for Survival: Who Will Connect To Whom?
An Interview with Alvin Toffler In Government Technology Magazine
is one of the world's best-known futurists and social thinkers.
His books, such as Future Shock, The Third Wave and Powershift,
continue to be read in more than 50 countries. They have drawn comment
from and have affected the strategic thinking of leaders from around
the world and have significantly influenced contemporary thought
about the information revolution, social transformation and the
speed of change. Toffler works in close intellectual partnership
with his spouse, Heidi Toffler, who has co-authored many of his
works. This Interview was conducted by Blake Harris & Bryan
Q: You have written extensively about the breakup
of the industrial system, which you define not just as an economic
and political system, but also as the entire culture -- a whole
set of institutions and our integrated way of life. As we enter
the new millennium, during the tremendous changes and turbulent
times that lie ahead, are there lessons from the past that humanity
must not lose sight of? What must we try to hang on to?
An acceleration of change has consequences that are not necessarily
a result of whether the change is good or bad, but just acceleration
itself creates consequences and some difficulties for us. While
I recognize that, nevertheless, I believe that we need to let go.
There are many things that we need to let go. Rather than focus
on hanging on, we need to focus on inventing.
As an American,
I want to hang on to my Bill of Rights, for example. I don't think
the current Bill of Rights necessarily answers all the questions
that we need to answer about the 21st century -- the kind of rights
that we may need guarantees for. For example, rights having to do
with genetic engineering or having to do with privacy or having
to do with a variety of other issues raised by the kinds of changes
that are taking place today. What I would like to do is hold on
to the rights that we have, but expand them to take account of the
new ones. So there are certain things I want to hang on to. I certainly
want us to hang on to whatever personal relationships that we weave
in the course of our lives, our family relationships and companionship
and so on. But I believe that the main message that ought to be
sent to the readers of any magazine that goes to government is not
what to hang on to, but what it is going to have to change.
change at different rates. Businesses change rapidly because they
are under enormous competitive pressures and for a variety of reasons.
Business corporations, as an institution, for good or for ill, change
quickly. School systems change extremely slowly. Political systems
are even more rigidly resistant to change when it comes to the structure
of government, and so on. So what you have are enormous forces that
are converging on the society -- technological, social, economic
and a whole variety of forces -- making the current set of institutions
inappropriate for where we are going, including the kind of governments
that we now have. So while there are certain things, obviously,
we want to keep, rather than saying what we should hold on to, we
have to be talking about what do we have to change. And how we do
that peacefully, because change implies conflict and brings conflict
the other side of change, and conflict can be creative. It can be
positive up to a point. But beyond that point, it can be destructive
and deadly. So the question is how do we prepare ourselves, whether
we are a state or county or city, or for that matter, a national
government? How do we prepare ourselves to make the fundamental
kinds of changes that I think are going to be necessary to cope
with this wave of transformation?
In the years since you wrote Future Shock and The Third Wave, most
of our society has become far more conscious, in part because of
the tremendous impact and insight of your books, of the fact that
we are moving into a new age where many things will be very different.
Since then, we've seen the rise of the Internet and how digitalization
is changing business and organizations of all descriptions. What
do you think is particularly important for state and local government
to realize about this transformation?
My wife and I have been studying change around the world for decades.
And I believe that today's tremendous changes in technology, society,
culture and politics are going to shift the balance between centralized
and decentralized organization, profoundly change systems of taxation
and revolutionize the economy. All of these are likely to have a
direct impact on the functions and authority of states, counties
and cities in the future. But even these changes are only part of
an even larger set of forces converging on us today.
are now aware that knowledge plays a new role in the creation of
wealth -- that we are moving toward what has been called a "knowledge-based
economy" or "a third-wave economy." What is perhaps
less widely understood is the transformation we are living through
goes far beyond business, far beyond markets, far beyond economics,
far beyond technology and far beyond government as we know it today.
