Alvin Toffler-Interview 5/3/98
Norman Swan's Interview with Alvin Toffler Thursday 5/03/98
An interview with the well known futurologist, author of Future Shock and
The Third Wave.
Norman Swan: Welcome to a very special Life Matters, because our guest is
Alvin Toffler, who, with his wife Heidi, has been credited with inventing
Alvin Toffler is best known for his first international best seller,
'Future Shock', but has written many books since, including 'The Third
Wave, about the massive wave of change we're going through at the moment;
unparalleled in human history, according to Toffler. It's a theme which has
dominated his thinking for the past 10 or 15 years.
Alvin Toffler has influenced and advised world leaders. He wrote about the
prospects of outsourcing, the communications revolution and corporate
restructuring years before anyone else cottoned on.
Toffler worked in factories after he went to university, then went into
journalism in Washington. But he's really made his mark as a writer and
thinker, always in collaboration with his wife.
I spoke to Alvin Toffler in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago at the
American Association for the Advancement of Science Congress.
He'd just given his view of what he calls 'The Intangible Economy' and
reserved his strongest criticism for economists who, he feels, are
intellectually bankrupt and failing to deal with the knowledge revolution.
The essence though, of the Tofflers' approach to the future is that you
can't predict it from current trends. It's the discontinuities, the
surprises, which change the course of history.
Alvin Toffler: In fact, we never use the word 'predict'. We think anybody
who says they can predict the future is probably a member of the society of
quacks, because human events are filled with surprises and chance, and
conflict and reversals and upsets. And therefore it's not possible to
predict change in society or business, or economics, with exactitude. You
can however, I think, model changes. There's a way of thinking about change
that gives insight into the very broad movements. I can't tell you that Joe
Doakes is going to do X, Y, Z, but I can say that the society appears to be
moving in a certain direction, or not moving in a certain direction.
Norman Swan: Of course, just to pursue this for a little while,
extrapolation is a problem in that history doesn't seem to move in that
way, where you can extrapolate from existing trends. It's discontinuities
Alvin Toffler: Exactly. In fact we think that people who talk about trend
analysis and trend projection, are really peddling a very, very poor way of
thinking about the future. Trends usually are interpreted to mean
straight-line development so that if something grew by 2% last year and 2%
the year before, it will continue to grow at 2% this year and next year.
That's childish. Especially when you live in times like ours which are
extremely turbulent, in which we have fundamental changes taking place at
high speed, powerful, sometimes global, changes. And so we reject trend
extrapolation as an method.
Trends never tell you why things happen. They seldom tell you what
counter-trends there may be; there are many, many things wrong with trend
Norman Swan: I want to get to your description of the three waves of
change in a sense, that have occurred in human history. But before that,
other organisations and yourself, have talked about these discontinuities
that will change the future. For instance, Shell has taken great pride in
the fact that they've had this scenario setting process which tries to find
the important discontinuities and plan for it. Where do you see the
important discontinuities at the moment? Where are the potentials that
could create enormous change?
Alvin Toffler: Probably the biggest one is the way we think about change.
You can't have large-scale changes on the planet without conflict. Conflict
is a part of change, and conflict can be good, it can be constructive,
creative, but you can't have a massive change on the scale that we're now
going through, without massive conflict as well. The Industrial Revolution,
what you had in England for 50 years, you had a conflict between Disraeli,
representing the landed interests, and Gladstone. In Japan you had the
major revolution: two sides, the traditionalists hanging on to the land and
the modernisers symbolised at that time by the Emperor. And in the United
States the conflict actually took violent form, where you had an
industrialising North in a civil war with a backward agrarian South. And it
was the worst war in human history up till that time.
So the change on the scale we're talking about is itself potentially
dangerous, but also has positive consequences. So if I look at the
structure of power in the world today, who has power, who doesn't? Well,
ever since the Industrial Revolution, the countries that had power were the
industrial countries. First the British, and then the Americans, and the
Europeans in general. And so what you had were the industrialised countries
on top of the power totem pole, and the agrarian countries at the bottom.
And that was a more important division of power on the planet than the
East-West struggle, even though clearly the Cold War involved --
Norman Swan: Was a major diversion for a few years.
