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Alvin Toffler

July 11, 2016

Yogi Berra is alleged to have said, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." While this proverb is undoubtedly true, If Berra did say this, it's not original with him. The origins of this proverb go back to early 20th century Denmark, so it has been attributed quite often to physicist and Nobel Prize Laureate, Niels Bohr. This proverb appears to have been first used as a pun in a session of the Danish parliament in the late 1930s.[1]

This proverb illustrates the perils of being a "futurist," the modern version of a Biblical prophet. The best known futurist, Alvin Toffler, died last month at age 87.[2-6] Toffler, in his 1970 book, "Future Shock,"[7] predicted the massive social upheaval wrought by technology in future decades.

Alvin Toffler (1928-2016)

Alvin Toffler (Oct. 4, 1928 - June 30, 2016).

Toffler was born in New York City to parents who were Polish Jewish immigrants, and he grew up in Brooklyn.

(Photo by Vern Evans, via Wikimedia Commons.)

While post-war economists in the America were predicting shortened work weeks and the problem of what we should do with all our leisure time, Toffler was predicting a less optimal future. I wrote about the evolution of work in the 20th-century in a recent article (The Future of Work, March 3, 2016).

Toffler was interested in writing at an early age, and he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from New York University, where he met his future wife and collaborator, Adelaide ("Heidi") Farrell.[2] Either out of necessity, or a desire for the same worldly experience that shaped John Steinbeck and Jack London, he first worked in manufacturing, living in Cleveland, a part of industrial America.[2,4] Toffler did welding and machinery repair for about five years, and he was injured when a steel beam fell on him.[2]

Toffler used his work experience to start his journalism career, first working in the manufacturing trade press. He later wrote for Fortune magazine, and he wrote freelance magazine articles.[2] In the 1960s, he wrote about labor issues as a newspaper journalist while working on "Future Shock."[4] His work experience gave him insight into a world in which factory workers were being replaced by machines.[4]

Future Shock, was a popular book, selling 15 million copies.[3] Its topic was the problem of the rapid changes happening in our technological world, and it was written in a style that was far more accessible than scholarly tomes on the same subject.[3-4] As Toffler wrote, our future's arriving too quickly was causing social and economic problems that led to mental anguish for us all.[6] He wondered whether humans were psychologically capable of handling such rapid changes; instead, being "doomed to a massive adaptational breakdown."[2]

The topics of Future Shock include the shift of manufacturing to disposable items, such as ballpoint pens and paper towels, and the "planned obsolescence" of devices, such as computers, that have better replacements available long before their end-of-life. More problematic is the decline of entire industrial sectors that force people to change professions and place of residence. Change of residence results in the social upheaval of losing contact with friends and family, the former leading to increased social alienation and the later leading to the demise of the nuclear family.[3]

Estimated change of state residence for 2014 (US Census Bureau data)

Estimated change of state residence for 2014.

About 8% of the residents have moved into Tikalon's state of New Jersey from another state in the past year. This fraction, although large, is still smaller than Nevada's 15%.

(Graphed using Gnumeric from US Census Bureau Data. Click for larger image)

Future Shock was the first book in a trilogy that included The Third Wave(1980) and Powershift (1990).[2] The Third Wave expressed the idea that rapid communication would transform all aspects of modern life.[4] The Third Wave is also the title of a book by AOL founder Steve Case.[5] Along with the term, "future shock," these books contained such neologisms as "information overload,"[3] "adhocracy,"[5] (first used by Warren Bennis in 1968), and "de-massify."[4]

"Adhocracy" is the state of civilization in which both government and businesses are forced to keep pace with their citizen-consumers shifting preferences.[5] "De-massification" is the shift from mass production to small enterprise, as we've seen in the "dot-com" revolution.[4] Toffler saw the European Union as contrary to de-massification, since it would lead to increased bureaucracy and inflexibility.[4] Some of Toffler's predictions, such as space colonization and people living beneath the sea, did not happen.[3] However, he did predict the increased use of renewable energy.[4]

As most parents have noted, their children are more adapted to the future than they are, so the shock of the future has been somewhat mitigated. I personally eschew online financial transactions, and I still make trips to a bank branch, but younger people happily photograph checks for deposit. Alvin and Heidi Toffler predicted such a co-evolution of technology and society.[5]

As Toffler most presciently said, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."[3] In a 2010 interview with NPR's Martin Kaste, he also said that "Anybody that tells you they know what's going to happen, don't believe a word they say!"[2] Toffler is survived by his wife and collaborator, Heidi, and a sister, Caroline Sitter.[2-3,6] We, too, are survivors in this shocking future.

Future shock graphic (Gualtieri)

An example of technological change. In my childhood, all clocks were analog. Today's children have difficulty understanding the expression, clockwise, and their grandparents have difficulty stopping their clocks from flashing "12:00." (Created by the author using GIMP. Background image by Thomas Bresson, analog clock image by Luispihormiguero, and digital clock image, all from Wikimedia Commons.)


  1. Quote Investigator, October 20, 2013.
  2. Chris Arnold, "Future Shock Author Alvin Toffler Dies at 87," NPR, June 30, 2016.
  3. Alvin Toffler, futurologist guru, dies at 87, BBC, June 30, 2016.
  4. Jill Leovy, "Alvin Toffler, author of 1970 bestseller 'Future Shock,' dies at 87," LA Times, June 29, 2016.
  5. Parag Khanna, "Man of the "Future Shock": Remembering Alvin Toffler," Quartz, June 29, 2016.
  6. Matt Novak, "Alvin Toffler, Legendary Author of Future Shock, Dies at 87," Gizmodo, June 29, 2016.
  7. Alvin Toffler, "Future Shock," Paperback, Reissue Edition, Bantam, June 1, 1984, 576 pp., ISBN-13: 978-0553277371 (via Amazon).

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