Alvin Toffler Essay - Critical Essays

Toffler, Alvin


Alvin Toffler 1928-

American nonfiction writer and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Toffler's career through 2000.

Toffler is best known as a futurist writer whose books exploring the social, economic, and political implications of technological developments have gained recognition for both their popular appeal to the general reader and their influential impact on American as well as international political and military figures. Toffler's name remains most commonly associated with his best-selling Future Shock (1970), in which he argues that technological changes since the eighteenth century have occurred so rapidly that many people are experiencing undue stress and confusion because of their inability to adapt quickly to change. He coined the term “future shock”—based on the concept of “culture shock”—to describe this condition. Toffler continued his examination of future social issues in The Third Wave (1980) and Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century (1990). Since 1993, Toffler has collaborated with his wife Heidi on two books, War and Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century (1993) and Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave (1994), which both address continuing concerns about social, economic, and military developments resulting from technological innovations in the late twentieth century.

Biographical Information

Toffler was born on October 28, 1928, in New York City, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants. He earned a bachelor's degree from New York University in 1949. In 1950 he married Adelaide—nicknamed Heidi—Farrell. Toffler has worked as an editor and freelance writer since the mid-1950s. He wrote as a Washington correspondent for several different newspapers and magazines from 1957 to 1959. From 1959 to 1961 he served as associate editor of Fortune magazine. Toffler held a faculty post at the New School for Social Research in New York City from 1965 to 1967, and was a visiting professor at Cornell University in 1969. He has contributed articles to such magazines as Life, Reader's Digest, New York Times Magazine, Saturday Review, New Republic, and Nation, among others. In addition to his writing, Toffler has served as a consultant to various companies and organizations concerned with technology and the future.

Major Works

In Future Shock, Toffler argues that, since the eighteenth century, technological developments have advanced so rapidly that most people experience disorientation in trying to adjust to these changes. Toffler cites as evidence of massive “future shock” such phenomena as rising divorce rates, increased drug use, and rising crime rates. Typically, in his works, Toffler offers suggestions for how current society can facilitate the transition to the future. He stresses the importance of incorporating futurism into educational curricula and recommends that children be encouraged to read science fiction. The Third Wave further develops Toffler's central ideas about the future, arguing that human history has developed in three distinct waves. The first wave, Toffler asserts, began with the development of agrarianism in human societies some ten thousand years ago. The second wave began in the eighteenth century with the Industrial Revolution. The third wave, in Toffler's schema, began in the post-World War II era, when technology began to outstrip industry as the dominant cultural and economic force in society. Toffler offers an optimistic vision of the future in The Third Wave and predicts positive changes attendant upon increasing technological developments. Toffler asserts that the third wave will bring about changes in family structure and conditions of labor, as well as in other social, political, cultural, and economic arenas. Further, Toffler asserts that the third wave will provoke basic changes in human consciousness. In Powershift, Toffler continues to explore the societal implications of technological development. As in The Third Wave, Powershift maintains an ultimately optimistic vision of the effects of technology on society, asserting that an increasing focus on information and knowledge rather than industry will lead to increasingly democratic and equitable governmental and economic structures. War and Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century—Toffler's first work cowritten with his wife, Heidi—explores changes and potential changes in military technology and styles of military conflict since World War II. The Tofflers argue that war is increasingly becoming a matter of knowledge and information technology rather than brute firepower. In Creating a New Civilization, the Tofflers update and expand upon the ideas expressed in The Third Wave, with a particular focus on global economy and world politics.

Critical Reception

Toffler's major works, while attracting mixed reviews from critics, have been warmly received by popular audiences while also exerting a significant international influence on important governmental leaders. Many scholars have found Future Shock to be overly alarmist in its predictions, while others have found The Third Wave and Powershift to be overly optimistic in their assessment of the impact of technology on the future of society. Some reviewers have questioned Toffler's predictions about the future, noting that retrospective examinations of his work invite varying assessments of the extent to which these predictions have proven accurate. Several critics have also commented that Toffler fails to examine his subjects in a broader global and historical context. While many critics have faulted Toffler for overgeneralization and weak argumentation, most have conceded that his works are thought-provoking and raise important questions about the future. Regardless of their critical reception, Toffler's works have remained popular with both public and political audiences. War and Anti-War, although less popular with general readers, has been particularly influential among the policy-makers in the United States military as well as with prominent Chinese and Japanese governmental figures. During the 1990s, the Tofflers received renewed critical attention after former United States Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich publicly proclaimed the authors to be among his greatest influences.