What we are
seeing is an emergence of a completely new way of life. Or, put
differently, a new civilization. We talk about connectivity. We
are busy connecting everybody to everybody. We talk about how every
business and every person is now connected, or soon will be. That's
what today's titanic struggle in the telecommunications, television,
Internet and the e-commerce industries is all about -- who will
connect who to whom.
But there is
another, largely overlooked level of connectivity. And that, I think,
is really important. Today's changes in technology and the economy
are increasingly connected to other kinds of changes in society.
We are connecting technology to politics, politics to culture, culture
to science, science to family life, family life to religion, religion
to ecology and so on. All the different spheres of social existence
are also being wired together more tightly than they were -- which
means that a decision in any one of those ramifies through the entire
system and creates changes on down the line.
You can't change
something in the ecology without it having an effect on social life.
You can't change something in the social system without it having
an effect, indirectly or directly, on business or on technology
or on politics. So I believe that all these different aspects of
life, all of which are being changed and which form a larger social
system or civilization, are now more densely interconnected. Therefore,
the connectivity that most people talk about -- digitalization,
wired up or wireless connections and so forth -- is only a small
piece of a much deeper form of connectivity that will alter the
way we think and the way we live. And, indeed, will alter the relationships
of cities to counties, counties to states, states to Washington,
Washington to Tokyo, Tokyo to Brussels.
All of these
subsystems of the society, if you want to think of it that way,
or these spheres of social life, were always interconnected to some
degree. But today, the feedback processes between them are so rapid
and complex that nobody understands them very well. In turn, as
digitalization effects each of these parts of society, everything
from consumer wants or needs to law, values, finance and the way
we run our governments must and will be transformed.
How do you see digital democracy developing in the future?
Well, my wife and I wrote many years ago in our book The Third Wave
that one does not have to counterpoise direct democracy and representational
democracy. There are many, many ways to fuse these two together.
The Internet is going to have an enormous impact on both of those
forms. The Internet means that you can organize a constituency almost
instantaneously behind any proposition that somebody wants to put
forward. Some of those will be constructive and some of those will
be hateful. We see that already. But the fact that you can have
instantly organizable, temporary constituencies means that underneath
the formal operations of our governmental systems -- with the machinery
of elections and the formal processes by which we convert candidates
into 'representatives' -- underneath that something is going on
that is much deeper.
in America believes in government. And that is true not just for
Washington, it is true for city hall, it is true for wherever. I
believe, moreover, that almost nobody considers themselves 'represented,'
even though we have a system we call representative government and,
that in some respects, it is pseudo-representation. But in other
respects, even at best, people who have given sweat equity to political
activity, or who have contributed money, even some of the people
who have contributed huge sums of money, all feel unrepresented.
I can cite individual
cases of people -- leave aside the poor, leave aside minorities,
leave aside people who have classically felt unrepresented. I can
tell you there are giant campaign contributors who feel totally
alienated from both parties and feel that they are unrepresented
by the present system. When you stop and look at what is happening
to the system -- well, I'll quote a senator, a friend of mine. When
we wrote the book Powershift, which came out in 1990, he called.
"I just want to have an intellectual conversation," he
said. "I can't do that here in Washington. I never have more
than two-and-a-half minutes of unbroken attention." And then,
on another occasion when we had dinner with him, he said, "Two-thirds
of my time is spent on public relations and fund-raising. Then I'm
on this committee, this subcommittee, this task force, this joint
committee, this other group. Do you think I can possibly know everything
I need to know to make intelligent decisions?" He honestly
said, "I can't. Therefore, my staff makes the decisions, or
many of them." And my question to him was, "Who exactly
elected your staff?"
So there is
a fundamental disjuncture -- a break between the way the system
is designed to work and the way the system actually works. It is
dysfunction. And that means that we are going to face profound constitutional
questions in the decade or two ahead. And we are kidding ourselves
if we think we can escape that.
Looking more broadly at the question of "powershifts"
-- your book on this subject made an excellent case to the effect
that "the substitution of information and knowledge for labor
has brought us to the edge of the deepest powershift in human history."
