Pop Sociology and Technocrats
ALVIN TOFFLER speaks with a ring of conviction and moral purpose in his voice. Ten minutes before he was to pilot himself to the next stop on his lecture circuit (aviation is one of his hobbies), Toffler, on the pretense of responding to a question, rose and delivered a deadly serious warning to the 100 or so people who had come to the Science Center to hear him speak. With perfect elocution and rising intensity, Toffler beseecned the audience to help bear the onus of making sure society survives a potentially internecine technological revolution. He admitted that his predictions of apocalypse could be wrong--if so, he said, he would not be the first prophet to miscalculate--but working on the assumption that lack of foresight would have devastating world-wide repercussions, Toffler said he felt he had a "moral duty" to sound the alarm.
Whether the gaunt, peculiarly nandsome Toffler is a moral paragon, or whether he simply likes the travel and excitement of the lecture circuit is debatable. Rarely are a person's real motives ever known. But whatever lies beneath the exterior, Toffler comes across as sincere, perspicacious, dedicated, and above all, convincing. Disregarding the actual merit of his pop sociology, he does an excellent job of salesmanship. Not only does he synthesize his ideas into a provocative theory, but he presents this synthesis so articulately that you begin to wonder if the ivory towers really hold the answers and if academics are not making a mistake by focusing so much of their attention on recondite trivia of the past as opposed to the more immediate, observable present.
Toffler, and others like him, serve a purpose, especially on academically pretentious campuses like Harvard. Although obviously an intellectual, Toffler is not a professor, and he is not particularly concerned about tenure or academic respectability. It is probably safe to speculate that Toffler has not read all the important books that you end up reading sooner or later if you hang around New Haven, Cambridge and Berkeley long enough. Nevertheless, Toffler and his breed seem to show striking originality and an absence of timidity which allows them insouciantly to ignore 300 years of social theory and discredit the work of hundreds of brilliant and dedicated academics in three or four sentences. Listening to Toffler is like a breath of fresh air. Having never been rigorously inculcated with the thoughts of dozens of dead thinkers and their often obsolete thoughts, Toffler discards dogma and illustrates the remarkable capacities of an unleashed mind.
ALTHOUGH many of his ideas are absurd, they are all interesting. For instance, Toffler prefaced his stormy-weather warnings by questioning the validity of science and knowledge as our society conceives it. The modern notion of causality, Toffler proferred, may be nothing more than an unprovable idea that would quite predictably emanate from any highly industrial, interdependent society victimized by a time fetish. The linear consumption of time--which gave rise to society's belief in causality--is just the type of idea one would expect a society run by clocks to adopt. Modern society, Toffler contends, is quite narrow-minded in its insistence that every cause have an effect. And being the cocky, obstinate creatures we are, we cannot conceive of time being cyclical--that is, a cause having an effect which could, in turn, affect the original cause.
Well, that is an interesting notion. Nihilism of that sort creates the perfect Catch-22 situation. Exactly how does one go about proving--proofs being rooted in the acceptance of causality--that causality does not exist? Needless to say, Toffler did not pursue that interesting philosophical question too far. After all, he had only an hour to speak. It is difficult to dismantle the foundations of knowledge and still have time to warn your audience of the third great revolution that is sweeping the world.
Toffler's theories about the disaffection of many members of modern society would infuriate any Marxist. The problem with society today, Toffler says, has little to do with the separation of the wage-earner form the fruits of his labor or the inability of modern man to realize himself through his work activity (alienation). Quite to the contrary, Marx was making his own biased psychological presuppositions when he decided that man could never be a happy cog in the industrial machine, even if he were well-greased. Toffler attributes modern man's problems to natural difficulties in adapting to a highly modernized world far different from the primitive, less-frenetic world that man evolved in. "Just as the body cracks under the strain of environmental overstimulation, the mind and its decision processes behave erratically when overloaded," Toffler claims. In his book, Future Shock. Toffler goes on to say:
This sickness is increasingly mirrored in our culture, our philosophy, our attitude toward reality. It is no accident that so many ordinary people refer to the world as a 'madhouse' or that the theme of insanity has recently become a staple in literature, art, drama and film...Millions sense the pathology that pervades the air, but fail to understand its roots. These roots lie not in this or that political doctrine, still less in some mystical core of despair or isolation presumed to inhere in the 'human condition.' Nor do they lie in science, technology, or legitimate demands for social change. They are traceable, instead, to the uncontrolled, non-selective nature of our lunge into the future...into superindustrialism.
Toffler is being quite pretentious. He has not only not worked as hard as Karl Marx, but he also made a fair amount of money from Future Shock (only a fraction of the size of Das Kapital) while Marx died in penury. But Toffler has some points. Why should society's malaise be confined to "alienation" the way Marx narrowly defined it? Toffler takes the broader view that the problem is more profound than simply the inability of man in modern society to objectify himself through his activity (or labor). Man, Toffler says, developed certain biological equipment long ago, and it is not suited to the industrial or the incipient super-industrial society, hence, maladaptation. This maladaptation is inherent in all modern societies--both capitalistic and socialistic--and Toffler predicts upheavals from "Tokyo to Washington, D.C. to Stockholm to Moscow" as each day brings an increase in tempo in modern society.
TOFFLER IS a renaissance man of the social sciences. Actually more than a pop sociologist, he is a social theorist, if you will. By this nothing more is meant than simply that Toffler works economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, a meager portion of history, and whatever else there is into his all-encompassing scheme of the modern world. For instance, one part of his hour-long speech last week was devoted to explaining changes in family structure through the different historical epochs. Toffler explained that the family has traditionally been a large, stable economic unit. But now in technological society a family unit must, above all, be highly mobile, and this has resulted in a decrease in the rate of population in highly modernized societies.
Typically, Toffler's 90-second explication about what precipitated the transformation from feudal to industrial society would take the breath away from quite a few Harvard historians. It's simple, Toffler says, the society and economy, which was relatively easy to regulate during the feudal age, became too complex to be run by a handful of feudal barons. The inexorable trend toward modernization forced this small, powerful elite to involve more people in the decision making processes. Voila! The bourgeoisie.
If radicalism is a measure of sapience, then Toffler is the apotheosis of wisdom. You name it, he wants to change it--values, mores, political systems, economic organization, religion, democracy, the Constitution. Although Toffler's proposals are extreme. It is refreshing to hear a speaker who is not afraid to get up in front of an audience and to go beyond the parameters of what is commonly perceived as permissable discussion. Toffler not only asserted that a technological revolution was upon us, he advocated helping it along and shedding the shackles of the past, that is, industrial society, as quickly and painlessly as possible. In short, Toffler is indeed a revolutionary. And revolutionaries are in short supply these days, even if they wear button-downs. Americans, ensconced in their conservative ways, need people like Toffler to prod them out of their listless intellectual stupor.
Fortunately, however, Toffler is probably doomed to be lost in the annals of pop sociology. There does not seem to be enough evidence to indicate that industrial society is in its death throes. The new technological society that Toffler heralds seems a lot like the old industrial society we all have known. About the only thing that is going to save Toffler from future anonymity is a cataclysmic breakdown of society within the next few decades. But in the meantime, Toffler will be doing a commendable service by allowing us momentarily to break out of traditional patterns of thinking about problems and spurring us on to explore the possibilities about the future with our minds.