Alvin Toffler: Powershift: knowledge, wealth, and violence at the edge of the 21st century. Bantam Books, New York. 611 pages. US$5.99
Review by Otto Steinmayer.
The sixties were a time of apocalypse. Those who woke
up in that decade remember it as the time when the rate of change took
the great turn up on its hyperbolic curve.
We saw the Vietnam war, the appalling ravages of pollution and development. The TV brought us riots and assassinations and crises. Change rushed along with terrible speed in the direction of decline and we didn't see why it shouldn't continue that way. As it has.
In 1970 we saw Toffler's famous Future Shock
as a humanistic
book that diagnosed the causes of this frenzied disruption and
suggested some ways of coping. Knowing what we were getting into seemed
Toffler is a popular rationalist futurologist. The other main way imaginative people have prepared for the future is science fiction. There are two kinds: the officially sponsored ("Better-Living-Through-Chemistry" variety), and what's freely offered in novels and movies.
Forty years ago in the US, General Electric was telling us that electricity from nuclear power was going to be so cheap they were going to give it away. Hah.
Science fiction writers, on the other hand, have
universally posited a
future of slums, filth, high-tech terror, and human despair.
When we consider with what anxiety we look at the future Toffler's present book, Powershift, reads curiously amoral, not to say heartless. Sez Toffler, lots of whiz-bang systems are gonna spring up, things will be more interconnected, more complicated than ever.
Consider what a solace it will be for a person on
welfare in the US or
another Fully Developed country to receive (as Toffler predicts) a
"smart" card instead of coupons. Its microchip will be programmed to be
valid only for food, rent, and public transport. Sounds groovy at
first; but the implications are sinister.
To make a thorough and scientific guess at what the future may be like, and then compare this with Toffler's highly anecdotal survey, requires more specialized technical skill than this reviewer owns---as well as a much different personality. Nonetheless, I believe I saw some flaws in his arguments, and can raise a few objections.
First, Toffler bases many of his predictions on the certainly sound observation that the volume of information and the complexities of its storage, processing, and accessing will increase by many orders of magnitude beyond present levels. I will not speak about the quality of this information.
However, Toffler does not take into account the fact that information entropy will rise at the same rate. Significant information, "signal," will be increasingly hard to discriminate from noise. To put it plainly, more information will make less of a difference. The energy expended in switching this information around will come to equal the gain in energy that the increased switching purports to procure.
Second, Toffler does not at any point consider
the question of
increasing scarcity of resources. Growth without limits is also
implicit in his projections, something I find hard to take from a
writer whose Future Shock appeared close by the famous Club of Rome Limits
to Growth report.
We ought to be aware now that we are crowding the limits of physical occupancy on this planet. What's going to pay for Toffler's "super-symbolic" future, especially when much of our energy is quickly going to have to be spent in cleaning up humanity's mistakes, or we simply die?
Toffler does not address the problem of
population. He deplores the
growth of ethnic assertiveness, but it doesn't enter his head that the
present discontent and conflict is largely due to lack of space, which
we need as much as any other animal. A tiger would die in a week if it
lived in the conditions we impose on ourselves. We are not robots, nor
Finally, Toffler strongly suggests that with technology will come radical social change. I find this incredible. As with the "smart card," technology offers frightful new possibilities for tightening control, and elites will make damn sure they monopolize power, money, knowledge, and violence as they have done since the world first saw civilization 7,000 years ago. If it's a different elite than before, what's that to me?
It grieves me intensely to see Toffler avoid explaining how this powershift is going to affect our souls, to see him trivialize the future. He knows so bloody little about human beings and cares so little, or seems to.
The whole book stinks of the ideology of
President Ray-gun and his
successor. Look at what we've seen of technology's "cutting edge" in
the past few months: television images of horrific mass death wrought
by smart bombs guided by lasers---or merely by the eternal vices of
cruelty and greed---relayed instanteously by satellite to the remotest
parts of the world.
We're supposed to like this? I am sick of being told how much I should admire machinery and systems. In so far as technology is useful in creating a better world, I am approve technology. It's just a tool. Human beings ought to be the judge of what is a better world. But we have abdicated the chore, and decided to become mere extensions of a dead technique.
Toffler holds up Robert Milken the junk bond king as a pioneer of widening capital. Milken made $500,000,000 in 1987. But was he alive when he was doing it?
A man who writes a book on the future of money and does not remember that Greed and Fear are the sole motivations of high finance is a fool.
I deeply resent a process of change that destroys human diversity and allows no values to survive but its own. Toffler talks about religion only as fanaticism. He is insensible to beauty. His list of assumptions at the back of the book reads like the insights of a clever new "thinker," but really the wisdom of the ages re-written to sound hip. Alexander and Genghis Khan knew at least as much about power as Toffler. Empedocles, Heraclitus, and Confucius discovered other of Toffler's brilliant thoughts. But who cares about these platitudes when they pass as traditional?
How about one from Solomon that Toffler doesn't bring in? "He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase... When goods increase, they are increased that eat them: and what good is there to the owners thereof, saving the beholding of them with their eyes?" This also is vanity.
I can imagine someone coldblooded enough to enjoy
pathology of the cancer of gadgets and systems.
Then, some people really are interested in getting fantastic power
wealth. I don't understand them, except that I know that the mighty of
the earth are not interested in my good. Toffler describes how they'll
use technology on us.
Ordinary people, those of us who are looking for the good life, to live quietly and productively in a world that belongs to others, had for their own peace of mind better ignore Powershift. We have never had much power nor much say about how we live, and we will find out about the future all too soon as we suffer it.