How, in your view, is the relationship between governments and their
citizens changing? In what ways is government going to have to deal
with citizens differently?
Well, as access to information and misinformation becomes more widespread,
all kinds of authority is coming into question. It is not just that
we question the authority of our governments -- and frequently with
justification. But we question the authority of the doctor, because
when my wife or my daughter goes to our doctor, she knows more about
the disease than that doctor who has to deal with 60 different diseases.
We are looking at one. We have access to medical literature. We
have access on the Net. We prep ourselves before we go in there.
And, therefore, there is a change within the power relationship
between the doctor and the patient.
The same thing
is true across the board. Many, many other power relationships in
this society, and all relationships have an element of power in
them -- the shift of the availability of information changes things.
In business, for example, it has already changed the relative power
of the manufacturing sector to the retailing sector. And now you
hear throughout industry, whoever owns the customer has the power,
as distinct from the manufacturer or the supplier. The availability
of information -- in the case of retail, it is the information they
are getting out of their optical scanners and other kinds of information
that they have -- prepares them better to fend off the pressures
from competitors and/or, in the case of the big supermarket, the
big food companies, the manufacturers. So what you see, as information
becomes available, it shifts power relationships.
And I believe
that we are, moreover, moving into a pretty dangerous period. The
dark side of the new technologies, with deep political implications,
is what we call the end of truth. First, when you download something
from the Internet, you can't always be sure what you are reading
is what was input by whoever it says did it. So there is a great
deal of insecurity about the information that is available on the
Net. Second, you have technologies now that make deception cheap,
easy and available. And these are not just by interfering with Internet-based
Look at the
movies. The special effects began a few years ago with a movie called
In the Line of Fire. In that movie, producer Jeff Apple digitized
an actor, Clint Eastwood, into existing film of the Kennedy motorcade
in Dallas. And when you saw that movie, you could not tell that
Clint Eastwood had not been a Secret Service man there to protect
Kennedy. Subsequently, you've got movies like Forest Gump, where
Tom Hanks meets Nixon and chats with him. Scientific American did
an article on how digitization can be used photographically for
deception. It showed a picture of President Bush walking in what
seemed like the Rose Garden, followed about six feet behind by Margaret
Thatcher. In the next photograph, they are walking side by side.
In the next photograph, they are practically holding hands and whispering
in each other's ear -- and all of that is easily manipulated.
So there are
now tremendous new technologies of deception and, as yet, not very
many technologies for verification. Then you add to that one further
feature, and that is not technological but intellectual and philosophical
-- the rise of a whole school of philosophy called post-modernism
which, in fact, challenges the very conception of truth. You put
all those together, and you are moving into a period, I think, which
will feed the political cynicism of the population. It means that
seeing is not believing. Reading is not believing. Hearing is not
believing. And that means you are going to have a lot of very, very
cynical people, even more so than today.
The flip side
of this is the danger that you will also have a fractional population
that will believe only one thing and believe that thing fanatically
-- the danger of a split between the cynics and the fanatics. And
that could have enormous political consequences.
In terms of the new emerging dark side of the technology, do you
feel this is inevitable? Are there things that can be done to help
deal with this?
I think what is happening, for good or for ill, people are becoming
much more media savvy. They are becoming skeptical. They need to
be skeptical and, to a point, it is justified. I think it has a
lot to do with political campaigning, the kind of messages, the
fractionalization of audiences into different constituencies, the
pressure of sound bites. And some very serious thought needs to
be devoted to how governments and how politics in general, and political
people in it, communicate, and through what channels they can communicate.
All of that is going to change.
It is not that
everything is going to be reduced to a push-button vote, I don't
believe that's true, and I think that's a simplistic model. My wife
and I frequently were accused of favoring push-button democracy.
That is by people who have not read what we have written. So I don't
think that's what is going to happen. But I think you also have
lots of people who have been displaced by this revolution.
