"Man has a limited biological capacity for change.
When this capacity is overwhelmed, the capacity is in future shock."

Alvin Toffler is best known for his first international best seller, Future Shock, but has written many books since, including The Third Wave, about the massive wave of change we're going through at the moment -- unparalleled in human history, according to Toffler.  It's a theme which has dominated his thinking for the past 10 or 15 years.

Alvin Toffler has influenced and advised world leaders.  He wrote about the prospects of outsourcing, the communications revolution and corporate restructuring years before anyone else.  Toffler worked in factories after he attended university, then went into journalism in Washington.  But he's really made his mark as a writer and thinker, always in collaboration with his wife, Heidi Toffler.

As the co-author of War and Anti-War, Dr. Toffler sketches the emerging economy of the 21st century, presenting a new theory of war and revealing how changes in today's military parallel almost precisely the changes now taking place in business.  Along with his wife and co-author, Heidi Toffler, Dr. Toffler describes their latest book as a surprising departure from their past work, one made necessary by the new dangers that confront America and the world at the edge of the 21st century.  These include tens of thousands of tactical nuclear weapons in the strife-torn former Soviet Union and what they call "the civilianization of war," the spread of civilian products and technologies that can be converted to military use.  In War and Anti-War, the Tofflers picture the runaway proliferation not merely of weapons, but of advanced technologies with which to make them.

In Powershift, the final book of the trilogy which begins with Future Shock and The Third Wave,' the Tofflers focus on the power struggles to come -- in business, in politics, and in global affairs -- as a new "system of wealth creation" clashes with today's vested power blocs.  In its central thesis, the Tofflers propose that power is shifting from its traditional basis in violence and wealth toward a new dependence on knowledge, and especially "knowledge about knowledge."  This shift in the nature of power, the Tofflers suggest, is about to touch off tremendous upheavals in existing power relationships as individuals, companies and countries scramble for control of the new knowledge resources.

Excerpts from a Radio Interview with Norman Swan

Alvin Toffler:  We never use the word 'predict'.  We think anybody who says they can predict the future is probably a member of the society of quacks, because human events are filled with surprises and chance, and conflict and reversals and upsets.  And therefore it's not possible to predict change in society or business, or economics, with exactitude.  You can, however, I think, model changes.  There's a way of thinking about change that gives insight into the very broad movements.  I can't tell you that Joe Doakes is going to do X, Y, Z, but I can say that the society appears to be moving in a certain direction, or not moving in a certain direction.

Norman Swan:  Of course, just to pursue this for a little while, extrapolation is a problem in that history doesn't seem to move in that way, where you can extrapolate from existing trends.  It's discontinuities in history.

Alvin Toffler:  Exactly.  In fact, we think that people who talk about trend analysis and trend projection are really peddling a very, very poor way of thinking about the future.  Trends usually are interpreted to mean straight-line development so that if something grew by 2% last year and 2% the year before, it will continue to grow at 2% this year and next year.  That's childish, especially when you live in times like ours which are extremely turbulent, in which we have fundamental changes taking place at high speed -- powerful, sometimes global changes.  And so we reject trend extrapolation as a method.  Trends never tell you why things happen.  They seldom tell you what counter-trends there may be.  There are many, many things wrong with trend projection.

You can't have large-scale changes on the planet without conflict.  Conflict is a part of change, and conflict can be good.  It can be constructive, creative.  But you can't have a massive change on the scale that we're now going through without massive conflict as well. The Industrial Revolution, what you had in England for 50 years, you had a conflict between Disraeli, representing the landed interests, and Gladstone.  In Japan you had the major revolution, two sides:  the traditionalists hanging on to the land, and the modernisers symbolised at that time by the Emperor.  And in the United States the conflict actually took violent form, where you had an industrialising North in a civil war with a backward agrarian South, and it was the worst war in human history up till that time.

Norman Swan:  So what would third-wave economics look like?

Alvin Toffler:  The central change that the economists have not yet been able to get their arms around is the change in the role of knowledge in the broadest sense of information and ideas and data, the relationship of that to making wealth in an economy.

Norman Swan:  Dealing with the Microsoft phenomenon, dealing with the Intel phenomenon, the large telecommunications companies.

Alvin Toffler:  Yes, but also it's not just that kind of knowledge that's important in the new economy.  It's people who know how to organise.  In 'The Third Wave' we wrote about the so-called commanding heights of industry, and that was the slogan of the Labor Party in Britain at the end of the war.  'We must capture the commanding heights.'  Well, the commanding heights they captured are no longer the commanding heights of industry.  They were yesterday's commanding heights.  The new commanding heights are knowledge-based, and that's why you see companies like Microsoft suddenly emerge out of nowhere and become huge, and the people who understand this better than the economists are on the one hand the people who are building these new high-tech systems, and also investors.  And that's why investors will value some of the information-based companies, without much in the way of fiscal assets, at very high multiples.  So investors and technological pioneers and the scientific pioneers actually understand this better than the economists do.

Norman Swan:   Not everybody can live easily in a world of rapid change where they have to be endlessly flexible, even though their level of education is extremely high.  They actually need an environment where there is some personal security and humanity.  Do you agree?  And if you do agree, how do you put that back into the system?

Alvin Toffler:  I think that it's a lot easier to deal with all of that if you know who you are and if you have a fair fix on what your values are.

Norman Swan:  As an individual, or as a corporation? 

Alvin Toffler:  Well, probably both, but I'm talking about individuals now.  I know in my family, because there is a health problem, I know that that is our primary issue, and I know that our family life is more important than anything else, other than saving life.  So I have, and others have, different problems and different value systems, and that's fine.  But in order to be able to make decisions at high speed and in great complexity (and we all face more and more of those decisions), you need to know what your criteria are.  You need to know what you value more than anything else.  So I would argue that anything that helps you clarify your values, so that you have a good fix on what they are, is going to help you adapt personally.  Obviously, in another sense, getting an education, getting appropriate skills is very important to finding a part in this new economy.  But I also don't believe that everybody has to be a rocket scientist.  Society needs people who take care of the elderly and who know how to be compassionate and honest.  Society needs people who work in hospitals.  Society needs all kinds of skills that are not just cognitive; they're emotional, they're affectional.  You can't run the society on data and computer screens alone.


 
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