Principal Works

The Culture Consumers: A Study of Art and Affluence (nonfiction) 1964

The Schoolhouse in the City [editor] (nonfiction) 1968

Future Shock (nonfiction) 1970

The Futurists [editor] (nonfiction) 1972

Learning for Tomorrow: The Role of the Future in Education [editor] (essays) 1974

The Eco-Spasm Report (nonfiction) 1975

The Third Wave (nonfiction) 1980

Previews and Premises: An Interview with the Author of “Future Shock” and “The Third Wave” (interviews) 1983

The Adaptive Corporation (nonfiction) 1985

Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century (nonfiction) 1990

War and Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century [with Heidi Toffler] (nonfiction) 1993; republished as War and Anti-War: Making Sense of Today's Global Chaos, 1995

Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave [with Heidi Toffler] (nonfiction) 1994


Edward Weeks (review date August 1970)

SOURCE: Weeks, Edward. Review of Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler. Atlantic Monthly 226 (August 1970): 112.

[In the following review, Weeks describes Future Shock as “ the most prophetic, disturbing, and stimulating social study of this year,” commenting that Toffler's argument throughout the book is cohesive and conclusive.]

“Rising calm through change and through storm” are the last words of “Fair Harvard,” and as they sang the words reverently at the last Commencement, some few of the alumni must have wondered what new and portentous changes would descend on this, the most staid of our universities in the year ahead. Some part of the answer...

(The entire section is 726 words.)

Neil Millar (review date 6 August 1970)

SOURCE: Millar, Neil. “On Meeting Tomorrow.” Christian Science Monitor (6 August 1970): 11.

[In the following review of Future Shock, Millar asserts that Toffler's predictions about the future signal the increasing importance of religion with helping people face the challenges of the future.]

“Given a clearer grasp of the problems and more intelligent control of certain key processes, we can turn crisis into opportunity, helping people not merely to survive, but to crest the waves of change, to grow, and to gain a new sense of mastery over their own destinies.”

A bright light in a world too often considered twilit.


(The entire section is 734 words.)

Francis Hope (review date 2 October 1970)

SOURCE: Hope, Francis. “Whatever Next.” New Statesman 80, no. 2063 (2 October 1970): 419-20.

[In the following review, Hope asserts that Future Shock fails to present original ideas and neglects to examine topics in a broader historical or sociological context.]

Change is today's great constant. Nothing grates so stalely on the ear as the rhetoric of novelty: ‘dynamic new techniques will totally alter our ways of thinking about the exciting challenge of the future …’ Nothing amazes less than the Amazing World of Tomorrow. Even in 1904, when Chesterton wrote The Napoleon of Notting Hill, he saw that the interesting paradox was a guess that the...

(The entire section is 1551 words.)

E. Nelson Hayes (review date 19 October 1970)

SOURCE: Hayes, E. Nelson. “Anticipatory Democracy.” New Leader 53, no. 19 (19 October 1970): 19-20.

[In the following review, Hayes compares Future Shock to two other books about the impact of technology on the future—Technopolis by Nigel Calder and Between Two Ages by Zbigniew Brzezinski.]

Ours has been variously called the age of protest, the postindustrial society, the electric age, the technetronic society, technopolis, the global village, the superindustrial society, postcivilization. These and other such terms suggest that we should perhaps prefer Auden's phrase, the age of anxiety. For in scores of books now appearing that attempt to...

(The entire section is 1331 words.)

John Maddox (review date January 1971)

SOURCE: Maddox, John. “The Doomsday Men.” Encounter 36 (January 1971): 64-5.

[In the following excerpt, Maddox categorizes Future Shock as a work of “Doomsday literature,” which, he observes, fails to address several serious questions about the future.]

The men who used to parade in Oxford Street with sandwich boards announcing that The End of the World is at Hand! have long since been snatched away by the demands of full or relatively full employment. There are times when their place seems to have been taken by a group of writers and talkers who proclaim that the cataclysm round the corner will be brought about by the consequences of modern technology....

(The entire section is 806 words.)

James R. Kelly (review date 9 January 1971)

SOURCE: Kelly, James R. “What's the World Coming To?” America 124, no. 1 (9 January 1971): 24-5.

[In the following review, Kelly offers a positive assessment of Future Shock, praising the work for its reflection on “the human condition of change.”]

Do you generally feel harassed, confused, irritable? Do you often have that panicky sense that things are slipping out of control? And despite your most valiant efforts to be up-to-date, do you find your left eye nervously twitching when your parish priest announces his engagement?

Well, relax a bit. On the assumption that misery suffered alone is plain awful, but that shared misery...

(The entire section is 640 words.)

Samuel McCracken (essay date October 1971)

SOURCE: McCracken, Samuel. “Apocalyptic Thinking.” Commentary 52, no. 4 (October 1971): 61-70.

[In the following essay, McCracken describes Future Shock as a work of “pop futurism” and points out a variety of weaknesses in Toffler's arguments.]

