Three Waves of Alvin Toffler. The Basic Points
Introduction. Impressions about the book
The Principe of the evolution according to AlvinToffler First wave Second wave Third wave
Watching the shift. Conclusion
Reading the book “The Third Wave” by Alvin Toffler left a very deep mark in my memory. There are only a few people in the entire world that have the kind of mind that allows them to look at regular life differently, analyse it and make assumptions that regular people wouldn’t even notice. I think that Alvin Toffler is one of these people.
Even though I don’t agree with the author on some matters, I want to admit that “The Third Wave” is the book that was written by a man who really cares about the issues he is exploring and who is also a great expert in his field of study. Even if I did not know Alvin’s biography, after reading the book I could assume that exploring human evolution, social issues and history has always been a goal of his life.
Basically, the book tells us about the author’s seeing the evolution of the human society. I can imagine how fresh and outstanding seemed his idea of dividing the flow of human history and development into several phases that he called “waves” twenty years ago when his book was first published in 1980. Since that time “The Third Wave” has been translated into all major languages and became very popular all over the world.
While reading “The Third Wave” I kept asking myself the question: “What would Alvin change if he wrote this book nowadays” . I don’t want to judge him for some of his forecasts that never came true especially because he urged the readers not to filter out single items, but look at the system in its entirety.
Lots of changes have happened since the book first saw the world. World Wide Web brought a piece of informational freedom into almost every house, the big empire U. S. S. R collapsed (even Alvin did not believe in this p. 314) , finally, we met the new millennium. We are now much deeper in the third wave and this Alvin’s work is still popular and very actual. Moreover, it became a reference frame for the future research and is being studied in colleges like DeVRY.
Another issue I want to point out here is the importance of the Alvin Toffler’s work. Even if there were still some people who do not want to look back and to explore our history, they would probably want to know what is going to happen to them tomorrow or after a certain period of time in future. At the very beginning of the book, in the introductory part, Alvin warns the readers about expecting any kind of prognosis or predictions throughout the entire book so it would not look like a Nostrodamus prophecy or an encyclopaedia of the future. He is aware that he does not have enough information and/or knowledge to make some judgements and purposely leaves this type of questions wide open for dispute. The author gives the reader or the future explorer directions, the basic outlines that should be filled up by them. “Sometimes it is better to ask the right question rather than to give the right answer to the wrong one” (6) .
II. The Principe of the evolution according to Alvin Toffler
The book consists of two major parts where the author describes the first two waves that the human society came through and also the third wave. It is the wave that we are living in right now. But first, let’s take a look at the whole theory that Alvin tries to explain in his work.
According to the author, the human evolution is not stepless but it consists of several stages. So far, the society has experienced three of them. When there is a coincidence of several factors, we can witness the shift between the waves. The shifts are the most painful moments in the human history. Most of the Civil wars happened at those times. “The Civil war was not fought exclusively, as it seemed to many, over the moral issue of slavery or such narrow economic issues as tariffs. It was fought over a much larger question: would the rich new continent be ruled by farmers or by industialazers, by the forces of the First Wave or the Second?” (23) Alvin Toffler considers energy dependency to be a fundamental principle of any civilisation. The need for a new kind of energy is one of the causes of shifting to a new wave. For example, during feudalism people used horse power or even human power in agriculture or in construction, which was also considered to be a source of energy. “The precondition of any civilisation, old or new, is energy. First wave societies drew their energy from “living batteries” – human and animal muscle-power – or from sun, wind and water” (25) . “As late as the French Revolution, it has been estimated, Europe drew energy from an estimated 14 million horses and 24 million oxen” (25) .
The increase in human population evoked the need for bigger fields and more buildings, which could no longer be achieved by using the existing tools. In order to move forward, people needed new tools, such as tractors, trains, cars etc.
However, the need for a new kind of energy was not a sufficient condition to make a shift. Many agricultural civilisations like China, Rome or Greece died and never moved to the next stage. The need should be backed by developments in science and technology which manifests the coincidence needed for the civilisation shift. A good example of that was the invention of the steam engine in the 18 th century when the agricultural civilisation received a great push that moved it into the industrial age later.
All other issues, such as technical progress and even political, economical and social sides of the society are only the consequences and they are being changed in order to fit the new reality. “Industrialism was more than smokestacks and assembly lines. It was a rich, many-sided social system that touched every aspect of human life and attacked every feature of the First Wave past” (22) .
First two waves
According to the author, the people of the First Wave were the first civilization that ever existed on the face of the Earth. He does not deny that people did exist before that, but I did not find any evidence that he considered those people to be a civilisation. In his book he talks of “civilised” people, those who adopted the agricultural style of life, and the rest of the population, people called “primitive” , the ones who could not switch to the progressive way of living and were left behind in barbaric world. “During the long millennia when First Wave civilisation reigned supreme, the planet’s population could have divided into two categories – the “primitive” and the “civilised” . The so-called primitive peoples, living in small bands and tribes and subsisting by gathering, hunting, or fishing, were those had been passed over by the agricultural revolution” (21) .
