Information Age dawn still breaking

It’s fun to fact-check a futurist when plenty of future has already gone by. Here’s some of what Alvin Toffler wrote thirty years ago in The Third Wave:

Humanity faces a quantum leap forward. It faces the deepest social upheaval and creative restructuring of all time. Without clearly recognizing it, we are engaging in buiding a remarkable new civilization from the ground up. This is the Meaning of the Thrid Wave.

Until now the human race has undergone two great waves of change, each one largely obliterating the earlier cultures or civilizations and replacing gthem with ways of life inconceivable to those who came before. The First Wave of change — the agricultural revioution — took thouseands of years to play itself out. The Second Wave — the rise of industrial civilization — took a mere three hundred years. Thoday history is even more accelerative, and it is likely that the Third Wave will sweep across history and complete itself in a few decades. We who happen to share the planet at this explosive moment, will therefore feel the full impact of the Third Wave in our own lifetimes.

Tearing our families apart, rocking out economy, paralyzing our political systems, shattering our values, the Third Wave affects everyone. It challenges all the old power relatinships, and privilege and prerogatives of the endangered elites of today, and provides the backdrop against which the key power struggles of tomorrow will be fought.

Much in this emerging civilization contradicts the old traditoinal industrial civilization. It is, at one and the same time, highly technical and anti-industrial.

The third wave brings with it a genuinely new way of life based on diversified, renewable energy sources; on methods of production that make most factory assembly lines obsolete, on new, non-nuclear familes, on a novel institution that might be called the “electronic cottage”; and on radically changed schools and corporations of the future. The emergent civilization writes a new code of behavior for us and carries us beyond standardization, synchronization and centralization, behyond the concentration of energy, money and power.

This new civilization, as it challenges the old, will topple bureaucracies, reduce the role of the nation-state, and give rise to semiautonomous economies in a postimperialist world. It requires governments that are simpler, more effective, yet more democratic than any we know today. It is a civilization with its own distinctive world outlook, its own ways of dealing with time, space, logic and causality.

Above all… Third Wave civilization begins to heal the historic breach between producer and consumer, giving rise to the “prosumer” economics of tomorrrow. For this reason, amongh many, it could– with some intelligent help from us — turn out to be the first truly humane civiization in recorded history.

When I first re-read this (before I re-typed it from these Amazon scans), I thought some of what Toffler said was hooey. Factory assembly lines are hardly obsolete, except here in the U.S., perhaps. There are plenty left in the world — especially in China, which now thrives with a capitalist system run by what’s still called the Communist Party. (Shades of Animal Farm, written by Orwell in 1945.) Human nature and politics-as-usual will probably never change.

As for families, they were already well-torn in the Industrial Age. My late former father-in-law, the historian Hiram Hilty, once told me that “family values” could hardly be more ironic in the U.S., which was settled and populated by people who left home (many of them involuntarily), and now have the most transient population on Earth. Our families are so loosely knit that moving away to distant locations is more the norm than the exception. Accoring to Dr. Hilty, the most common record of young men in the post-Civil War South — in census surveys, family bibles and church enrollment lists — is two words: “Went west.”

Yet we all tend to overestimate historic changes in the short term and underestimate in the long. At this Toffler was no exception. Look at what the Internet has done, and many of his predictions seem spot-on or close enough.

But I know one area where the Third Wave is still waiting to crest. Toffler again:

The Second Wave, like some nuclear chain reaction, violently spit apart two aspects of our lives that had always, until then, been one. In so doing, it drove a giant invisible wedge into our economy, our psyches, and even our sexual seves.

At one level, the industrial revolution created a marvelously integrated social system with its own distinctive technologies, its own social institutions, and its own information channels — all plugged tightly into each other. Yet another level, it ripped apart the underlying unity of socieity, creating a way of life filled with economic tension, social conflict and psychological malaise. Only if we understand how this invisible wedge has shaped our lives thoughout the Second Wave era can we apreciate the full impact of the Third Wave that is beginning to reshape us today.

The two halves of human life that the Second Wave split apart were production and consumption. We are accustomed, for example, to think of ourselves as producers or consumers. This wasn’t always true. Until the industrial revolution, the vast bulk of all the food, goods, and services produced by the human race was consumed by the producers themselves. their families or a tiny elite who managed to scrape off the surplus for their own use….

The Second Wave viloently changed this situation. Instead of essentially self-suffieicnt people and communities, it created for the first time in history a situation in which the overwhelming bulk of all food, goods and services was destined for sale, barter or exchange. it virtually wiped out of existence good produced for one’s own consumption — for use by the actual producer and his or her family — and created a civilization in which almost no one, not even a farmer, ws self-sufficient any longer…

In short, industrialism broke the union of production and consumption, an split the producer from the consumer. the fused economy of the First Wave was transformed into the split economy of the Second Wave.