Alvin Toffler: Yes, but also I mean you had the danger of global
incineration, that's true. But the dominant division in the world I would
say was between industrial and agricultural economies. Today that's
changing, and what's happening is that you still have some peasant-based
agrarian societies, very large populations; and you have a growing number
of what we would call second-wave smokestack, assembly line, cheap labour,
mass manufacturing economies.
But now you also have the emergence of third wave information-based
economies where the information-based methods of economic production and
organisation are so dependent on knowledge, on information, on data, on
sophisticated telecommunications and computers and high tech. that it's a
new breed of economy: the third-wave economy. And what you have in the
world is the US is probably the predominant third-wave power; Singapore,
little as it is, is a third-wave country; and you have pockets of rapid
third-wave development in all kinds of odd and seemingly backward places.
India has a very large and sophisticated software industry, and even places
like Vietnam and Slovakia are selling software to Silicon Valley directly,
So what is happening is what we say that world power was bisected, and now
it's becoming trisected. That represents historically a major change in the
distribution of power on the planet. And how that is resolved will
determine how much war we have, what kinds of conflicts we have and so on.
Norman Swan: You've said that no theory of change is valid unless
there's a theory of conflict. But do you have a theory of conflict?
Alvin Toffler: Yes I do. My wife, Heidi, who is my co-author as you know,
and I, believe in what we call the wave theory of conflict. When the
Industrial Revolution came as I said earlier --
Norman Swan: This is your second wave. Let's go through them.
Alvin Toffler: Right, OK. The first wave of change came with the invention
and spread of agriculture. Prior to that you had nomadic and tribal
populations scattered around the world. Then came somebody, probably a
woman, a great prehistoric genius, planted a seed and taught the human race
that you could make nature produce food for you if you knew what you were
doing. That then led to what we call civilization, permanent settlements,
towns, village life and economies organised around peasants working the
soil. And it moved slowly across the earth, gradually transforming the
tribal populations and nomads into farmers and settlers.
A second gigantic wave of change started about 300 years ago, when the
Industrial Revolution began, and that transformed agrarian populations into
urban, industrial communities. And that was not a peasant-based world, but
a factory-based economy and system.
And what is happening now be believe, is a third historic wave of change
which began shortly after World War II and is based on new levels of
knowledge in a new relationship to economic and wealth creation activity.
So those are the three waves of change.
Now when the second wave came, when the Industrial Revolution came, you saw
the rising urban industrial populations in conflict with the old rural
elites, who used to run everything. So there's a political conflict. Even
in Russia in the Communist Revolution, Lenin said 'Communism is Soviets
plus electricity'. Electricity was his symbol for industrial smokestack
Norman Swan: So those discontinuities sometimes represented, or often
perhaps represented by conflict, become the points of major change.
Alvin Toffler: Yes indeed. Waves of course, that's just a poetic metaphor,
but it's people in conflict. There are people who have their entire lives
and fortunes invested in a particular way of life. Somebody comes along and
says, 'Sorry now, we've got a different way of life', they fight. Now
again, that fight can be constructive, it can be creative, it can lead to
new solutions to problems. But if often can be quite bitter. And if you
look inside your own job, your company: let's take ABC - there is a
conflict I suspect between - maybe it's generational, maybe it's
departmental, maybe it's divisional, I don't know, but ABC, like CBC, NBC
and ABC were mass media. They were designed to deliver the same message to
millions and millions of people, the larger the audience the better.
What's coming down the line now are third wave methods of communication
which in fact take that mass medium, or that mass audience, and they
splinter it into all sorts of sub-groups: some interested in this, some
interested in that. And so you see a great multiplication of channels of
communication, whether it's on the air or whether it's cable television, or
whether it's satellite DBS or whether it's on the Internet, you now have
more ways of communicating and you have the public broken into more
different audience groups. And I would imagine that within - I know it's
true in the United States, I don't know about Australia - but in the United
States, the old leadership of the networks were are at first bitterly
opposed to cable television for example, they fought it tooth and nail,
they fought it politically, legislatively, they lobbied, they derided it,
saying 'Nobody will ever advertise on it, it would never be important' and
so forth and so on. And then despite everything they did, when cable
television in fact became important and gave viewers more diverse choices
and broke the audience into pieces, then they moved in to try to buy up
Norman Swan: And you predicted the success of cable before in fact it
took off. What was it you saw then that said 'Aha, they're wrong, I'm
right, or I might be right'?
