away from the family. Work is no longer done in the household, it is done somewhere else, in a factory or an office that operates like a factory. Notice that education is no longer regarded as the task of the parent primarily but now is assigned to a school, a mass education system designed for mass production society. Health now goes to the doctor in the health delivery system. Care of the elderly goes to the state and, as far as the family serving as the critical media in society, they now have competition from the mass media. All the fundamental social functions that the family filled in First Wave societies have now been taken away from them. The family is reduced. The relationship is reduced essentially to procreation and psychological support and some consumer functions as distinguished from producer functions.

When we were researching Future Shock in the mid-sixties, we asked every expert we could find, "What is going to happen to the nuclear family system?" They said, with great assurance, "Nothing." But we said that was not plausible because there were too many other changes happening in society. And in fact, what has happened is that the nuclear family, defined precisely in the terms of the Census Bureau, now describes less than 5 percent of the population. A major reason is that most women now work, which immediately shatters the definition of nuclear family.

However, there are even more fundamental changes in family structure occurring with the arrival of the Third Wave of change. Some people do not like these changes, and we are not arguing that they are necessarily good, but they are happening and they are fundamental. What is happening is not the death of the family, but the emergence of multiple family styles: single parents, childless couples, once remarried, twice remarried, etc. We have gone from a homogenous family structure to a heterogeneous family structure. We have done this with enormous pain and traumatic emotional agony in society, but this is not unrelated to the other changes in the world around us. Family is not an independent variable; it is related to how we work; it is related to technology; it is related to communication; it is related to the other parts of the social system; it is a component to a larger system. When you change all those other components you change the family as well.

In 1980, in The Third Wave, we wrote about the electronic cottage. Apart from encouraging smaller work units, apart from permitting a decentralization and deurbanization of production, apart from altering the actual character of work the new production system is shifting literally millions of jobs out of factories and offices into which the Second Wave swept them right back where they came from originally - the home. This strange idea was ridiculed after we wrote it by the establishment media like The New York Times and The Economist. The New York Times ran a page one article dismissing the whole notion as merely "visionary." Of course, The New York Times today is filled with articles about people working at home.

It is not just work that is returning to the home. Health care is as well. When our daughter needed intravenous antibiotics a couple of years ago, she did not get them in the hospital. She got them at home. Many processes that we once thought had to be done in the doctor's office can now be done at home: electronic blood pressure measurement, pregnancy testing, HIV testing, etc.

We are now beginning to see shopping at home and banking at home and building communities from home. We are going to see (or hear) broadcasting from home; we are going to be publishing from home; we are going to be organizing political protests from home. In short, the home is becoming a more important place -- or will become a more important place -- than it has been for the last couple of hundred years. That last bastion holding out against the Third Wave -- education -- will increasingly reenter the home, at least partially, and despite the bitter resistance of Second Wave educators who operate the compulsory cognitive labor factories that we still call schools.

Demassification of Society

At a still deeper level, the social structure itself is being transformed by the digital revolution. Cyberspace is a part, but only a part, of the Third Wave because there are other things happening on the planet, such as demographic shifts. It is not just technology driving this whole thing. There are convergent forces that are making this tremendous transformation happen. The Third Wave is breaking up the Second Wave mass society into which most of us were born.

The Second Wave society was based on mass production, mass consumption, mass education, mass media, mass entertainment, mass recreation and weapons of mass destruction. The Third Wave is breaking that mass up and society is becoming more internally differentiated. We coined the term demassified to describe the new society because there was no simple word in the English language to explain the idea.

Demassification creates a much higher complexity in the social system and creates much higher rates of information exchange. (In fact, we would argue that the reason we are having an information revolution is because higher social diversity requires the exchange of more and more information among the units or people or institutions in that society. Thus we begin to see more and more differences within the society itself in lifestyles, in marriages, in religions and among the generations.)

We see differentiation at every level. For example, think of production. We have gone from the concept of mass manufacturing to the concept of mass customization. With the help of information-based technology, we reduce the cost of introducing variety into the output of the production process. It used to be very expensive to change anything about a product. The information revolution reduces the cost of diversity and so we get mass customization. But mass customization is only a halfway step toward full customization on demand. In fact, when customers want full customization, our future cyber-based production system will be able to provide that probably at the same cost as a mass product because of the intelligence imbedded within the production process itself.

It is not just manufacturing that is demassifying. There are more different kinds of insurance policies today than ever existed. There are more forms, more instruments for investments; even real estate title searches are becoming more and more customized and so on. The message to business: If your company's product line is not increasingly demassified or your technology does not cut the cost of customization, get ready for a competitor whose products do and whose technology will.