On the other
hand, I believe the positive consequences of digitalization, electronic
commerce and new technology are, in fact, to make possible the substantial
alleviation of poverty. Whereas most people worry about the division
between the info-rich and the info-poor, something that we talked
about decades ago, I have grown less pessimistic and more optimistic
as the price of computers and broadband communication go down. I
spoke, for example, to thousands of teachers in Mexico and they
raised this question. "We are poor, we are a poor country,
a poor region. Aren't we going to be left out?"
I asked one
question. "Please raise your hand if you have a television
set." They all raised their hands. In a few years, that's what
a computer is going to look like. That is going to be the computer.
And now we have companies giving computers away free. So the fact
is that we are moving toward extremely cheap computing power, extremely
cheap broadband communication, and the consequences of those are
going to be a billion people networked together around the world.
Given what you said earlier about letting go, should we be fearful
of what's to come, or joyful for what is happening? And given that,
what should governments being doing to better prepare for the transformation
We should not blindly embrace, but we should certainly not blindly
resist or blindly try to hang on. My wife and I have what I call
a bittersweet approach. The world that we are creating -- it's not
just coming toward us, we are creating this new world, some of us.
In fact, most of us, one way or another, are contributing to the
creation of this. The world is going to be different: That doesn't
mean it is going to be utopia, that doesn't mean it is going to
be a distopia. There is still going to be sickness, there is still
going to be age, there is still going to be problems with kids,
and family life and love and interpersonal relationships and the
stuff that people feel emotionally very close to. We are going to
have political problems. And we are undoubtedly going to have wars,
and so on.
So the idea
that we are going through a transformation does not mean that the
other side of that is going to be all black or all white. We are
going to have a very different way of life. Different is the key
term. And it will create its own set of new problems. Enormous moral
problems arise, for example, out of biotechnology and genetics.
The Europeans are going crazy about genetically altered food right
now. Their panic may be overdone and may be stoked for economic
and trade reasons, rather than for the ostensible reason. But, be
that as it may, we are going to face profound issues of what do
we mean by being human. What is the definition of human? How will
that change as we begin to affect our own evolution? We have the
tools to do that now.
I believe that
will create enormous political strains, enormous religious movements,
good or bad, that will play a role in all of this -- a greater role
than they do at present. And it is going to be just a very, very,
very different world. And to say, "Let's hang on," is
like saying to the peasant family in medieval France or Germany,
"There's an Industrial Revolution coming at you, but you don't
have to change. You stay in your village and maintain village ethics,
and village morality, and the ignorance that went with living in
a village, and the lack of democracy that went with living in a
village, and so on." I'm not in favor of hanging on. I'm in
favor of trying to make sense of the changes that are occurring,
attempting to develop some strategies, personal and organizationally,
that anticipate what is coming.
We coined a
phrase in Future Shock. We said if we want to have a democracy,
it needs to be anticipatory democracy, not just participatory --
anticipatory -- because the changes come so rapidly that you can
easily have your democracy swept away. And what we now have is a
mass democracy that is appropriate for mass production, mass distribution,
mass consumption, mass media, all the rest of that. And it is the
political expression that is built on those and those systems that
are falling apart.
it used to be that the aim of production was to make a million identical
objects that were absolutely interchangeable. Now you hear about
mass customization. It becomes cheap and possible to customize products,
personalize products, turn out one-of-a-kind. A woman can go get
a pair of jeans measured by computer, cut to her shape, not just
size 10 or size 12 or whatever the case may be. We are customizing
production and moving toward a system that makes it possible to
"demassify" mass production. The same thing is true of
markets. We used to talk about mass marketing. Now we talk about
niche markets. We talk about micromarkets. We talk about markets
of one, person-to-person marketing, one-to-one marketing. These
have all kinds of social and other parallels.
we see it in the media. In our system, you create a product and
you have a market over there, and it is the media that created the
knowledge among the consumers that there was a product to buy. But,
the fact is, we grew up when there were three televisions networks
and three jokes the following morning. Now, we've got not only a
multiplicity of cable and satellite channels, but the Internet --
which is, in effect, an infinite stream of channels coming into
the home. And what that does is provide precision targeting for
the manufacturer or the seller to reach the customer on a one-to-one
basis. The mass society, and the consumers in a mass society, may
have accepted identical, one-size-fits-all products. But more and
more people today not only yearn to do "my own thing"
but to "buy my own thing, to be my own thing, to learn my own
thing." And they demand that they be treated as individuals,
not part of the mass, if you stop and look at the social consequences
In the same
way, I believe that racial and ethnic identifications are also demassifying
in parallel to what is happening in the economy and the media today.