Alvin Toffler: Well first that if you look at most social science and most
forecasting in say the '50s and '60s and '70s, and even then in some cases,
down to today, the emphasis is always on the more advanced the technology
you have, the more massified the consumption is going to be, and production
is going to be, and people are all going to be the same.
Norman Swan: And you can make your profit margin higher because you can
cut the cost of production.
Alvin Toffler: Right. That there are economies of scale in every industry,
and so forth. We, very early on, as early as the mid-1960s, concluded that
that was no longer going to be true; that the new technologies,
particularly computers, moved us, or at least made possible, a movement in
the opposite direction. That the entire push towards uniformity, sameness,
homogeneity, one-size-fits-all, was a reflection of the industrialisation
process, the second wave of change in history. And that something new was
about to happen. And indeed, particularly with the rise of the PC, but we
sensed that earlier, knew that this was going to change.
Norman Swan: And this was from a belief that human nature, if there is
such a thing, tends towards the diverse and the individual.
Alvin Toffler: Well we are all different to some degree, and what a mass
society does it imposes very heavy burdens of conformity. Those of your
listeners who are old enough to remember the '50s and '60s, the
intellectual critique of the period was 'We're too conformist, we're too
similar'. Today what do you hear? Today you hear, 'We're fragmented; we're
splintering'. That's all demassification, it's the old industrial
smokestack system breaking into parts and trying to find ways in which
those parts will network with each other and operate together, but in a
totally different, less hierarchal way.
Norman Swan: Do you have a view on how, because that's one issue we
cover on this program all the time, is fragmentation, and how communities
will develop or redevelop, and the virtual community doesn't seem to be
terribly attractive, at least in the Australian context.
Alvin Toffler: If a virtual community means people just live off their
computer screen, we certainly don't agree with that, that that's a viable
alternative to human face-to-face interaction. We have a company called
Toffler Associates, which is a virtual company. Our people live in Boston
and in Washington and in Colorado Springs and Berkeley, California, and Los
Angeles, and they interact incredibly frequently with email and the other
communication means, to get the work done, and then they fly around the
country to meet clients and so forth. But we absolutely insist on bringing
everybody together maybe every month, every six weeks, every two months, at
least every two months, to spend a day or two days locked in a room,
face-to-face, talking, brainstorming, finding out and making sure we
understand what everybody is doing and how they inter-relate and so on and
so forth. So I don't believe that we can just live off data flickering
across a screen.
Norman Swan: So where are the new communities going to come from?
Alvin Toffler: Well I think that what's happening, I think we're going to
see, and are seeing, the emergence of more and more diverse grouplets,
whether they're organised around some political principle, or they're
organised around some religious view, or they're sort of new age grouplets.
And this doesn't mean people living together in the same community, it
means people who have a common view of the world, and the Internet makes it
possible for you to find other people who share your views 10,000 miles
away. But in the end, that by itself is not adequate. So what we're doing I
think, is layering a new form of community on top of an older form which
does not necessarily go away.
Norman Swan: Is this why you think, and you often talk about the rise of
religion in the world of science, there's the rise of religion. Is this why
you think it's happening? The creation of a community?
Alvin Toffler: Yes, let me say that, that I think a good part of the
resurgence of religion in the west is not based on theology or indeed on
religion as such, but it reflects a search for community among millions of
people who feel isolated, alone, alienated, anomic, and so on, and church
frequently offers a place where they can be good people in a safe
environment, and can develop social ties along with religion offering an
explanation of the meaning of life, it offers community as well. And I
think a lot of the people who are signing-up these days, are doing it for
at least mixed motives, or are essentially signing-up for the communal
reasons, and are willing to accept the particular theology that comes with
Norman Swan: I want to come back to some extent to this theme of
conflict. You described the third-wave earlier in terms of countries. You
talked about Singapore, you talked about the United States. The impression
one gets though, often, is that these things aren't to do with nations any
more at all, that we have third-wave, large corporations, third-wave
organisations which sweep across.
Alvin Toffler: In fact there are two concepts that we've written about and
spoken about that are important in this connection. One is in a book called
'Power Shift' which we published in 1990, we use the term 'global
gladiators' and we said that there are forces operating globally that are
no longer just nation states, you have indeed 35,000 big multinational
corporations, not just American, indeed not just western. There are even
some from Brazil and some from so-called third world countries, but you
have these, they are major players on the global scene. You have Islam and
the Vatican, major international players and the global politics; and you
have probably 15000 to 25000 NGOs, non-governmental organisations, that are
international or global. These run the gamut from an international sports
federation to the International Association of Plastics Manufacturers, to
political groups. It's the civil society, which is no longer just localised
or national, but now is global in reach, and makes very active use of the
Internet and the new communications media.
