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The Future Is Here! But Is It Shocking?

Thirty years ago authors Heidi and Alvin Toffler sounded a warning bell for postindustrial society. Today the Tofflers take stock and look ahead to the Internet Age.
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Face to Face

Thirty years ago Heidi and Alvin Toffler sounded a warning bell for postindustrial society. Today the Tofflers take stock and look ahead to the Internet Age

Few writers have been more influential in defining the late 20th century -- and the start of the 21st -- than Heidi and Alvin Toffler. Along with a few other midcentury intellectuals, notably sociologist Daniel Bell, the Tofflers shaped much of the early vision of the postindustrial, information-oriented society, which is only now becoming fully manifest.

A sure sign of the Tofflers' enduring relevance as an intellectual force is the continual reissuance of their seminal work, Future Shock, which was first published 30 years ago. (Although only Alvin's name appears in the byline, Heidi was his collaborator and should share the credit.) The book has been through 53 printings in its original American version and has been published in more than 50 countries. And long ago the term future shock entered the lexicon to describe, to quote from the book's introduction, the "shattering stress and disorientation" that human beings experience when subjected to "too much change in too short a time."

The Tofflers have followed up with several other books -- most notably The Third Wave, Powershift, and War and Anti-War -- that have deeply influenced a vast number of readers, including government and business leaders. Now septuagenarians, the Tofflers display the confidence and vigor of a couple decades younger. They contribute to their own consulting firm, Toffler Associates, whose headquarters is in Manchester, Mass., thousands of miles from their West Coast home. And of course, they are working on another book, about which they will say not a word.

But that doesn't mean they lack for conversation. On a sunny day late this past summer, contributing writer Joel Kotkin talked with Al, as he is known to his friends, and Heidi over lunch at a Los Angeles hotel. (Heidi had to leave halfway through the three-hour session to attend to personal business.)

An afternoon meal with the Tofflers, Kotkin reports, felt like a throwback to a more exciting intellectual era -- London during Samuel Johnson's time, Paris in the 1920s, or New York in the 1950s -- when ideas and debate crackled without the deadening encroachment of political correctness, cell phones, or pocket pagers. In their verbal jousting, the Tofflers mused on what they got wrong in Future Shock, as well as what they had right, and reflected on what effect tidal waves such as the Internet will have on us during the next 30 years.

Inc.: Future Shock conveyed an ominous sense that people were going to have an adaptational breakdown. Today I see a lot of technophoria: people talking about a 30,000 Dow, a society saved by the Internet, a long economic boom.

Heidi: How many people suffer from clinical depression? The feeling they are time-squeezed, harassed? The information overload is real. It's multifaceted. It's overwhelming.

Al: I would argue that there is an enormous amount of uncertainty, self-destructive decisions, confusion. Kids are faced not with the old problem of not being able to get a job. Now they don't know how to choose. What direction do you take? The environment has become infinitely more complex. The choices are more complex.

As for the stock-market euphoria, I don't necessarily believe in linear extrapolation. I therefore certainly don't believe in a long boom of 25 years uninterrupted by terrible punctuations.

Inc.: One of your most accurate predictions was the demise of the big organization. In 1970 that wasn't so obvious.

Heidi: I remember when IBM meant "I've been moved." The IBM employees revolted, and they said, "Look, I can't move my wife, my kids into a new school every year."

Al: You don't revolt when jobs are scarce.

Heidi: But also, you don't need that geographical mobility anymore. You can work at home. As long as you have your computer, you don't need to go into the office every day.

Inc.: We've seen the collapse of the regimented, hierarchical world of business.

Heidi: Not enough. There are many Fortune 500 companies that are still organized hierarchically and bureaucratically.

Al: But we've also seen exactly what we wrote about, the breakdown of bureaucracy. We've seen enormous changes in the organization of business.

Inc.: You were very accurate about the organization man, but you didn't have a lot to say about small business and the entrepreneurial revolution. Did that catch you by surprise?