The distinctive feature of the agricultural society was the decentralisation of power. People still had to live together mostly in small groups because it was the only way to feed themselves and to survive. But there was no centralised government over them that would lead them or try to organise people for bigger projects. Brutal physical force was used as a method of solving either private or social conflicts.” In most agricultural societies the great majority of people were peasants who huddled together in small, semi-isolated communities. They lived on a subsistence diet, growing just barely enough to keep themselves alive and their masters happy” (37) . The trading was developed very poorly and the market itself did not exist at all. Even though that there was some simple division of labour and several communities specialised in producing a particular kind of food or simple labour tools, mostly they just naturally exchanged their products with the other groups. Money did not exist in the agricultural era.
As I already mentioned in the basic principles of the Alvin Toffler’s theory, the social life of the people is a secondary issue and is subordinated to certain civilisation rules. The agricultural age was a nice example. The family structure was also preconditioned by the human needs for survival. Lots of relatives lived at the same place mostly because it was easier to cultivate land and grow their harvest this way.
The social life of the majority of people was quite monotonous due to the lack of travelling. An average person living in agricultural age probably met fewer people during his or her life than we do in one month or even a week.
The agricultural era was and, probably, will be the longest in the history of the human society. It took more than a 1500 years for several little currents of the first wave to come together and form the big stream that would later grow into the Second Wave.
Causes of shifting into the second wave
Like I said before there should have been a coincidence of several factors to come together in order for a civilisation to come into the next stage. After a series of unsuccessful attempts the human society finally made the move towards its future and started the big clock of history again. According to Toffler, it happened in the 18 th century (All Second Wave societies began to draw their energy from coal, gas, and oil – from irreplaceable fossil fuels. This revolutionary shift, coming after Newcomen invented a workable steam engine in 1712, meant that for the first time a civilisation was eating into nature’s capital rather than merely living off the interest it provided” (25) .
The future need for new kinds of energy later conduced to the development in industry and technology. Finally, all the sides of the human life in the new age were changed in order to get more efficiency out of new industrial formations such as manufactories, factories, plants etc. At this stage the civilisation needed entirely new methods of organising people, totally new economical and political systems.
Unlike those of the Third Wave, the economical issues of the Second Wave can be talked about with quite a great deal of persistency. For almost three hundred years, we have had enough time to witness and analyse the process that took place and, finally, formed the economy of the industrial society.
Now we can definitely say that the main concept that made the industrial production different from the agricultural one was the division of labour. Establishment of the first manufactories is considered to be one of the first steps of transferring into the industrial age. The further development of the Second Wave economy was preconditioned in many aspects by this principle.
According to Toffler, there are six basic fundamentals the economy of any industrialised society stands on: Standardization, Specialization, Synchronization, Concentration, Maximization and Centralization. Not getting into details, all of them meant to optimise the economy of an industrial society by raising the efficiency of labour, decreasing the production costs, speeding up the process etc.
The main point that proves the accuracy of Toffler’s theory is that these principles work in any kind of industrialised society whether it is a capitalistic, socialistic or even the communistic one. With some margin of error, they could be found in the economics of either USA, former USSR or China. Countries with absolutely different history, human nature, traditions or, what is the most important, different kinds of governance, still had to come through the same economical cycles as they entered the industrial stage.
The economic rules were not the only ones that were developing in a similar way in different industrialised countries. The political and the social part of life also obeyed the strict laws of the Second Wave.
Even though the political systems were rather different, they all had one attribute that differentiated the industrial societies from the agricultural ones. It was the strong centralisation of power that made possible the establishment of big corporations and, as a result, the realisation of big projects.
The author raises a very interesting issue about the force that really makes the power decisions and integrates the whole system in the industrial society. That force was the product of the narrow specification and expansion of production. The representatives of that force became managers of all levels. They were the ones who got between the owners and the workers and made the thing run when the owner could no longer control the technological process.” In the larger firms no individual, including the owner or dominant shareholder, could even begin to understand the whole operation. The owner’s decisions were shaped, and ultimately controlled, by the specialists brought in to co-ordinate the system. Thus a new executive elite arose whose power rested no longer on ownership but rather on control of the integration process” (63) .
According to Toffler, the “executive elite” is the force that really has control over the industrial society. Even though the real tools of the industrial production like plants or factories belong either to capitalists or to the state in communistic societies, neither the owners, nor the state has the real power in the Industrialism.
“Executive elite” is the people who are surfing on the edge of the Second Wave that came with the Industrialism. Those are the people who really rule and have the power. They make corrections to the laws through their representatives in parliament or through their people in the headquarters of the communist party, they settle and stop wars, they are in control of destiny of the whole peoples in the industrial age.
