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 / Winter 2006 / Issue 45(originally published by Booz & Company)


Alvin Toffler: The Thought Leader Interview

S+B I bet you didn’t receive a penny for all that.
The irony of this story is that the worst intellectual property rip-off that we’ve ever had is the one associated with the greatest influence that we ever had. When we go to China now, people come up to us and say, “You changed China.”

Just recently, to our surprise, included my name in a list of the 50 foreigners who have had the greatest impact on China in recent centuries. Unfortunately, the list omitted Heidi, without whose TV special the Chinese leaders might never have distributed the book. When she took the program with us, I was dubious about it being shown to anyone. “Don’t be stupid,” she said, “it will be seen at the top.” And clearly it was.

Our ideas reached China and its leadership at precisely the moment when historic decisions were about to be made regarding many of the issues discussed in both our book and our film — ideas that helped them crack open the door to economic transformation.

So without our knowing it at the time, our works, pirated by the Chinese, did, apparently, help “change China.”

S+B: How then would you distinguish China from India?
India is “democratic.” One wonders how democratic life is for its peasants, but it has at least the trappings of a Western democracy. Yet there are certain advantages to not being a democracy. I certainly don’t admire it, but China says, “We’re going to create a market economy,” and bang, everyone does it or else.

There may also be a religious basis for the difference between India and China. Hinduism propagated poverty as a virtue. China, as far as I know, never did that. And as we say in Revolutionary Wealth, people who pray for wealth may never get it, but cultures that pray for poverty usually get exactly what they pray for.

Optimism amid Malaise

S+B: What about the role of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which have reached a level of sophistication and complexity that few people saw coming? What has driven that?
It’s a function of the acceleration of change, the de-massification of the mass society, the increasing diversity within society, and the increasing diversity of products, of religious groups, of ideologies. That brings with it new opportunities, new threats, and new circumstances. Some are seen as threats, and some are seen as virtuous and valuable. One of the functions of NGOs is to be the proverbial canary in the mine, identifying future threats.

Unfortunately, too many of them focus only on threats, rather than on opportunities. Before it was known that we could use stem cells for various purposes, there was no group campaigning against stem cell use. But as soon as they were identified publicly, there were groups campaigning against stem cell researchers and other groups screaming to defend them and accelerate their work. As the opportunities, threats, and forms of organized advocacy multiply and diversify, it becomes increasingly clear that governments can’t handle all these new problems and that nobody else satisfactorily handles them, either. So NGOs are invented — often by prosumers, by the way.

S+B: You write that acceleration, de-synchronization, and the explosion of the knowledge overwhelming our institutions may be leading to the implosion of our society, even our civilization. Is your glass half-full or half-empty on this?
Both. I’m American. That means I’m innately optimistic. I think our body of work, on the whole, is optimistic, but it certainly doesn’t ignore the threats, dangers, and problems facing us. I see that humanity has done phenomenally well, at incredibly accelerated rates, in introducing revolutionary technologies. But that’s the easy part of a transformation. Changing the social structure is much more complicated than developing a new bit of software. Bits and bytes don’t have vested interests, but people do.

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