Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Reading :: Creating a New Civilization

Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave
By Alvin and Heidi Toffler

Okay, let's talk about the most striking part of this book's cover first. Under the authors' name, the cover tells us: "FOREWORD BY NEWT GINGRICH." The word "GINGRICH" is in exactly the same type and size as the authors' last name.

Does this mean that Creating a New Civilization, published in the same year that Gingrich's Contract With America swept in a Republican majority, (1994) is a Republican text? No. The Tofflers hurriedly deny that they are Republicans, produce their bona fides of the day (they're pro-choice and against school prayer, p.9), and argue that today Left and Right have less meaning; political power is being transferred "away from our formal political structures - the Congress, the White House, the government agencies and political parties - to electronically linked grassroots groups and to the media" (p.8). Gingrich, they say, gets this point (p.10). And in this, the slimmest of all the Tofflers' books, they try to make sure that we get it too. They essentially take the concepts from their 1980 book The Third Wave, review them, and apply them to politics with updated examples.

Some of these examples are startling. Recall that First Wave civilizations are based on agriculture; Second Wave civilizations are based on industrialism; and Third Wave civilizations are based on knowledge. Third Wave civilizations to grow and make things, but they do them so efficiently that the output is greater and the number of people involved in those activities is smaller. (For instance, US farmers are a vanishingly small part of the economy, yet are much more productive than their predecessors.) The real growth is in knowledge and services. Fresh from the first Gulf War, the authors argue that "One of those services might well turn out to be military protection based on [US] command of superior Third Wave forces" (p.31).

The rest of the book makes arguments that are familiar if you've read Castells (although Castells wouldn't be caught dead talking to Gingrich, I suspect) or Drucker. For instance, just as Castells argues that any work that can be routinized (generic labor) will be either outsourced or programmed, Toffler and Toffler argue that "any task that is so repetitive and simple that it can be done without thought is, eventually, a candidate for robotization" (p.57). They argue that therefore the feared practice of "deskilling" is actually trailing-edge, an application of obsolete Second Wave thinking. Like Drucker, they point out that service workers are not well respected, and we must find a way to give them the same respect as we have given to those in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors - and we must get them to increase production (p.53). Also like Drucker, they point out that the rise of knowledge work means heterogeneity and difficulty in finding people with the right skills - "a gynecologist can't do brain surgery" (p.44) - and on the next page they emphasize the role of innovation in the knowledge economy as Castells does (p.45). Finally, like Drucker, they believe that the argument between capitalism and socialism is obsolete (p.67). Although the global economy is unstable, state enterprises are too bureaucratic and slow to adapt, and their performance undermines the legitimacy of the state (p.67). This is a point that seems very fresh just days after the latest failure of our enormous Homeland Security bureaucracy.

And that gets us to politics. In Chapter 7, the authors argue that the Left-Right divide is also obsolete, and the real news is Second vs. Third Wave politics, and both political parties have elements of both: Second Wave politics emphasize "preserving the core institutions of industrial mass society - the nuclear family, the mass education system, the giant corporation, the mass trade union, the centralized nation-state and the politics of pseudorepresentative government" (p.73). In contrast, Third Wave politics recognize that the most urgent problems "can no longer be solved within the framework of an industrial civilization" (p.73). They particularly single out "the Democrats' reflexive reliance on bureaucratic and centralist solutions to problems like the health insurance crisis" (p.75) and they praise the Republican efforts to deregulate, to privatize governmental operations, and to embrace market economics (p.76). Yet the Republicans have their own problems. Both parties are mainlining nostalgia (p.77).

So, in the next chapter, the Tofflers lay out principles for a Third Wave agenda. First, questions for distinguishing Second from Third Wave proposals:
  1. Does it resemble a factory?
  2. Does it massify society?
  3. How many eggs are in the basket?
  4. Is it vertical or virtual?
  5. Does it empower the home?
And in the next chapter after that, the Tofflers provide suggestions for reconstituting democracy in Third Wave terms. In a demassified society, they say, we are all in a minority and our feedback systems (voting, polls) are consequently too crude. We need to rethink and reconfigure them, the Tofflers argue (p.95). We also need to find ways to represent ourselves - to institute semidirect democracy (p.96). Third, "we need to divide up the decisions and reallocate them - sharing them more widely and switching the site of decision-making as the problems themselves require" (p.100). This recommendation reflects other calls to push power to the edge - say, empowering CIA representatives who talk to a terror suspect's father to communicate directly with counterparts at the TSA. This distribution of power and decision-making is vital, since the decision load is now too high for the elites to handle (p.102). The Tofflers, in fact, believe that democracy becomes an "evolutionary necessity" in a highly complex society because the decision load must be distributed enough to be bearable (p.103).

In sum, this is a highly readable and skimmable book, and unlike the Tofflers' other books, it's only 112 pages. You might think of it as Cliff's Notes for The Third Wave. And the Tofflers restrain themselves from speculating too much about the future. Like the Tofflers' other books, it also sketches an overall vision for the social and organizational changes our globe is facing. On the other hand - again like the Tofflers' other books - some of these concepts are underdeveloped and undertested, and particularly in the sections on politics, I would have liked to see more detail and less glossing. But if you're interested in this line of inquiry, I highly recommend the book.

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