Norman Swan: I was going to pick you up on that, I was going to talk to
you about the civil society. Because the perception out there amongst the
community is that the civil society with this word 'globalisation', whether
it's a fact that nations don't count any more, make you feel that - and
with governments not investing any more in infrastructure and what counts -
that the civil society is actually decreasing, declining.
What we're seeing is as we move towards more market-oriented economics, as
we have moved the application of Reagan and Thatcher economics, has shifted
a lot of money out of welfare programs and community services, and so on.
And the reason for that, in my judgement is, that the welfare systems that
we have had, have not --
Norman Swan: Have not been customised.
Alvin Toffler: Exactly. They've not been customised. One-size-fits-all. If
you don't like a product from a company, and you're an individual, you can
not buy that product, you can go to a competitor and buy some other
product; you can find somebody who does customise or brings out a product
closer to your needs. What do you do if you pay the government a large part
of your pay cheque every year, and it produces products that are not
working well, that are at high cost, are not achieving the goals that are
established, what's your recourse? The government is pumping out uniform
services for an increasingly non-uniform population. The problems are
different. You can't treat everybody who doesn't have a job the same, and
as a result you have tax revolts. You have people saying, 'I don't want to
pay my tax' - nobody likes to pay taxes of course, but what you've seen
over the past few years, or a decade or so, is a tremendous hostility, a
feeling that your taxes are not simply being taken, but misused. And I
believe that that's the backbone of the backlash against Reagan-Thatcher
The welfare system was a Rooseveltian necessity. Roosevelt in the United
States and in Britain and Australia I'm sure as well -
Norman Swan: It was also a centralist response in a federal situation to
a complicated problem where the market was failing, and it's a very similar
situation in Australia. It's often only the federal government that will
insist on certain standards by the States.
Alvin Toffler: Well, and what that does however, is homogenise,
standardise, make uniform, and what it is is a straight second-wave
response. And as long as you're running what is essentially an
assembly-line, smokestack, mass manufacturing economy, those tools
sometimes are valuable. But as we become more diverse, the principle of
one-size-fits all becomes what my wife and I frequently say,
one-size-misfits-all. So what we need is to re-think this. Ibelieve that we
cannot solve our social problems, our unemployment problems; the danger of
the further development of an underlcass as the information revolution
progresses, within the framework of conventional economics, whether they're
right-wing or left-wing, whether they're environmentalists or they're not
Norman Swan: So what would third-wave economics look like?
Alvin Toffler: The central change that the economists have not yet been
able to get their arms around, is the change in the role of knowledge in
the broadest sense of information and ideas and data, the relationship of
that to making wealth in an economy.
Norman Swan: Dealing with the Microsoft phenomenon, dealing with the
Intel phenomenon, the large telecommunications companies.
Alvin Toffler: Yes, but also it's not just that kind of knowledge that's
important in the new economy, it's people who know how to organise.
Norman Swan: This is the intangible economy that you talk about, which
is what we didn't talk about in the third wave, which is that the assets in
the Industrial Revolution was a huge steel factory, or your shop; it's hard
to actually define what the assets are in Microsoft.
Alvin Toffler: Exactly. In 'The Third Wave' we wrote about the so-called
commanding heights of industry, and that was the slogan of the Labor Party
in Britain at the end of the war. 'We must capture the commanding heights.'
Well the commanding heights they captured are no longer the commanding
heights of industry, they were yesterday's commanding heights. The new
commanding heights are knowledge-based, and that's why you see companies
like Microsoft suddenly emerge out of nowhere and become huge, and the
people who understand this better than the economists are on the one hand
the people who are building these new high tech systems, and also
investors. And that's why investors will value some of the
information-based companies without much in the way of fiscal assets, at
very high multiples. So investors and technological pioneers and the
scientific pioneers actually understand this better than the economists do.
Norman Swan: But don't the economists say, 'Look, well that's OK, we've
got neoclassical economics, we can go back if we have to, the basic laws of
supply and demand and the fittest wins out in the end'.
