Alvin Toffler, Author of ‘Future Shock,’ Dies At 87

Alvin Toffler, whose book ‘Future Shock’ and its sequels reached some level of mass popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, has died at the age of 87:

Alvin Toffler, the celebrated author of “Future Shock,” the first in a trilogy of best-selling books that presciently forecast how people and institutions of the late 20th century would contend with the immense strains and soaring opportunities of accelerating change, died on Monday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 87.

His death was confirmed by his consulting firm, Toffler Associates, based in Reston, Va.

Mr. Toffler was a self-trained social science scholar and successful freelance magazine writer in the mid-1960s when he decided to spend five years studying the underlying causes of a cultural upheaval that he saw overtaking the United States and other developed countries.

The fruit of his research, “Future Shock” (1970), sold millions of copies and was translated into dozens of languages, catapulting Mr. Toffler to international fame. It is still in print.

In the book, in which he synthesized disparate facts from every corner of the globe, he concluded that the convergence of science, capital and communications was producing such swift change that it was creating an entirely new kind of society.

His predictions about the consequences to culture, the family, government and the economy were remarkably accurate. He foresaw the development of cloning, the popularity and influence of personal computers and the invention of the internet, cable television and telecommuting.

“The roaring current of change,” he said, was producing visible and measurable effects in individuals that fractured marriages, overwhelmed families and caused “confusional breakdowns” manifested in rising crime, drug use and social alienation. He saw these phenomena as very human psychological responses to disorientation and proposed that they were challenging the very structures of communities, institutions and nations.

He continued these themes in two successful follow-up books, “The Third Wave” (1980) and “Powershift” (1990), assisted by his wife, Heidi Toffler, who served as a researcher and editor for the trilogy and was a named co-author in subsequent books. She survives him.

Mr. Toffler popularized the phrase “information overload.” His warnings could be bleak, cautioning that people and institutions that failed to keep pace with change would face ruin. But he was generally optimistic. He was among the first authors to recognize that knowledge, not labor and raw materials, would become the most important economic resource of advanced societies.

Critics were not sure what to make of Mr. Toffler’s literary style or scholarship. Richard R. Lingeman wrote in The New York Times that Mr. Toffler “sends flocks of facts and speculation whirling past like birds in a tornado.” In Time magazine, the reviewer R. Z. Sheppard wrote, “Toffler’s redundant delivery and overheated prose turned kernels of truth into puffed generalities.”

Mr. Toffler’s work nevertheless found an eager readership among the general public, on college campuses, in corporate suites and in national governments. Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House, met the Tofflers in the 1970s and became close to them. He said “The Third Wave” had immensely influenced his own thinking and was “one of the great seminal works of our time.”

Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang of China convened conferences to discuss “The Third Wave” in the early 1980s, and in 1985 the book was the No. 2 best seller in China. Only the speeches of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping sold more copies.

(…)

Mr. Toffler published 13 books and won numerous honors, including a career achievement award in 2005 from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He and his wife formed Toffler Associates, a global forecasting and consulting company, originally based in Manchester, Mass., in 1996.

In recent years, benefiting from hindsight, some critics said Mr. Toffler had gotten much wrong. Shel Israel, an author and commentator who writes about social media for Forbes, took issue with Mr. Toffler in 2012 for painting “a picture of people who were isolated and depressed, cut off from human intimacy by a relentless fire hose of messages and data barraging us.”

But, he added: “We are not isolated by it. And when the information overloads us, most people are still wise enough to use the power of the ‘Off’ button to gain some peace.”

In writing “Future Shock” 46 years ago, Mr. Toffler acknowledged that the future he saw coming might ultimately differ in the details from what actually came to pass.

“No serious futurist deals in ‘predictions,'” he wrote in the book’s introduction. “These are left for television oracles and newspaper astrologers.”

He advised readers to “concern themselves more and more with general theme, rather than detail.” That theme, he emphasized, was that “the rate of change has implications quite apart from, and sometimes more important than, the directions of change.”

Toffler became among the most popular of those who wrote in an area that came to be known as “futurism,” a loosely defined movement that combined advocacy for technology with discussions about how that technology would shape society and individuals going forward. To some extent, much of the material that fell under this banner seemed to fall into the same category as pop psychology and other movements that became popular in the 1970s but Toffler at least put some meat on the bones of his theories. The fact that his books remain in print to this day would seem to be testament enough to the power of his ideas.

FILED UNDER: Obituaries, Quick Takes
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Scott says:

    Just yesterday, at home, we (wife and adult children) were talking current events and the motivations and actions that were driving them. I brought up “Future Shock” which I read when it came out 45 years ago. I think the broad premise it presented is even more true today. Not only is the rate of change increasing but the rate of the rate of change is increasing. Our capacity to deal with those changes, both individually and institutionally, are challenged as never before. Increasingly, there are many individual who cannot cope with the rate of change regardless of the direction of change. We see that lashing out in our politics today. And if it is tough for us, just think about third world countries, such as the middle east. It has to be worse.

