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Published: November 30, 2006

 
 

Alvin Toffler: The Thought Leader Interview

Thirty-six years after his book Future Shock, the world’s most influential futurist sees the informal economy as a basis of revolutionary wealth.

Photograph by Vern Evans
When Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock (Random House) first  appeared in 1970, Richard Nixon was in the White House, the United States was in Vietnam, and the first personal computers were still several years away. Yet with notable prescience, Mr. Toffler wrote that the years to come would be marked by information overload, an acceleration of technological change, and a resultant social upheaval that he likened to mental illness: “Citizens of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations will find it increasingly painful to keep up with the incessant demand for change that characterizes our time. For them, the future will have arrived too soon.”

In retrospect, Mr. Toffler was less a reliable prophet than a brilliant synthesist. Future Shock and its successors, The Third Wave (Morrow, 1980) and Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century (Bantam, 1990) were at their best not when predicting what would happen, but when drawing from a vast array of disciplines — science, technology, sociology, and religion — to explain the circumstances of the world at large.

That is true as well for the new book, Revolutionary Wealth (Knopf, 2006), this time credited to Mr. Toffler and his wife, Heidi, who collaborated on the earlier books as well. In their latest book, the Tofflers argue that more and more economic activity takes place through processes that do not involve the exchange of currency. The rapid rise of this nonmonetary wealth system has major implications for both the global economy and for humanity in general — implications that have been unmeasured and underestimated.

That will come as no surprise to Microsoft, which now battles for market share with Linux, the free operating system software maintained by a global army of volunteer programmers, or to the entertainment industry, which successfully blocked the music file-sharing Web site Napster only to see a dozen clones rise in its place, now joined by sites offering illegal downloads of feature films. According to the Tofflers, countless other industries and institutions face waves of “prosumers,” who produce and consume products and services outside the monetary economy. This is a historic change in the way wealth is created, the Tofflers write, spearheaded (for now, at least) by the United States.

The Tofflers also see a growing de-synchronization of society’s institutions. Financiers invent new derivatives faster than governments invent new regulations; schoolteachers working from dated textbooks struggle to retain relevancy for students who Google from cell phones; and audit firms search for a way to value increasingly intangible assets. Some de-synchronization is inevitable and even positive because it spurs innovation, the authors say, but too much risks the implosion of economies, governments, even whole civilizations.

Despite the gloomy language of some of their work, the Tofflers have never been doomsayers. Amid the current era of economic, ecological, and geopolitical anxiety, we thought it particularly worthwhile to hear the Tofflers’ vision of the years ahead. Mr. Toffler sat down with strategy+business at a hotel in San Francisco. The early days of the 21st century may indeed be challenging, but as Mr. Toffler, now 77, said in opening the conversation: “What an absolutely fascinating time to be alive.”

S+B: Your book posits a broad definition of wealth. Why do we need it?
TOFFLER:
I concluded that there were powerful, unrecognized interactions between the nonmoney, or “prosumer,” economy and the money economy of our world. Rather than ignoring these interactions, we need to understand that these two economies are, in fact, parts of a unified “wealth system” in which the two parts pass value back and forth.

 
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