Yes, a Million Man March can be organized. It can materialize and
that is a mass event, for sure. But if we look more closely at the
way things are going, we find race relations in the United States
are not just a minority/majority issue. It is not just black and
white any more. The key identifications people are making inside
their heads, and in their groups, are often subethnic. So categories
like Hispanic, or Black, or African American, or Asian -- categories
that lump many different cultures together -- are increasingly inadequate
to explain how people identify themselves. Americans of Mexican
origin are keenly aware of how different they are from Americans
from Guatemala, or El Salvador, let alone Puerto Rico or Cuba. Often
there are tensions, as between Cubans and Mexicans -- the way they
recently had a big fight, for example, over the control of the Spanish-speaking
media in the country.
Women, as a
category, are increasingly aware of narrower and narrower sub-identifications.
At one level, we still see the mass media spreading in the world.
But underneath that, we are all identifying ourselves much more
precisely within narrower and narrower groups. And, thus, we see
greater and greater diversity, not just in products and services,
or in the music we listen to, but things like resurgent regional
cuisine. At every level, I believe, you are seeing this.
At the same
time, there is a growing sense of complexity. Boundaries are blurring,
relations grow more temporary, decision-making more pressurized
and the speed of change continues to accelerate. And that is what
political and administrative leaders, and business leaders, are
up against today -- all decision-makers. When you put all that together,
you get an impact that is not just additive, but cumulative.
there are more different interests to satisfy. It becomes harder
to create consensus. Pressures for decentralization grow. And even
decentralized units face demands for autonomy by subunits. Cities
want autonomy. The Valley wants to secede from Los Angeles. And
all this will be intensified by the coming hurricane of changes
yet to come and these are going to hit, for example, the tax system.
The third wave
brings with it an upheaval in taxation. E-commerce -- I do not believe
that e-commerce should be slowed. I believe that e-commerce is in
a stage of chaotic, explosive development, that it should be allowed
to go untaxed for at least a period of time until it takes shape.
And I know this represents a real threat to the financial underpinnings
of many communities. But, nevertheless, e-commerce should not be
slowed or stopped in my judgment.
I think we will
see a shift from sales taxes to other kinds of taxes, to other kinds
of fees. I think we are going to be looking for all kinds of alternative
sources of taxation. Faced with all of these challenges, American
governments at all levels need to take a deep look at their future,
and to find strategies for success and survival.
What new functions
will justify the existence of a political entity that lies between
the federal government and the municipality? Businesses everywhere
are flattening their hierarchies. They are eliminating layers of
management. They are disintermediating unnecessary go-betweens between
levels of management. What does that portend for the county or the
state? What's your strategy for confronting those changes? Do you
have a coherent strategy based on a realistic image of the future?
There is a growing pattern amongst leaders in business, government
and politics to throw up their hands and say that things are changing
so fast that strategy is obsolete; you can't have a strategy --
things are too unpredictable. And that all you need to do is to
be quick off the mark, agile, [and have] the ability to respond
rapidly and quickly to circumstance.
I would argue
that is not adequate. Without a strategy, you become part of somebody
else's strategy. So I believe that in order to rethink, reconceptualize,
the role of government, you have to start asking profound, fundamental
questions and also begin to develop a strategy for dealing with
this hurricane of change that I've described -- strategies that
may be switchable, quickly changeable, with backward contingency
plans. But, nevertheless, strategy -- not just ad hoc, shoot-from-the-hip