  2. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    He said “The Third Wave” had immensely influenced his own thinking and was “one of the great seminal works of our time.”

    And 20 years later, Paul Ryan declared that Atlas Shrugged was the most important book he’d ever read. The GOP is in retrograde. (And Ryan should ask for his tuition money back.)

    Changing topic slightly: Futurism is still quite popular in Korea where it is applied to marketing trends and shifting political trends. The Korea Herald publishes articles from experts in the field several times a year.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    @Scott:

    Yep. It occurs to me that the great divide now is between the adaptable and the rigid. The coastal elites are the adaptable, as evidenced by their greater income, education, and willingness to relocate (often from the more rigid rural environment into the city.) Urban, educated folks see changes in racial composition, or in the shifting gender identities and roles as a natural part of life, while the rigid see them as threats.

    The rigid (not le mot juste, but you get the idea) feel embattled, surrounded and cut-off. The truths they learned in childhood – homosexuality is a sin, we’re number one, men are from Mars and women are from Venus, faith, and a faith-based patriotism, are all out the window as far as the adaptable are concerned. The rigid turn on their TVs and see a world that is really quite divorced from their own immediate environment.

    Someone comes along and says, I can turn back time, make all these disturbing elements disappear, and a lot of them buy it. They don’t think they have another way forward. It’s a cultural panic exacerbated by what looks to them like (and may well be) an economic dead end. So they fall back on faith and the simplest iterations of patriotism, on racism and sexism, on tribalism and nativism, on gun worship and heroic fantasies.

    In part this is the fault of the adaptable – we are aszholes to rigid people. We’re arrogant and dismissive and call them names. We are basically shifting them from the “Good people” into the “Bad people” category, and not surprisingly, they don’t like it much. Obviously they could change, in theory, but if they were adaptable they’d already be “us” and not “them.”

    If you feel the merry-go-round spinning faster and faster and you’ve seen some of your friends lose their grips and fly off, you grab whatever you can hold onto and you pray that an orange-hued savior will come along and shift the merry-go-round into a slower speed.

    The problem the rigids have is that we have the money and the power. We control the major media narratives. And unlike the UK, we have greater numbers thanks to the support of groups alienated by the racism and nativism the rigids revert to. So, in the end they can’t win, any more than the Islamic State, with very similar motives (though drastically different tactics) can really win in the end. They may just barely be able to elect Trump, but in the end they’ll still lose because people once given a slice of power (gays, blacks, Latinos, potheads, college kids, artists,) are much harder to shove back into the box. And we coastal elites like our lives and prerogatives and we aren’t going to let a bunch of rednecks take San Francisco and New York City and LA and Silicon Valley away from us.

    What we desperately need is common ground where “we” can meet and listen to “them,” and the reverse. But there’s no profit in that, while there are plenty of ways to get reach feeding bullsh!t to the gullible.

  4. Guarneri says:

    It’s the left that cannot cope. Looking instead to the instrument of government to protect all the little snowflakes from the boogieman called change.

  5. John Peabody says:

    I vividly remember the book cover…despite an unusual font, it was rather plain-looking. The paperback versions that followed several months later will all in shocking psychedelic colors of yellow, green, blue, and pink. “It’s part of Future Shock,” my dad said, drolly.

  6. wr says:

    @Guarneri: “Looking instead to the instrument of government to protect all the little snowflakes from the boogieman called change.”

    Well, yeah. When vast changes are fundamentally altering society, what better role for the government — that is, for all of us working together — than to help individuals who are being buffeted by these changes and allow them to get back on their feet and adjust to the new reality.

    But I guess if we sneeringly call anyone who isn’t rich and powerful a “snowflake,” then it’s okay just to say “hey, I got mine, let them die.”

    It’s what makes you such a lovely human being.

  7. grumpy realist says:

    @michael reynolds: You’ve reminded me of a Spider Robinson story–I think it was in the first collection of Callahan’s Saloon stories. The individual was an American missionary who had managed to get on the wrong side of a dictator and had been shoved into a jail cell for 20 years before being released. He had returned to the US and was dealing with an incredible amount of culture shock due to the changes in society/technology between what he knew and what he returned to.

    What a lot of Americans are suffering is culture shock through time travel. And what’s even worse is that I bet the culture/society that they fiercely long to return to NEVER EXISTED IN THE FIRST PLACE. It was a world formed in their memories through TV and Hollywood. They want to return to a Utopia that never existed. That halcyonic, innocent period of the 1950s, formed of “Leave it to Beaver” reruns and sportscar ads, where “girls” wore poodle skirts and Mom and Dad would do Tiki-barbeque on the patio.

    Heck, I think that most of us have nostalgia for the period of our childhood not because it was so great back then, but because we didn’t have to be responsible about supporting ourselves–Mommy and Daddy did all the hard work.

    (Yet another reason to bring back child labor.)