Anyway, we should admit that industrial era made our lives much more exiting. People got an incredible number of opportunities they couldn’t dream of during the agricultural age. We can travel anywhere in the world within reasonable amount of time; telephone also made communication between people much easier; the achievements in medicine helped us to get rid to many of fatal diseases and have greatly extended the human life, mass-media made the distribution of information much easier too. Nevertheless, the industrial era kind of human beings were still used only as a tool for achieving certain aims. It was still not considered to be a primary link in the chain of the human existence.
The chapter where the author asks more questions that provides answers. Alvin gives the reader the right to decide which answers will most likely fit the system. Anyone who can answer them will probably be able to obtain a clear picture of what is going to happen to us in the near future.
In this chapter I found the most places where I want to argue with the author. It was not surprising for me because this part of the book was meant to describe the future structure of the society. Like I mentioned before, I have been wondering, what would be different in this book if it were written now, not twenty years ago. On the other hand, even now we still do not have enough experience to decide whether Toffler's theory is right.
The need for a new kind of energy and further discovering of irreplaceable fossil fuels was the reason of shifting into the second wave. But as we all know, the reserves of fossil fuels are not endless on the Earth and moreover, with the current consumption rate we are going to have them for a hundred more years. All this plus the increasing need for more powerful energy have created the potential situation for transferring into the next era or “The Third Wave” .” In 1973, when the Yom Kippur War broke out and the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries suddenly stepped out of the shadows. Choking off the world’s supply of crude oil, it sent the entire Second Wave economy into a shuddering downspin” (131) .
I found the author’s opinion about the nuclear energy power surprising. He considers both nuclear energy and the fossil fuels to be obsolete, and he is looking for something else in terms of new era’s energy. “In short, though nuclear reactors or coal gasification or liquefaction plants and other such technologies may seem to be advanced or futuristic and therefore progressive, they are, in fact, artefacts of a Second Wave past caught in its own deadly contradictions” (138) .
In my opinion, deriving energy from nuclear fuel cannot be called obsolete. On the contrary, this kind of energy is only at the very first stage of being used by humans. There are still lots of problems like the poor safety of nuclear reactors or technical impossibility to create a compact nuclear engine at the current stage, but we should not forget, that the efficiency of the steam engine was also very poor and comprised less than 5%!
Of course, new sources of energy will be discovered by human beings in future, but today the use of nuclear energy is very advanced. I think that this the Third Wave civilisation kind of energy. Moreover, I tend to think that the beginning of the new era should be considered in connection with the discovery of nuclear power rather than with the potential exhaustion of fossil fuels.
In terms of economic and political issues, the author’s conclusions seem to be pretty clear and logical. New discoveries in technology contribute to free information flow. Such a great popularity of the Internet in many countries all over the world is a very nice proof for Alvin’s ideas about semi-direct democracy as the political structure of the new society.
There is no doubt that the existing political system will not work after the shift into the new era. Terrorism became an every-day word in our language. Big and powerful countries like former U. S. S. R and now Russia are struggling trying to keep their territory together. Separatism became a very important problem in many other countries in all parts of the world. This all indicates that the existing political system is already obsolete and the governments no longer keep the situation under control.” No government, no political system, no constitution, no charter or state is permanent, nor can the decisions of the past bind the future forever. Nor can a government designed for one civilisation cope adequately with the next” (417) .
Alvin sees the solution in an absolutely new political system where, unlike in an industrialised era, the minorities have the power and form the structure of the society. “The first, heretical principle of Third Wave government is that of minority power. It holds that majority rule, the key legitimating principle of the Second Wave era, is increasingly obsolete. It is not majorities but minorities that count” 419.
Implementing the minority power principle into our life is supposed to change the whole political system and end up as a new kind of a democratic society – semi-direct democracy.
Watching the Shift. Conclusion
If we look back at our history, we can easily notice that the time during the transition into the Second Wave was the most violent and brutal. We are now observing another transition, now into the Post-industrial civilisation.
It took us less than three hundred years to jump from Second Wave into post-industrial society which much faster than agricultural civilisation could make it into Industrialism. This could mean not only acceleration in social development or the technical progress; the “wave glitch” we are living in may turn out to be a bigger drama than it used to be three hundred years ago.
One of the questions that Alvin did not raise in his book is that the people themselves could be in control of civilizational changes. All the achievements in technical, political and technical sciences should not only be used as a self-developing tool, but people can and should use that knowledge in order to control the development of their history. We do not want to think that the civilisation we are entering now is going to be the last one on the face of the Earth. Our children and the children of our children have the same right to leave and enjoy their lives as we do now. We are the ones who have to make sure that the human history will not stop today and the shift into another era will be completed.
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