How Alvin Toffler Invented the Future

 

I don’t know why I still have this memory.

I was standing in my parents’ bedroom listening to them discuss a new book called Future Shock. The book was lying on my father’s antique bureau made of some dark, polished wood. Probably oak. There was a mirror, and I recall that the top drawer was filled with the white handkerchiefs he was never without.

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Photo of Alvin Toffler by Vern Evans: Wikipedia

The book on the bureau was thick and red, with bold letters on the cover. Maybe it was the contrast with the stolid, brown bureau that makes it flash vividly in memory. My parents were not intellectuals, though both had graduated from college. Dad was a doctor. They were middle class, maybe even upper middle class by then. This was in 1970 or so, I believe, when bestselling books were actual blockbusters. Nowadays it’s hard to imagine, but it was an era when a huge proportion of the U.S. population would be talking about the same thing at the same time: the same Walter Cronkite newscast or the same “major motion picture.” Even the same nonfiction book!

I remember very few details of conversations between my parents, who would often discuss their day after my father got home from work. Yet, I remember snip-its of the dialogue about Alvin Toffler’s strange, new book. I was a child and must have asked them what it meant: “future shock.” I think my father said something about how the world was changing so fast that many people were uncomfortable with it.

They must have soft-peddled the true thesis, which is that the world was starting to experience a collective nervous breakdown or paralysis in reaction to super-fast change. It was Toffler (or, as we later discovered, the husband and wife team of Alvin and Heidi Toffler) who popularized the term “information overload,” a phrase we take for granted these days.

I don’t know why that moment has stuck with me. I was not only a child but a dyslexic one who shouldn’t have had a strong affinity for any book. But there it was: my introduction to the future.

Of course, Toffler didn’t invent the future, but he largely invented and popularized our current way of thinking about it–as an undiscovered country that can easily bring chaos as well as progress, technological nightmares as well as technological marvels, mass alienation as well as mass communication.

Today’s headlines are about how Alvin Toffler has died at the age of 87. A lot of the obituaries will be about what he predicted in his various books that subsequently came true: the rise of the Internet, the fate of nuclear families, the fracturing of culture, and the overwhelming barrage of data. Some will discuss what he “got wrong,” such as space colonies, etc. (Of course, sometimes “bad” predictions turn into “good” predictions over time. Maybe the space colonies and undersea cities are still in front of us.)

I suppose futurists should take a lesson from this. Despite the common constant refrain that they “don’t predict the future,” it is often the predictions (both right and wrong) that will be their primary legacy. That fact will make many squirm, but I’m not sure it can (or should) be rejected or avoided.

Although Future Shock remains Toffler’s best known work, it was the 1980 book The Third Wave that helped shape the views of many of today’s futurists. It dramatically oversimplified human history into three waves: agricultural, industrial and post-industrial. But it correctly anticipated a number of high technologies as well as their social effects, such as the rise of information work and the decline of standardization.

To my mind, however, the most important thing Toffler did was get millions of people to think about the world, both present and future, in new ways. Even if we’ve never read his books or heard his name, Toffler is in our heads. And that’s okay by me. He’s welcome there.

BY MARK VICKERS

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