Toffler Interview: Information
Technology Seen as Power to Workers
News Staff Report: Alvin Toffler, author of ''Future Shock'' (1970),
''The Third Wave'' (1980) and ''Powershift'' (1990), continues to
write and consult with businesses and governments around the world
about the transition to the computer age. Later this month, he will
address the South Korean National Assembly on ''The importance of
information technology and telecommunications to Korea in its moment
of economic crisis.'' Toffler spoke recently with Mercury News Staff
Writer Miranda Ewell. Here is an edited transcript of that interview:
As part of the Third Wave -- the rise of information technologies
and the knowledge economy -- you talk about ''de-massification''
in government, politics and business. Spin out a little what that
will mean -- means now -- in the business sphere.
If we start with manufacturing, we can clearly see a shift from
mass production toward what we call mass customization. And what
we now call mass customization is simply a step toward where we
believe we're going, which is full customization on demand. That
is, any customer who wants a product customized will be able to
get it customized, at little or no extra cost. And the reason for
that is very simple, although seldom analyzed.
In the traditional
factory . . . it was very expensive to introduce even the slightest
change. Once we began to introduce information, or intelligence,
into the production process, the cost of making change becomes radically
reduced. So now, a few lines of code or a little punch of the button
is enough to provide a customized or partially customized product.
Q: What replaces the old ways? You talk about ''flex
firms'' and movie-style projects where people with certain expertise
come together just for that project.
Ever since the beginning of independent production in Hollywood,
back in the '50s, we began to see movies being made by pick-up crews
rather than by a studio, which was the Hollywood analogue to the
factory. Make a movie, and then fire everybody, and then get together
in a different configuration for the next movie. It's essentially
a transient or temporary organization, which is constantly reconfiguring
itself, and I believe that is more and more the case. Because of
the acceleration of change, we see a shift from permanence to the
Q: Talk about the evolution of money in the new
In a First Wave world, in an agrarian age, money had a function
apart from exchange. The reason for that was there was no standard
form of money. What you had was a form of money that had other usefulness.
For example, in Asia, where rice was money, if you couldn't get
the guy to trade something, you could at least eat it.
It wasn't until
much later that we developed essentially Second Wave money, money
of the age of print. Now, obviously, we're moving toward electronic
surrogates for money. You can't touch it, and in the form it's in,
it doesn't mean anything else. It's not useful for anything else.
So now, it's clearly possible to go back to what existed prior to
the Industrial Revolution.
Revolution saw the spread of paper money, but it also saw standardization
of money. In the United States, up until about 1863, you had literally
thousands of different currencies. And in 1863, the government said,
''All those don't count; we're going to have one standard form of
Now, what that
meant was that one dollar bill was just as good as the next dollar
bill. Now, we'll move, I believe, to the possibility and the likelihood
of a return to multiple currencies. We'll be able to program money.
We'll give Johnny a card that Johnny can use to buy school lunches,
but it'll be preprogrammed to prevent the purchase of soft drinks
or too many carbohydrates. In fact, we now have surrogates for money,
like frequent flier points.
Q: You talk about knowledge being a form of currency
in the future. I wonder if people will be assigned a certain worth,
based on their knowledge or their genius -- ''This person is worth,
say, $100,000'' -- and they then can buy and trade based on that
value. Doesn't that happen already with entrepreneurs?
Exactly. I believe we have examples now of investors who invest
in the future profit stream of a rock singer or a football player.
Q: Computers have been seen as either the ultimate
machine, or the catalyst for overthrowing the machine age spawned
by the Industrial Revolution. You seem firmly in the latter camp.
But what makes you believe the rise of information technology will
lead to things like worker empowerment and companies valuing the
intellectual capital of their employees -- and not, for instance,
a supra-mechanistic, robotic future?
I don't see a contradiction between robotics and what I'm saying.
I think we'll have a very robotic future -- but we won't be the
robots. If you go back to the literature and the social critics
of the industrial age, like Huxley and Orwell, their image of the
future was a human race reduced to robotic behavior. And the reason
was they were making a linear extrapolation from what they saw around
them. What they saw was ''Modern Times'' and Charlie Chaplin. Robotics
will helps us eliminate a lot of that.
And as to why
I believe in in worker empowerment: I don't think it happens because
the people at the top are nice guys. I think it happens because
you can't get the output you want in a different way.
Q: You say the three sources of power are wealth,
violence and knowledge. What about sex?
There's no doubt about the power of sex as a driving instinct in
the human species. But I would say sex is a goal. Power comes from
the ability to withhold something that someone else wants.
Q: In an age of uncertainty, is identity something
we cling to for reassurance? Is authenticity itself a weird sort
of sentimental holdover from earlier waves?
I think authenticity is fake. The environment about which we make
choices is much more complex and fast-changing and diverse. And
I think that you have people going through multiple or sequential
Q: Do values endure through the different waves
you talk about?
Values change with social change and cultural change. Joggers were
an invention of the '60s. Now taking care of your health, being
physically fit, is a value. That never used to be a value.
Q: What about things like love?
We all need others. We all want some belonging. We all would like
to have companionship.
Q: Can't we devise machines that will give us those
Yeah, I think so.
Q: Would that be sufficient?
Depends on how good the machines are.
Q: You say it's no longer about capitalists vs.
communists, or rich vs. poor, but fast vs. slow. People talk about
the incredible pace of modern life and the toll it takes on them.
Isn't there a limit to speed-up?
Unless we genetically change our own neural transmission rates,
there is a limit to how much we can handle. If you go beyond that
point, people will begin to deteriorate and feel stressed and harassed
and join cults. So realistically there are limits.
Q: What's the Fourth Wave?
The Fourth Wave is the result of the convergence of information
technology and the biological revolution in genetics. When these
two things fully converge, we're talking about an explosion of economic
and social changes beyond anybody's imagination. That's likely within
Q: Has your own understanding of the changes that
are happening affected how you conduct your personal life and your
Well, we don't wake up in the morning saying, ''What are we going
to do today that's Third Wave?'' And I confess a tremendous affection
for a lot of Second Wave things, such as Bauhaus architecture. I
don't believe we have any Third Wave architecture. Don't get me
started on post-modernism!