Wave Goodbye

The Third Wave By Alvin Toffler William Morrow and Company, $14.95.

SOMETHING INSIDE Alvin Toffler rebels at the convention of mealtime. During the technological age, he notes on page 135 of his very thick book The Third Wave, "eating became technologized with the diffusion of forks and other specialized table implements." And every fall and spring, Toffler frets mightily at the ritual of standard time. "Periodically, in unison, as though motivated by a single will, millions of people set their clocks back or forward an hour, and whatever our inner, subjective sense of things may tell us when time is dragging, or conversely when it seems to be whizzing by, an hour is now a single, interchangeable, standardized hour."

Oh, for the days, you might sigh, when an hour was 45 minutes and sometimes 90, and when people ate with spoons, and butter-knives were but a dream in Shreve, Crump of Low's darkest recesses. But if Alvin Toffler heard you he would scold, consigning you to the First Wave, which began with the original harvest. For Toffler is a visionary, looking out to sea at that big comber waiting to smash the sandcastles of today--this Third Wave, the biggest, most powerful, most blessed of all. "The Third Wave," he notes in the introduction, "is for those who think the human story, far from ending, has only just begun."

Unfortunately for the reader, Toffler's story too has only just begun. For 450 pages more, he plays Daniel Bell and Jeanne Dixon, but with heart. Every page shows the strain of his midwifery; to give birth to a new era is hard work indeed. The wonder is that anyone agreed to publish this diary of Toffler's nighttime fears and Newsweek clippings. But there is an explanation. A decade ago, Alvin Toffler wrote a book with a clever computer-letters cover called Future Shock. And even if that effort was not immediately heralded as better than Revelation and installed in the New Testament, it was readable and interesting, an examination of the horrors, large and small, that lay ahead.

The Third Wave doesn't have nearly as many interesting laser-household-pets, deep-sea-wheat-fields, radio-shack-rocket-to-the-moon-kit predictions. Instead it offers a thorough compendium of every social critique ever raised. Ever hear anyone discuss the demeaning, unfulfilling work done in the world's factories? Sure you have. Well, Toffler has too, and he repeats it in ingratiating detail, describing the steel foundry he once toiled in. "I swallowed the dust, the sweat and smoke of the foundry. My ears were split by the hiss of the steam, the clank of the chains, the roar of pug mills." Leaving to find a better job, Toffler happened on copies of Marx and Weber and Thoreau and U.S. News and World Report. His bibliography runs 30 pages, and lists 534 books. In his dedication he thanks his wife, without whose help, presumably, it would have taken him twice as long to read and synthesize them all.

Arguing that "to understand today's colliding waves of change we must be able to identify clearly the parallel structures of all industrial nations," Toffler fills the first 140 pages of his book with an explanation of the Second Wave, born of the Industrial Revolution. The subtitles that break up the copy every page or so yield the basic scheme, not to mention mentality, of Toffler's discussion. "The Technicians of Power." "Mechano-Mania." "The Streamlined Family." "The Paper Blizzard." "The Progress Principle." Under industrialism, he argues, life is as nasty, brutish and short as it ever was.


But look into the beyond, past the crumbling factories, the dying nation-states, the obsolescent oil derricks. Look to the bright, shining future. "In the very midst of destruction and decay, we can now find striking evidences of birth and life...Indisputably--with intelligence and a modicum of luck--the emergent civilization can be made more sane, sensible, and sustainable, more decent and democratic than any we have every known."

Take the corporation, for instance. Stung by the realization that they have raped the earth and exploited its people, corporate managers even today are in an "identity crisis," Toffler reports. From it will emerge humane, "multi-purpose," productive enterprises, as concerned with helping the poor and aiding the environment as with turning profits. Toffler points to the "distinct upgrading of the status and influence of executives concerned with the environmental consequences of corporate behavior. "Some now report directly to the president. Other companies have set up special committees on the board of directors." Some observers, still mired in Second Wave cynicism, might argue that the executives are there not to help the environment but to aid in its pillage, greasing the legislative and legal skids so companies don't have to worry about pesky environmentalists. But those skeptics forget that we stand on the verge of the Third Wave, when greed, much less table manners, will crumble before the rushing tide.

ANOTHER EXAMPLE--the nation state. It is disappearing, Toffler argues in the 16 pages he allots to the subject, to be replaced by transnational organizations and a "planetary consciousness." As proof, Toffler cites the hot flames of--nationalism. In Corsica, in Scotland, in Wales, Cornwall, Essex, Belgium, Switzerland, the Sudetenland, the South Tyrol, Austria, the Basques and Catalan, Quebec, Western Australia, the South Island of New Zealand, even Puerto Rico, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, patriots are going their separatist ways, he says. Some, perhaps those who reset their watches every spring with an easy conscience, might protest that this proves Toffler wrong, demonstrating that nation-states, far from extinction, are likely only to multiply. Instead, Toffler says, we will soon become a world governed by "an Oceans Matrix, a Space Matrix, a Food Matrix, a Transport Matrix, an Energy Matrix, and the like, all flowing into and out of one another."

With the rise of "prosumerism" and more interesting work, Toffler reports, a "personality of the future will be born." This 11-page discussion ends on a cheery note. "We shall create not a utopian man or woman who towers over the people of the past...but merely, and proudly, one hopes, a race--and a civilization--that deserves to be called human." These new human beings, in turn, will engage increasingly in minority politics, necessitating a change in the Constitution, which Toffler chummily outlines in a letter addressed to "The Founding Parents." The new race will get more of its information from video screens and disks and terminals, perhaps explaining Toffler's rush to get in print while people still know how to read. Illiteracy may not turn out to be that bad, he predicts, in a world linked by voice-activated computers and "programmed walls." In fact, if Toffler's book is any indication of the next wave of literature, the change might well be salutary.

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