Al: We did not write very much about entrepreneurship or privatization.

Inc.: You couldn't have predicted everything.

Al: No. And we can't be right about everything.

Heidi: No. And we avoid the term prediction because it implies certainty.

Inc.: Arguably, there is less certainty for small businesses. If a small business gets a contract with a large corporation today, the account can completely change in two months.

Al: What's happening is that everybody, as a consequence of the speed of the change, lives with higher and higher levels of uncertainty.

Heidi: And shorter and shorter time frames.

Al: And that increases risk.

Inc.: So what does an entrepreneur do in that environment? What's the survival strategy?

Al: First, have a strategy. There is a fashionable belief that strategy is somehow an obsolete idea because things are moving so fast. That, to me, is a really dangerous notion.

Heidi: And by the way, a strategy is not written in stone.

Al: Yes, exactly.

Heidi: You're going to need fallback positions, you need alternative strategies, and you need what-ifs.

Inc.: So what does a company do?

Heidi: Imagine all of the possible things that could change.

Al: You can't imagine them all.

Heidi: No. As many as you can. Think about what could happen in the future. Challenge all the business buzzwords, all the current assumptions -- first mover, increasing returns, core competence, et cetera, et cetera. You need a business plan, but the business plan has to be a very flexible one to account for changes in your environment.

Al: I agree with that. But first of all, you have to redefine the concept of strategy. It's not marching orders for the next five years.

Taking the time to develop the strategy and a process for changing it -- that's very difficult to do. Easy for us to say, but difficult to do. You need a strategy of the moment, a strategy that you can change, but a strategy nevertheless.

Inc.: You had suggested that future shock might cause disease, yet people live longer than they ever did before. Does that mean that we're adapting?

Al: I don't believe that we said people were going to drop dead, get sick, and die young. To me future shock is not a matter of people lying in hospital beds. It's a matter of people having difficulty sorting out what's the right path to follow and what change will be good or bad in life -- what job, what education for your child, where to live -- and then putting up with the stress of having to change direction again and again.

Inc.: Somebody running a company is going to have similar difficulties?

Al: Exactly. So it's essential to have a grip, a clear understanding, of what your values and priorities are. Without a clear set of values, one decision is as good as another.

Inc.: That goes back to your strategy point.

Al: That's right. If I know what my personal values are or what my company priorities are, I know what not to do, and I know what not to worry about. I can focus on what my task is.

And it also means that you can't just follow some other company's strategy and replicate it. You've got to develop your own. As with products, one size misfits all. You've got to know where you're going and what you're trying to accomplish.

Now, the fact is, you can't know exactly what you need to know. And by the time you do, it's almost obsolete. The world is running faster and faster.

Inc.: So does that make large organizations vulnerable?

Al: Yes. Heidi and I spent five years working with our hands in factories. In foundries and other manufacturing plants, I was the kid on the maintenance gang. And the maintenance gang was responsible for making sure the assembly lines, the furnaces, and all of that stuff worked.

If something broke, the procedure was that the worker on the line would call to the foreman and say, "Joe, something is broke." Joe would stop the line and call to the supervisor, "Mike, something's wrong with the assembly line. Go do something about it." He'd say, "OK, I'll call Jim" (the supervisor of maintenance), and Jim would go down the line and choose a foreman, who would then call me to go out and get it fixed.

Now, look where that information has moved: it jumps up, cross-jumps, jumps down. All the while, people are standing around, doing nothing. We can't afford that now. The pressures of competition and speed are so intense that we want to make that exchange of information, first of all, in real time. And second, we want to give decision making to the worker so that you don't have to go through all of those hoops in order for an important message to get through before an action can be taken. So the pressures are enormous to change the information system and to flatten the bureaucracy or to get rid of bureaucracy.

Inc.: Is the Internet going to make future shock worse?

