Thinking about Alvin Toffler on the occasion of his death

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Alvin Toffler died last month.  There have been many obituaries and reflections, appropriately enough, given his and his wife, Heidi’s, influence.  I don’t want to offer an obit or appraisal here, because those others are out there.  Instead I wanted to share some personal thoughts about what reading the Tofflers meant for me.

As I wrote this post, I realized that their books had sunk deeply into my mind, like stones in a well.  Until Alvin Toffler’s death I hadn’t thought of them for a long time… yet I see now just how strong an influence they had on me.

Toffler, Future Shock, coverI read Future Shock (1970) when I was a science-fiction-reading kid.  The first time I read into it I must have been ten years old.  I was staying with my family on a weird and uncomfortable vacation, visiting family members I didn’t know, who lived in a (to me) vast and mysterious house.  I was isolated, awkward, and at a loss.

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 Naturally I turned to bookshelves, and there I found this appealing title.

To a kid my age, around 1976, Future Shock was rich, challenging, frustrating, exhilarating, and alienating all at once. I didn’t have the practice of reading long form nonfiction at that age, so I dipped into sections, looking for interesting bits.  I knew enough to use the index to find terms that made sense to me, especially ones about space and science.

I can still remember sections about orbital factories and automation.  I also remember being very pleased with the thesis, that people would be disoriented by increasing waves of change.  This pleased me because I was a science fiction freak, and therefore well prepared for the future.  It also gave me an edge on my elders, always an exciting thrill for a kid.  I never doubted the thesis for a moment.

Long form nonfiction: I think my mind was blown by the density of prose and vision.  I was used to Isaac Asimov’s elegant, compressed, witty, and fast formulations.  That was probably as close as I’d come to a sociological or historical imagination at that point in my life (yes, I’d looked into my grandparents’ Marxist books, but not really read them, partly due to my parents’ dismay; that’s another blog post).  The Tofflers (it was just Alvin Toffler to me, then; a different era) opened my imagination to a version of Clifford Geertz’ thick description.  I started considering economics, cultural attitudes, political institutions – yes, at a primitive, introductory level.  But perhaps that childhood encounter with Future Shock primed me to be a humanist in the academy, and to be a futurist.

Toffler, The Third WaveFast forward a decade and I’m a university student when I find The Third Wave (1980). I’m about 19, studying the Soviet Union, thinking about a career in foreign service (yeah, another era), and stumbled across this shiny paperback.  I devoured it in a hurry.

Remember that this was before the Web, before Newt Gingrich seized the idea for the Republicans, when geeks were still pathetic victims.  The Third Wave was enormously exciting with its vision of rapid social transformation, technological determinism, and the opening of so many possibilities.  It helped kick my thinking around in all kinds of ways.

I was at university, as the British say, and it was a fine addition to that intellectual ferment.  I rethought my politics (what does left versus right mean for technology?), my career options (I needed to get back into tech), my understanding of culture.

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 I was won over to the book’s sense of technological determinism, a view missing at that point from my humanities and social science undergraduate curriculum.  I loved the giant historical model of waves, not knowing the Marxist origin of them at that point, just relishing the historiographical fun of modeling and rethinking the past.

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 Living near Detroit, I appreciated the explanation of post-industrialism.  The idea of horizontal organizations and networks was pretty intriguing back then.

Then a couple of decades went by.

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  I didn’t read later Toffler books.  Parts of the world gradually picked up Tofflerian themes, like Newt Gingrich’s slide of the American Republican party, Silicon Valley’s fierce technological determinism, and the Rust Belt, sliding into post-industrial decay.  

After my first two professional jobs, I started a third, as a futurist. Toffler was lurking in the back of my mind, clearly helping me think of education’s future under the impact of technology, helping push me into complex descriptions of situations, encouraging my imagination of the future. That presence was in the shadows, quietly lurking at the bottom of the well.  Only now am I catching up with him.

So what’s next?  Should we pick up Toffler’s torch?

It’s not an easy question, at least in a very partisan American season, given the Gingrich angle.  Technological determinism is now a tricky subject, especially since a new economic elite cites it as credo, and many people use it shallowly, at best.  We obviously need to consider the Tofflers, like any influential thinkers, critically.

But I do agree with Farhad Manjoo on this score.  We aren’t doing the future well.  We’re struggling to think and plan about immense possibilities.  We need to think about the future better.  This is more or less what I’ve dedicated my career to.

Many people have cited this famous quote about education: “Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to unlearn.”  There’s another version at the topic of this post, and I think it still works.  It’s a call for adaptability in the face of change, perhaps radical transformation.  It’s a good and subtly unsettling mantra.

To close, I like what my friend Alex Grech does with it:

I teach so I am out of my comfort zone and have no choice other than to learn, un-learn, re-learn and co-learn.

Good thought for those of us in education.

(thanks to Mike Roy on Twitter for a nudge)

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5 Responses to Thinking about Alvin Toffler on the occasion of his death

  1. Todd Conaway says:

    Thanks Bryan for sharing. Your readings from 10 to 15 or so were similar to mine. I remember Heinlein and Asimov like it was yesterday, and those mind melded into Lost Horizon and a far keener eye for the social illustrations of Defoe, Swift, and soon Vonnegut. It was a blur of what may come long before toasters were combined with ovens and there were only four channels on the tv. There was adventure in the utopian landscape. Danger lurked in the easy fall into dystopian visions. I wanted some of both. I needed danger and adventure.

    I became a school teacher and I was able to share some books with high school students. I think within that I learned that the books were not enough. There needed to be real adventure and real danger. I was scrapped and bruised as a result. Those books I had read gave me some amount of courage to face failure. And of course, I needed that too. There was action being planned in all those books. The text was forming ideas that needed to be acted upon. I am busy trying to explain that to myself all the time.

    “One of the reasons mature people stop learning is that they become less and less willing to risk failure.” John Gardner

    I am also busy trying to explain that to myself all the time

    Now, as someone who hopefully helps teachers use technology wisely, on a good day that is, I am ever aware of the need to unlearn habits that hold us back from a possible light in the future. Ever aware of the dangers of misinterpreting helpful and destructive, and wholly seeped in needing the adventure found in developing relationships that foster trust and allow me to move forward with people. As most of those SF writers would likely share, the real danger and excitement is not in the technology itself, but in how we come to common understandings of how to use it. And that will take time and lots of hurt and lots of disillusionment.

    Willing to risk. Willing to fail. Willing to get back up, find people to help you, and go.

  2. mkt42 says:

    Nice observations. Thinking about the future is very difficult to do well, but at the same time it is very important to do.

    The various quotes remind me of a quote I read yesterday, from the late Shimon Peres: “Every day I wake up and I count my achievements. And then I count the dreams I have in my head. As long as I have more dreams in my head than achievements, I am young.”

  3. VanessaVaile says:

    I read both at somewhat comparable periods in my life — similar reactions too as well as the shaping awareness. Later, simplistic responses to complexity put me off. This is a welcome reminder.

    But, Bryan, I must confess that my major takeaway is that I am now trying to imagine you formally togged out for some diplomatic occasion. The effort will either make or break my day. Good time to take a walk.

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