Monday, November 09, 2009

Reading :: The Third Wave

The Third Wave
By Alvin Toffler

According to the cover, this is "THE BOOK THAT MAKES SENSE OF THE EXPLODING EIGHTIES." Published in 1980, just after the oil crisis, the Iranian hostage crisis, and Reagan's election, the book made some bold predictions. Toffler, after all, was a futurist whose work was to extrapolate the future from current trends. In a way, that makes The Third Wave an interesting piece of science fiction: Toffler predicts that we would soon be living on space platforms and in aqua villages (p.144), while the gene industry would make other innovations possible. One interviewee predicted that we would be buying "a 'mammary mattress' - created out of the same stuff as the human breast" (p.148). Other predictions included the paperless office (p.189) and a renaissance in lodges, clubs and churches (p.204).

It would be easy to poke fun at such predictions. But what is striking to me is how often Toffler gets it right. In fact, many of his predictions came true quite rapidly: the demise of the secretarial pool and the popularity of even senior executives writing their own correspondence due to the computer (p.186); the shift toward telecommuting and the "electronic cottage" (Ch.16); the rise of cooperatives - "all sorts of new relationships and organizational forms become possible" due to computer networking (p.205); the death of the melting pot due to demassification and diversity (p.232); the demassification of time, leading to the popularity of flextime and workers' autonomy over their own time (p.246; 385); social networking (p.250; 372); the increasing popularity of matrix organizations and other networked forms (pp.259-264); the move toward private armies (p.397; cf. John Robb's work); and electronic town halls (p.429). In parts, he sounds a lot like Drucker's and Castells' work in the mid to late 1990s. That's extraordinary.

Toffler builds these predictions on his thesis that we were, in the 1980s, experiencing the "third wave" of change. The first wave was the agricultural revolution (p.10), which gave rise to institutions and hierarchies - as well as families, nations, etc. The second wave was the industrial revolution (p.10 and most of the first half of the book), which enacted huge changes across civilization, from the most basic (the family unit; the understanding of time and morality) to the most elaborate (work organizations, markets, representative democracy). He doesn't give a name to the third wave, but he associates it with the year 1955, when blue-collar jobs were first outnumbered by white-collar and service workers (p.14; compare Drucker, who pegs post-capitalist society to the GI Bill just a few years earlier). And he predicts that the Third Wave will similarly restructure society in very basic ways: from families (he predicts, for instance, that other family configurations, such as gay marriages, will become increasingly accepted; cf. Castells) to the perception of time to the authorities and values to the very organizational substrates of our world.

The three waves that Toffler identifies seem to track closely with Ronfeldt's TIMN structure, with tribes being pre-Wave, institutions corresponding to the First Wave, and so forth. That's probably not a coincidence: Arquilla and Ronfeldt had Alvin and Heidi Toffler write the preface to their collection In Athena's Camp. Nevertheless, I'm impressed at what Toffler managed to describe 15 years before other, similar work came out. I'm not ready to canonize him, but I do plan to read more of his books. If you're interested in the knowledge work literature, definitely take a look.


David Ronfeldt said...

It’s good to be reminded of Toffler’s inspiring early work. He’s partly the reason why, staring at the wall in my office in the late 1970s and wondering what I really should be doing, I decided I should work on implications of the information revolution. It took me another ten years to get moving, but I kept reading Toffler the whole way.

As for my TIMN efforts, along the way I found no academic literature on social evolution that anticipated the future rise of a network-based realm. But such anticipation was widespread in other literatures. TIMN coincides with ideas like Peter Drucker’s (1993) and Jeremy Rifkin’s (1995) that a third, “social” sector is emerging alongside the established public and private sectors. Futurist Alvin Toffler’s (1970, 1990) “waves” — a First Wave when hunter-gatherer societies gave way to agrarian societies, a Second Wave that led next to industrial societies, and now a Third Wave of information-based societies — fit like transitional phases in the TIMN progression. Similarly, Japanese futurist Shumpei Kumon’s (1992) analysis posits that modern society has evolved from first creating a state and then a market system, to now creating a system of network organizations. In addition, some complexity theorists, like Yaneer Bar-yam (2000), offered interesting studies on the historical evolution of hierarchies, the prospects for networks, and the emergence of a current transitional phase of organizational hybrids.

So, yes, i’m an admirer of Toffler and pleased that his work can be fit into my own. Yet, as I recall, he hardly if ever used the term “network” in his writings about waves? He preferred “adhocracy” as I recall?

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Thanks for the background! Now I must read even more books to better understand TIMN - a mixed blessing, I suppose.

Toffler did prefer "adhocracy" here, but on one page, he related the term to several others, including matrix organizations and networks. I'll have to look up the page number.

I should add here that something really struck me about Toffler's vision of the electronic cottage. He foresaw that corporations would loft their own satellites to provide electronic networking for employees working from home. In this scheme, far-flung individuals would still work for large organizations, even if spatially decentralized - not just anyone can afford to loft a satellite. In reality, the Internet became the substrate for electronic networking, and various providers supplied access over various infrastructures, creating a sort of commons. Consequently we get much smaller, more spontaneously forming, mutating, transient organizations using the common infrastructure. And of course that means social networking becomes more important - driving people out of electronic cottages into coffee shops, coworking spaces, and so forth. Mobile technology supports this shift.

Anyway, very exciting stuff. I'll have to read War and Anti-War soon.