Al: I think so. There was a famous book that came out in the late 1940s, an anti-Communist collection of literary essays called The God That Failed. Now there is another god that in one sense has failed: the computer. It was supposed to simplify our lives.

Why did it fail? Because people overlooked the fact that the computer, while it helps you manage complexity, also creates complexity. It's a race between our capability to make decisions, whether in our personal lives or businesses, and the rising speed and level of complexity in the society.

Inc.: I assume you would dispute the idea that somehow new technology will solve those problems by itself.

Al: Technology doesn't do anything by itself. There is no such thing as technology that is capable of functioning outside a social setting. Technology is a social invention.

When it comes to deciding which technologies to make, our choice is value laden. We used to just ask, Does it make a profit? Does it make a big bang? But our technological choices are so numerous that we need to ask many more questions. Does the technology have an environmental impact? What's the social impact? What's the impact on the culture? Those are the kinds of questions that we should be asking, and indeed, we very seldom do. What to value is the central question.

Inc.: Are you saying that, for a company or an individual, what's important is ultimately having a direction to go in but understanding that you may be proved wrong in your judgment?

Al: Yes. Nobody is perfect. Or can be. The future results from countless millions of decisions that are simultaneously being made as we sit here having lunch. And those decisions are being made in remote parts of the world that will affect you, even though the person making those decisions doesn't know that you exist, and vice versa. So that should make us feel -- what's the word that I'm looking for? -- modest about what we know and more aware of those things we don't know. And that's pretty good advice for an entrepreneur also.

Joel Kotkin is a contributor to Inc. and the author, most recently, of The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution Is Reshaping the American Landscape.


Heidi, Once Second Banana, Emerges as Al's Equal

By their own account, Al and Heidi Toffler are somewhat of an anachronism, a couple that have been together for 50 years. Yet the remarkable thing about the Tofflers isn't just their marital longevity but that they have managed to work so brilliantly together.

Of course, America has had famous husband-and-wife writing duos before -- historians Will and Ariel Durant and Charles and Mary Beard come to mind -- but for much of the Tofflers' collaboration Heidi's role has been obscured. Although Al carries the writing load, Heidi is very much involved in the research and editing.

But the real synergy lies in their batting ideas and concepts back and forth, sometimes heatedly. "We started arguing the day we met," Heidi recalls between puffs on her cigarette. "That's the difference. We're both intellectuals, and we argue about intellectual things."

Until 1993 the public knew little about that amazing and highly productive collaboration. But it was not a question of a husband squelching the contributions of a wife. Al says he pleaded with Heidi to let him put her name on the books -- even as far back as Future Shock -- but she insisted it would be bad for business. She felt, and still feels, that mainstream America is not ready for "strong" women.

She also claims her ego did not require the exposure. Although certainly outspoken and not shy in conversation, Heidi says she's actually a "very private person" and "not a natural writer" like former Fortune journalist Al. "I know who I am. I don't need to impress anybody," she says. "So I didn't feel the need, personally, for that."

But in the early 1990s Heidi had a change of heart about being in the public eye. Why? It was "the lecture audiences and the people we met," she says, who forced them to act. She recalls with annoyance that people said, "'You're such an inspiration to your husband.' It's as if I'm on a pedestal and he worships me. I hate that.

"I also hate people who don't look at me; they look at him," she adds. "My husband will say, 'You don't understand. This is my wife and my collaborator.' So they look around for the collaborator."

So now, despite the objections of publishers, both the Tofflers appear on the covers of books and share the stage during speaking engagements. But though they are a team publicly, they continue to butt heads privately over ideas, people, and the nature of the future, in a relationship that is both a rare love affair and intellectual warfare.

Heidi recalls reading an interview with a 70-year-old woman about her marriage. "The interviewer said, 'You've been married over 50 years. Have you ever thought of divorce?' And the woman said, 'No, but I've thought of killing him once or twice." Heidi laughs, smiles fondly at Al, and then begins to argue some pressing point.


Please e-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.

Last updated: Dec 1, 2000




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