In markets we now hear not just about mass marketing. When we researched Future Shock in the 1960's and talked to the visionary marketing people at that time, they talked about "market segmentation". The mass market actually could be seen as having several segments. Later they began talking about niche marketing and boutiques. Today if you query them, they talk about "particle marketing". And what is a particle? You are a particle; every individual is a particle and the idea is "one-to-one" marketing. Talk individually to each customer. Interactive technology will allow the establishment of an ongoing relationship, a continuing dialogue, between customer and company. Companies may find themselves selling things to that customer that they never previously thought about. They may service that customer in ways that that customer needs once the customer tells them about their need.

All of these changes -- and all social processes -- produce additional social consequences. In effect, we have a positive feedback loop. More and more change producing more and more change. My oldest friend is Dr. Donald F. Klein, who is the world's most eminent psychopharmacologist. In Listening to Prozac seventy pages are devoted to him because of contributions in psychopharmacology. Don is always asked, "Does such and such a drug have a side effect?" His answer is very simple. He shrugs and says, "No side effect, no central effect." That is true in social terms as well, except it is much harder sometimes to trace the side effects.

We see the side effects of demassification in increased individuality and personal freedom in the society. We can now engage with the society around us more as individuals than we ever could before. On the other hand, there are negative by-products or side effects. The epidemic of loneliness in America is directly related to demassification. Everybody or almost everybody is lonely in America or complains of loneliness, and that is because in the old world you knew the people who grew up with you. You had a lot of information about your next door neighbor. You did not even have to discuss it with them, You all got up at around the same time in the morning, you all went to the same place to work on the assembly line, you knew what the next family was going to watch on television because there were only three channels, etc. There was a lot of tacit, implied, shared knowledge. Now you do not know very much about your neighbors, or the girl next door, or the boy next door. I believe that contributes to the loneliness that describes America.

With the personal freedom has come an enormous outbreak of antisocial behavior - a kind of 'anything goes' culture. But even these changes still are not the whole story. Along with economic and social changes, there are also profound cultural changes transforming life at deep levels like epistemology and at shallower levels like pop culture. In Future Shock, we said America was going to build a multichannel society, which is exactly what has happened. We went from a world of mass media to one which is increasingly demassified. We are obviously moving toward an infinity of channels. While there is a lot of redundancy in the programming and a lot of programming that's hardly worth talking about, if you look closely, you begin to see this diversity, good or bad. The New York Times reports about niche music radio stations. For example, the article lists radio stations that specialize in the following kinds of music: blue grass, contemporary Christian, zydeco, dance-hall, salsa romantica, tejano, tropical, not to mention banda for rural Mexico and banghra from India. And that is just the beginning. When the Internet and the cyber revolution fully develops, the possibilities become truly infinite.

Clearly we are now en route to an infinity of channels or ports into the home and eventually perhaps directly, who knows, into the brain. Add to all of this the unbelievable variety of symbols, images, sounds and ideas made available by the Net. In addition, digital broadcast satellites and automatic translation, which will eventually bring into American homes on-line information and broadcasts from Nigeria or Brazil or China or Malaysia, will introduce further cultural diversity. Soon you will get programs transmitted by the Ayatollah in Iran, neo-Nazi's in Idaho, or broadcast by the Vatican or fundamentalist preachers like Pat Robertson - who is indeed one of the pioneers of satellite broadcasting.

Violence, Alienation and Politics

Not so long ago, the world's sole surviving super power was paralyzed for weeks on end by a small group of paranoid conspiracy fantasists and I believe racists calling themselves Freemen. The government was unable, because of political realities, to use force against them. While we want to underscore that we are not saying that we should have used force - it is wonderful that we were able to resolve that situation peacefully - at the same time, the spectacle of the government unable to deal with a tiny, private para-army calling itself a militia is disconcerting.

On the one hand, you see the government politically unable to exercise force in that situation, while force and violence, such as the Atlanta Olympic bombing, run pretty free in the streets of the country. It is troublesome because one of the defining characteristics of a government or a state is its ability to impose a monopoly of violence. Violence is supposed to be monopolized by the state so that people cannot just run around killing each other. What we are supposed to have is an orderly society where only government-licensed police and the military apply violence. What we see today is that government offices are bombed, government agents are threatened with their lives and there is a lot of violence in the society. Something is happening to the monopoly of violence. In fact, competition in the society is breaking down monopolies. State violence is one of the monopolies that is breaking down, and not just in the United States. Ask the Japanese how they feel now that their very orderly society, so stable since World War II, is suddenly facing a terrorist sarin attack in its subway.