Alvin Toffler: Yes, but they go back to equilibrium theories for a world
in which there's damn little equilibrium. They have defined productivity,
and that's a very important thing. They use the word 'productivity': 'We've
got to do this, or that to improve productivity'. Their concept of
productivity is extremely narrow. They define producitivy in terms of your
participation in the formal, paid-for work economy. There are millions of
people in this society who are productive and do extremely valuable things
for the economy, who never get paid, and the joke I frequently make with
audiences of businesspeople is 'How productive would your workforce be if
it hadn't been toilet trained?'
The point is that somebody out there is raising children and acculturating
them and there are certain sets of values that are being inculcated. These
have an effect on productivity, but the work done mostly by women, is
simply not counted as part of the economy. And that has to change. And as
long as we continue to analyse things in terms of second-wave economics:
just use the word 'economics' because most of it is second-wave, we are not
going to be able to reconceptualise our problems and solve the issues of
unemployment and a growing polarisation in the society.
Norman Swan: You've been quite critical in the past of one of the more
controversial areas of economics and economic theory in the last few years,
which is that shrinking an organisation is the way to go and have a core
group. Another futurist, Charles Handy, talks about this, where you
interact with outside organisations or individuals who then supply
services. What is your view on that?
Alvin Toffler: My view is that the second-wave, the Industrial Revolution,
and the second-wave of change in history that it brought, emphasised things
like standardisation, specialisation, centralisation, maximisation of
scale, and if you put them all together in a single organisation, they
create bureaucratisation. And the pyramidal bureaucracy, the big company we
all know that we worked for and it's got a Chairman and a President, and
then it's got a bunch of Vice Presidents, and Assistant Vice Presidents,
all the way on down the line, that this great humungous pyramidal
hierarchal organisation was the dominant way that companies got organised
in the late industrial age.
Well it turns out that they were extremely efficient as long as the
external environment was not continually changing, as long as --
Norman Swan: You didn't need too much customisation out there.
Alvin Toffler: You did not need customisation, and you did not have
educated people and you did not need or want educated people. When I worked
in a factory, the last thing in the world they wanted from me was to have a
Norman Swan: Because you might come up with an idea?
Alvin Toffler: I might come up with an idea, and it might interfere with
their predictability. Had they known that I had a university education when
I was working in the factory, I'd never have had that job. But working in a
factory, as my wife and I both did for four or five years, was like a post
graduate education for us. It taught us first of all that people working in
factories are no less intelligent than people who work in white shirts; and
it taught us that although they may have less education and less skills
that are relevant to today's kind of production, and it taught us how the
industrial world actually worked in reality. It also made us very unhappy
with economists who talk about 'a trace of -unemployment is salutary'. Yes,
for whom? And so on.
So we know how that system works, and that system is now, as we see,
diminishing. To sum it up in a simpler phrase: moving from brute force to
brain force, the economy.
Norman Swan: So you support outsourcing in that sense?
Alvin Toffler: In the advanced system, what you want is - no one company
can have all the skills it needs. It's not good at everything; companies
are good at some things and not at other things. So instead of having a
single, big pyramid, with orders coming down from on high, a more flexible
model, capable of responding better to rapid change would be to have a
smaller, lighter, less hierarchal, flatter organisation networked with
other organisations who provide counterpart or needed skills or
People think that a bureaucracy is a way you organise people. In fact a
bureaucracy is a way of organising information. In a bureaucracy you have a
vertical structure and a horizontal structure; in the horizontal structure
let's say here you have a marketing department, there you have a
manufacturing department, there you have the engineers, there you have the
financial. So each of those departments or units collects information
relevant to its function. It then is controlled by a gatekeeper, some
person who is the Assistant Assistant-Vice-President of X, Y, Z who will
sit on that information very often because it gives him power. In fact, in
the new high speed economy, where knowledge is vital, people need access to
cross departmental information, diagonal and random information, they need
to know what's going on everywhere, all the time, as needed. And the old
structure where people would lock up bits of information in their
departments, what they did was they broke problems into marketing,
engineering, manufacturing, legal, finance and so forth, but then you had
to have a vertical chain of command. Then you needed a Vice-President, a
Group Manager, etc. etc.; these were the people who took information from
two or three departments down below and synthetised it and then either
moved it up the ladder to the next higher level, or sat on it, as the case
So what you had was a horizontal structure that fragmented information, and
a vertical structure that synthetised information, and it moved very
slowly. I'll give you a personal example: when I worked in a steel foundry,
I was called a millwright, an archaic term for a mechanic. And if the
assembly line broke down for some reason, Joe the worker was told to tell
Mike, his foreman. Mike would call the supervisor, Jim, and say, 'Jim, Line
No.1 is down.' Jim would phone across the yard to another building, where
he would speak to George, who was the maintenance supervisor who would then
call the maintenance foreman, who would then send me out to fix the thing.
