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.