Meanwhile, our political life in America is also experiencing the side effects of demassification. We see two political parties playing their usual, ritualized games and politicians in private denounce the polarizing rhetoric that they feel compelled to use. Huge sums are spent on elections, but larger and larger percentages of Americans are resentful, alienated and cut off from any sense of enfranchisement. They are so cut off that they have come to despise members of the entire political class, whether Democratic, whether Republican, whether elected officials or the media around it. No one any longer feels represented in America by our pseudo-representative government -- not only inner-city black youths, but also small business people. There are even super millionaires out there who once made huge political contributions to this or that party but refuse now to even take their phone calls. Even they complain that they feel unrepresented.

One evening not long ago we found ourselves sitting next to an elderly millionairess, a grande dame and an intimate friend of one of this nation's living First Ladies. This is a woman with strong ties to the world of the White House, telling us she was so disgusted with both political parties that she almost voted for Ross Perot - until she concluded that he was a flake. The tenor of her remarks, made from deep inside the "establishment," made us think of the bitter alienation among the French aristocracy before their revolution. Something is truly not right, not stable, when the richest and most powerful members of society no longer believe in the system in which they prospered.

This widespread mood of disaffection can be heard on talk radio, where it ranges to actual hatred for the system. Remember, we are not living in Weimar Republic after a decade of horrible hyperinflation that destroyed everybody's lives and then ultimately produced a Adolf Hitler. We are not living in a post-Gorbachev Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet empire and the disintegration of its economy. By most measures, we are living in the most competitive and affluent society in the world. Americans have lower unemployment rates than the Europeans. Yet there is this tremendous upwelling of hatred toward the system. Why?

This profound and growing distrust and hatred makes one wonder, as the television drones on with the reports of the political pollsters and the ritual of campaigning, if, in fact, Americans can get through the next decade or two without some kind of political crisis. Indeed, can the United States escape the next decade or two without a constitutional crisis? What we say about America can be doubled for other countries. Political disaffection is not an American characteristic alone; it is true in Italy, in England, in Japan. It is true throughout the so-called developed and affluent world, not to mention the countries in which people cannot express their hatred for the government. In short, the question we would like to leave on the table is, can we have cyber-revolution, a digital revolution, a social revolution, a cultural revolution, an epistemological revolution, a biological revolution, combined simultaneously with upheavals in the biosphere, the technosphere, the sociosphere, the psychosphere and the infosphere, without equally dramatic accommodative changes in the political structure?

How we answer that question will determine whether the Third Wave will bring positive changes. The Third Wave can literally raise billions of people on the planet out of poverty. It can raise the species to a whole new evolutionary level; it can lead us to the stars themselves. But can the Third Wave do so if the leader in this global revolution -- the United States -- has collective decision-making processes both in corporations and in the public sphere that are slow, sclerotic, and sick? If the internal political system clanks and grinds and misfires, overwhelmed by the speed and complexity of the problems that it sets out to solve, can we get through the next period ahead without substantial unnecessary pain?

It is time to divert some of the astonishing creativity and innovativeness in the United States, especially the creativeness that is being poured into technology, to the political sphere. We must, if we want anything resembling a decent and democratic future. The time has come to recognize that both political parties in their present form remain parties of the past, despite the rare Al Gores and Newt Gingrichs in their ranks. We need launch a civilized ten or fifteen year public democratic discussion of what a democracy in the twenty-first century under Third Wave conditions ought to look like. We are not advocating crash therapy, because the attempt to impose crash therapy on the Russians has been disastrous. We are not talking about rapid instantaneous change. We are talking about a discussion that takes into account all the new, democratic potentials that the cyber revolution produces.

We are not talking about just instant push-button voting, because that is truly a vulgarization of the concept that cyber technology can help us politically. There are enormously creative ways that we can use to re-vivify, restructure and redesign our democracy for the twenty-first century. It is time for Americans, whether they are Netizens, citizens on-line or off, to organize themselves not into armed pseudo-militias or fanatical political or religious movements, but in cyber-based Committees or Correspondence to lay the basis for peaceful political transformation. Some of that is already happening, mostly on the Net. But we need to bring the distributed intelligence and imagination in American society together to simulate future democratic alternatives. We must envision together and discuss in civil terms, not for a day but for a decade or more, how to take advantage of these new tools for democracy.

If we fail to do this, we lose our human rights, we lose our privacy . We lose even the pretense of popular participation in political life if we allow intolerance and violence to explode. If we remain so focused on the technologies of the Third Wave, we will be abdicating our intellectual and political and human responsibilities building a better society. The time to begin this debate and this process of learning together is now, not when perhaps it becomes too late.



The Progress & Freedom Foundation