In the meantime, the thing's been sitting there, right? low speed. You can
afford to do that. High speed, you can't afford to do that. Now what
happens is the worker sees it's broken, he calls the maintenance department
directly and speaks to somebody and probably somebody at his own level, and
takes all of those communication links out of the scale, and accelerates
it. So now somebody comes and fixes it right away, in principle.
So we discovered that bureaucracies turn out to be highly inefficient in
moving information around, and it's that information that provides the
value that goes into our products.
Norman Swan: Just on the topic of outsourcing smaller organisations
which are more flexible, not everybody can live easily in a world of rapid
change where they have to be endlessly flexible, even though their level of
education is extremely high. They actually need an environment where there
is some personal security and humanity. Well a) do you agree, and if you do
agree, how do you put that back into the system?
Alvin Toffler: I think that it's a lot easier to deal with all of that if
you know who you are and if you have a fair fix on what your values are.
Norman Swan: As an individual, or as a corporation?
Alvin Toffler: Well probably both, but I'm talking about individuals now.
I know in my family, because there is a health problem, I know that that is
our primary issue, and I know that our family life is more important than
anything else other than saving life. And I know certain things. So I have,
and others have, different problems and different value systems, and that's
fine. But in order to be able to make decisions at high speed and in great
complexity (and we all face more and more of those decisions) you need to
know what your criteria are. You need to know what you value more than
So I would argue that anything that helps you clarify your values, so that
you have a good fix on what they are, is going to help you adapt
personally. Obviously in another sense, obviously getting an education,
getting appropriate skills are very important to finding a part in this new
economy. But I also don't believe that everybody has to be a rocket
scientist. Society needs people who take care of the elderly and who know
how to be compassionate and honest. Society needs people who work in
hospitals; society needs all kinds of skills that are not just cognitive,
they're emotional, they're affectional. You can't run the society on data
and computer screens alone.
Norman Swan: Speaking of running society, if we are moving to a more
customised, to use your phrase, demassified society, you've got lots of
small groups, which as you say, they form, re-form, create their own
environments, it's going to be very hard to get consensus or a majority for
a democratic government.
Alvin Toffler: That is true, and I think we see that already. If by
majority you mean an election, and there are two parties and only two
parties, by arithmetic alone one of them's going to have more votes and the
other's going to be a majority. But if you the day after the election, look
not at the election results but at what people are actually doing, and what
they value, you find increasing diversity, and it's very hard to find a
majority on most issues. And therefore we're going to have to
re-conceptualise democracy if we want to maintain democracy.
Norman Swan: In what way?
Alvin Toffler: Well, I'm not prepared to give up majority or majority rule
in the absence of something better, and nobody has an easy answer to that
one. And I can remember a wonderful screaming fight my wife and I had about
that issue at 3 o'clock one morning, when we were writing 'The Third Wave':
in a draft we were talking about majority rule, and she pointed out,
correctly, that the way it was written in draft would be completely
misinterpreted in South Africa under the apartheid regime. They said, 'Ah,
majority rule is dead. Wonderful.' they would say. And so we really had to
think that through and reformulate our ideas and did. And when the book
came out in the South African edition, there were five-column headlines in
the papers 'Futurist says majority rule in trouble, but not in South Africa'.
That mass democracy is what we have.
Norman Swan: You see devolution, decentralisation being the way to go.
Alvin Toffler: I think that that is clearly part of the way. If you look
at political parties, we still use these obsolete terms, 'right' and
'left'. The left still seems to be hung on more central responses to
problems and has a hard time accepting devolution or shifting budgets from
this national government to the State or provincial governments. But I
think we do have to do that. And I feel that if we don't that those
countries, particularly countries with a large and varied population like
the US, and I can't speak enough for Australia, that countries that do not
devolve power will face more serious secessionist movements, demanding that
devolution, perhaps not in a peaceful way. And I think that we have
incipient secessionist movements in the United States as well, these
militia groups and so on. So I am in favour of getting ahead of the curve,
and devolving many functions.