That economy is still split.

We noticed that in 1999, when we cited Toffler in Chapter Four of The Cluetrain Manifesto:

The advent of the Industrial Age did more than just enable industry to produce products much more efficiently. Management’s approach to production and its workers was quickly echoed in its approach to the market and its customers. The economies of scale they were gaining in the factory demanded economies of scale in the market. By the time it was over we had forgotten the one true meaning of the market, and replaced it with industrial substitutes.

In The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler wrote that the rise of industry drove an “invisible wedge” between production and consumption, a fact Friedrich Engels had noticed over one hundred years earlier. As production was ramped up to unheard-of rates, the clay pot of craftwork was broken into shards of repetitive tasks that maximized efficiency by minimizing difference: interchangeable workers creating interchangeable products.

In the market, consumption also needed to be ramped up — not just to absorb the increased production of goods, but also to promote people’s willingness to buy the one-size-fits-all products that rolled off mass-production lines. And management wasted little time noticing the parallels in efficiencies they could achieve all along the production-consumption chain. If products and workers were interchangeable, then interchangeable consumers began to look pretty good too.

The goal was simple. Customers had to be convinced to desire the same thing, the same Model-T in any color, so long as it’s black. And if workers could be better organized through the repetitive nature of their tasks, so customers were more easily defined by the collective nature of their tastes. Just as management developed a new organizational model to enhance economies of scale in production, it developed the techniques of mass marketing to do the same for consumption.

So the customers who once looked you in the eye while hefting your wares in the market were transformed into consumers. In the words of industry analyst Jerry Michalski, a consumer was no more than “a gullet whose only purpose in life is to gulp products and crap cash.” Power swung so decisively to the supply side that “market” became a verb: something you do to customers.

In the twentieth century, the rise of mass communications media enhanced industry’s ability to address even larger markets with no loss of shoe leather, and mass marketing truly came into its own. With larger markets came larger rewards, and larger rewards had to be protected. More bureaucracy, more hierarchy, and more command and control meant the customer who looked you in the eye was promptly escorted out of the building by security.

The product of mass marketing was the message, delivered in as many forms as there were media and in as many guises as there were marketers to invent them. Delivered locally, shipped globally, repeated inescapably, the business of marketing devoted itself to delivering the message. Unfortunately, the customer never wanted to take delivery.

Well, maybe 1% did — or whatever percentage actually responded to any given ad. Still, the points are valid. We still live in a world where mass production is the norm, and so is treating customers like cattle.

A couple days ago a friend pointed to Customer UNinterupted, which pitches “Next-generation strategies for owning the customer experience across all channels.” Raise your hand if you wish to have your experience “owned” by anybody. Even the people who wrote that pitch don’t want their experienced “owned”. But they could easily write it because they still have that wedge in their heads. There is no corpus calossum between their inner producer and consumer.

But I’m still optimistic. Mass media are falling apart. All all of us on the Net are in position to be producers as well as consumers. We can produce information — real intelligence — that improves markets. Many of us are already doing that. A few of us are engaged in development efforts that will equip individuals with tools both of independence and engagement.

In fact, I think we should soon be in a good position to turn the old system around, and to “own the seller experience.” That is, to tell sellers how we wish to be treated, and to have our demands respected.

The fact that we’ll arrive, money in hand, will help.

Bonus link.


  1. Chris Locke’s avatar

    Yeah, and even in the Third Wave, who knew we’d ever be seeing things like this…

  2. C.Meidinger’s avatar

    Very interesting. I am relatively new to your blog, your world, these issues, and the cluetrain manifesto. One thing comes to mind concerning “Consumers” and “Cattle”, consumers are people.

    Bob Geldof, leader of the Boomtown Rats, world renowned charitable thinker and shaker, once started a movement for a World without Leaders and after a period of time, and with much personal anguish, Bob disbanded the movement, because he became the “Leader” of a World Without Leaders movement. What did Bob Geldof learn “People en masse Desire Leadership”. Who will E-Lead the E-individual E-consumers en masse? What will this E-leader look and act like, if not corporate? Government?

    I know this sounds crazy, but when someone else does the day to day thinking for you on the basics of life, more freewill time remains for friends, family, and the hobbies in ones life.

    I love your blog!

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    To me your question is a bit like, “”Who will the leading automobile driver be, when people drive instead of taking trains?”

    What we’re doing at ProjectVRM is equipping individuals with tools for managing their personal relationships with vendors. It’s not much more complicated than that. But we also have no models for it, which makes it that much more fun.

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