Remembering Alvin Toffler
January 3, 2017
Alvin Toffler, the futurist writer who died in June at the age of 87, had a remarkable impact on my life and the lives of millions, literally millions, of people—shaping how humans understand the world and the era that we live in.
Alvin’s first great breakthrough book, Future Shock, published in 1970, became a global best-seller, its multi-colored cover leaping out at potential buyers. More importantly, it gave rise to an idea, and a term, used widely to describe the vast transformation we were then living through: America was in a period of technological, social and political change. The pill was altering sexual mores. The first wave of feminists was challenging the traditional limits on women. The civil rights movement was creating hope, turmoil and conflict. Youth activism was challenging the habits and structures of older Americans. It was in this time of unrest that Alvin’s book seemed especially relevant and convincing.
Not surprisingly, Future Shock made Alvin and Heidi, his wife and intellectual and business partner, worldwide celebrities. They gave speeches all over the world. Future Shock sold as many copies in Japan as in the United States. It was during this time that I got to know the Tofflers, working with them in the 1970s on a program called anticipatory democracy, another phrase Alvin coined, holding that voters and officeholders should take predicted future events into account.
But it was a decade later, in 1980, that the Tofflers brought out their most important book, The Third Wave. It would be hard to overstate the impact of this book. Its argument was that the first wave in human history was the shift from hunter-gathering to agriculture; the second wave was from agriculture to industry; and the third wave—which we were beginning to live through —was from industry to information.
This sweeping view of human history empowered people to think very differently about the world at that time. General Donn Starry, commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, said the book would change our thinking about the modern battlefield. If the Toffler vision of an information-dominated system were true, then the linear iron and steel armies of the World War II era were doomed; they would need to be replaced by a kind of warfare that was far faster and more widely spread and that would unite ground and air forces through real-time information flow. Starry promptly invited the Tofflers to visit his command at Fort Monroe. They gave seminars, were a big hit and formed permanent friendships among change-oriented Army officers.
While I was in Congress, I brought the Tofflers into the Conservative Opportunity Society activist meetings I held among House Republicans, and the couple spent entire days brainstorming with us about how the world was changing, what it meant and how government should change. Many of my own ideas about crowd-sourcing, the enhanced role of individuals over experts, the need for decentralization, flexibility and adaptability to replace slow-moving hierarchical bureaucracies came from working with the Tofflers.
It wasn’t just in the United States that the Toffler’s work influenced politics. In the 1980s, The Third Wave was published in China as a government-approved strategy to open up thinking about modernity. The Tofflers had dinner with Mikhail Gorbachev at one point to discuss the implications of the information age for the future of the Soviet Union.
On a personal level, Alvin and Heidi, who survives her husband, were wonderful to me. I stayed with them in Manhattan and then when they moved to their fabulous home in Los Angeles. Writing and giving speeches had been remarkably good to two former Marxist activists who had pragmatically changed as they learned about the world.
Watching Alvin and Heidi argue about one point or another was exhilarating. They were amazingly energetic and passionate in the way they thought about the world. At a time when ideas sometimes seem to be lacking in politics and world affairs, the Tofflers are a reminder that ideas matter.