The other thing is this: that if we live in an extremely accelerating and
complex time, it makes decision-making harder and harder. What you've got
are political institutions, whether you're looking at the US Congress, or
the Japanese Diet, or the White House or the Canberra equivalent of that,
you have a group of people who, no matter if they were saints and geniuses,
would be overloaded by the demands on them. Too many things are changing
too fast in ways far too complex for them to make intelligent decisions
about, and if you talk privately with honest politicians - I mean I got a
call from a friend of ours who is a United States Senator, and he said, 'I
spend two-thirds of my time either doing public relations or raising funds
for re-election. In the remainder of my time, I'm on this committee and
that task force and this joint working group and this blah, blah, blah -'
He said, 'Do you think I can possibly know all the things I need to know to
make intelligent decisions?' And I said, 'Clearly you can't.' He said,
'You're right, so my staff makes them.' And I said, 'Who elected your
staff?' So there is a real problem. The reality is that many of our
political institutions are overloaded. The decision load is too heavy. They
don't stop making decisions because they want to hang on to the power that
goes with that, but they make worse and worse decisions, and devolution is
the way you lighten the decision load on the centre so it can deal with the
really important things.
Norman Swan: And just finally and briefly, I want to deal with the
contradiction that I think some of your ideas throw up. And that is, you
say demassification, and yes, you can see diversity out there, and you
yourself quote the example of say Levi's customising jeans now for people,
and diverse groups in the community. But the overwhelming feeling,
certainly in a country like Australia, is that we've never been as
massified as before. You've just got instead of General Motors, you've now
got Microsoft. Globalisation means a breakdown of borders and a loss of
Alvin Toffler: There's a good reason for that, and I believe that we
account for that. We didn't talk about the fact that the way we think about
change, our model of the way change occurs. When we talk about waves of
change, a country or a region can undergo more than one wave of change at
the same time. If you look at Asia, you see more and more second-wave mass
manufacturing, cheap labour operations and so forth, but you also see
Singapore, and you see Malaysia struggling to create a multimedia super
corridor. And you see the Japanese having brilliantly applied third-wave
technology, unfortunately just a technology, not to other aspects of the
So it is not a contradiction to see both things happening at the same time.
And where I see increasing massification, to me that's the second wave of
change playing itself out. That's still completing the process. But
simultaneously, there are plenty of people in Australia who are on the
Internet and who are thinking and organising and creating new businesses
and operating in new ways. They represent the future of Australia.
As for Microsoft, people always ask me, 'Is Microsoft the third wave
organisation?' Well, call it a two-and-a-half-wave organisation. The reason
I say that is it's product is obviously the result of symbolic
manipulation, ideas, information. It's third wave in that respect.
Norman Swan: Super symbolism, I think you call it.
Alvin Toffler: Super symbolic. But if you look at how they market. They
bundle all kinds of functions into their software that you don't need, and
I don't need, because somebody else needs it somewhere else. They do the
opposite of customising. They bundle all these functions together, shrink
rapid, and then market it in a straight second-wave mass-marketing
campaign, the kind you'd get from Disney for a movie.
So they are in part, they are trying to run a third wave organisation with
second wave elements.
Norman Swan: But they're vulnerable to a third wave company.
Alvin Toffler: I think so. And not only that, but many companies are torn
by this contradiction, that you have parts of companies that run fast and
are based on knowledge, and other parts which still are not. I talked to a
Canadian company years ago, in which one part was a paper mill, and the
other part produced bottles, and the third part produced packaging. And if
you talked to the executives, you found that there were basically three
different cultures. The paper business producing newsprint, changes very,
very slowly; we're still producing newsprint in much the same way we did.
And they have a relatively small number of huge customers. And life doesn't
change very much or very fast. The bottle business is a faster business.
But the packaging business, that's running at high speed because the
customer market out there and the public is changing all the time, so
packaging is changing all the time.
We've got three different cultures inside the same company, and they are in
conflict with each other not infrequently. So I believe it is not a
contradiction to see second wave, smokestack massification still spreading.
And in effect I think completing itself as the new stuff starts to come in,
become more important.
Norman Swan: Alvin Toffler, thank you very much.
Alvin Toffler: My pleasure, thanks.