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


Alvin Toffler: The Thought Leader Interview

That reflects another fundamental example of de-synchronization — between the rate of the great technological surge and the slow pace of accommodation to social change. This gap has to be closed, and if it isn’t, we are, in fact, going to see institutional Katrinas — or, rather, equivalents to the tragic response to Hurricane Katrina — in business, in government, in every conceivable field.

I think it’s too easy to say the implosion is coming. It’s hard to come up with new kinds of organizational alternatives to bureaucracy, but I think we have been living and thinking with much too narrow a range of alternative organizational forms. We build bureaucracies because we know how to do that. You snap the pieces together, add some hierarchy, and you’ve got yourself a towering bureaucracy. There has been over the past decades a counterforce, arguing for network organization, but the result has been a very narrow choice between bureaucracy and networks. A democracy can have a subdivision that is a network, a network can have a subdivision that is a bureaucracy. They can fold into each other. And even that is much too simple; many other forms of organization could be potentially useful.

More to the point, as we wrote in Powershift, there are an infinite number of ways that human beings can organize themselves for collective behavior. I think we can brainstorm and come up with still more alternative organizational structures. There are glimpses of this beginning to happen, but the question is: How many more Katrinas can we stand in the meantime?

S+B: When I looked at Future Shock recently, I was surprised at your stridence. You wrote of the acceleration of the pace of change as an illness, “a cancer in history.” With 35 years of hindsight, would you still describe our situation that way?
Well, I might tone down some of the language. I was 35 years younger. But I think the basic argument of the book stands. We’re always asked what we got wrong, and we did get a few things wrong. That’s inevitable when you’re looking 30 or so years ahead.

The hardest thing to forecast is timing — when certain events would happen. We said, back then in 1970, that humanity would clone animals, and that has happened; we said that we would also clone humans, and I still think that’s likely. But we were wrong in the timing. We said that these would happen by 1985. We didn’t make that date up. We got it from one of the world’s leading Nobel Prize–winning biologists, who happened to be rather more optimistic than he should have been.

There’s another passage in the book where we talk about throwaway products, that someday we may be wearing paper clothing. And we aren’t. Yet.

I always get a laugh from an audience when I say, of course, we futurists have a magic button; we follow every statement about a failed forecast with “yet.”

S+B: Do you really think the experience of the last 35 years has been a “malaise,” as you said it would be?
Absolutely. It doesn’t necessarily present itself that way, and people don’t come in and say, “Well, I’m sick of acceleration,” but I think they feel it. We are living with a much less orderly social environment and technological environment, and that can have physiological effects on people. Living with high uncertainty for long stretches does change your body chemistry. Just read the literature about stress and listen to what people are saying to one another. So, yes, I do see evidence of future shock in the world we face.

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