For an observer with a moderately developed sense of history, and the most moderate standard of excellence, it can be an unbearable suspicion that his time and space may turn out to have been absolutely undistinguished. Dr. Pangloss and G. F. Babbitt warded off the dread thought by assuring themselves that it was the best of all possible worlds; Victorian optimists warded it off with the more modest notion of...

(The entire section is 8822 words.)

Edith Blendon (review date January 1972)

SOURCE: Blendon, Edith. Review of Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler. American Archivist 35, no. 1 (January 1972): 62-3.

[In the following review, Blendon discusses the implications of Toffler's predictions in Future Shock for archivists of the future.]

[In Future Shock,] Toffler theorizes that society's rapidly accelerating change may submit masses of men to demands that they simply cannot tolerate. “Future shock” is the resultant disease—the physical and psychological distress that arises from an overload of the adaptive systems of the human organism.

In some respects Toffler's work simply summarizes much of the conjectural,...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

John W. Donohue (review date 26 January 1974)

SOURCE: Donohue, John W. “Education and the Future: Opinions and Expectations.” America 130, no. 3 (26 January 1974): 46-9.

[In the following review, Donohue compares and contrasts Learning for Tomorrow: The Role of the Future in Education with two other books about the future of education—To Understand Is to Invent by Jean Piaget and Toward the 21st Century by Edwin O. Reischauer.]

Like most people of powerful intelligence, Aristotle was not above plainly restating elementary truths. In his treatise on memory, written in the period 335-322 B.C., he remarked that since the future cannot be known, it is necessarily an object only of opinion or...

(The entire section is 3148 words.)

David L. Kirp (review date 3 April 1974)

SOURCE: Kirp, David L. “How Johnny Will Learn Tomorrow.” Christian Science Monitor (3 April 1974): F5.

[In the following review, Kirp argues that Learning for Tomorrow: The Role of the Future in Education is primarily a catalogue of complaints about the current education system, commenting that many of the central points in the book are vastly oversimplified.]

Historically, schooling has been treated as a way to hand on the values of the past.

But that role, the contributors to Learning for Tomorrow suggest, is an incomplete one: education must also contain an understanding of the future, and attempt to make sense out of where we are...

(The entire section is 518 words.)

Anthony Storr (review date 9 August 1980)

SOURCE: Storr, Anthony. “Future Shlock.” Spectator 245, no. 7935 (9 August 1980): 18.

[In the following review, Storr describes The Third Wave as “hyperbolic” and “sensational,” and questions several of Toffler's central ideas in the book.]

According to [The Third Wave], man, that simple-minded hunter-gatherer, has been hit by three great waves. The First Wave is the invention of agriculture, starting about 8000 BC. From 1750 on, the West was overtaken by the Second Wave, which is, of course, industrialisation. Now, we are in the process of being assailed by the Third Wave, the revolution caused by the computer and the electronics industry....

(The entire section is 748 words.)

George Devine (review date 4 October 1980)

SOURCE: Devine, George. Review of The Third Wave, by Alvin Toffler. America 143, no. 9 (4 October 1980): 193.

[In the following review, Devine argues that The Third Wave is a thoughtful and skillfully written work, observing that the book may have more of a social impact than Toffler's Future Shock.]

Once more, the author of Future Shock is signaling and analyzing widespread change in civilization. This time, the work [The Third Wave] is more readable and provides more cogent examples of the author's theses.

Alvin Toffler's basic premise is that the past decades have seen the firm entrenchment of the Second...

(The entire section is 630 words.)

Magoroh Maruyama (review date June 1981)

SOURCE: Maruyama, Magoroh. Review of The Third Wave, by Alvin Toffler. American Anthropologist 83, no. 2 (June 1981): 410-12.

[In the following review, Maruyama criticizes The Third Wave for being ethnocentric in perspective and for inaccurately applying sociological theory, but notes that the work will be of interest to social scientists.]

If his previous book Future Shock was disappointing to many, The Third Wave is a pleasant surprise to some, intriguing to others, and may appear unintelligible or irrational to a few. It brings to the surface the problems of cognitive, perceptual, and cogitative patterns of the readers as well as the...

(The entire section is 1250 words.)

Mitchell S. Ross (review date June 1981)

SOURCE: Ross, Mitchell S. “Alvin's Song.” American Spectator 14, no. 6 (June 1981): 27.

[In the following review, Ross compares the central thesis of Future Shock to the core argument of The Third Wave.]

“In January 1950, just as the second half of the twentieth century opened, a gangling twenty-two-year-old with a newly minted university diploma took a long bus ride through the night into what he regarded as the central reality of our time. With his girlfriend at his side and a pasteboard suitcase filled with books under the seat, he watched a gunmetal dawn come up as the factories of the American Midwest slid endlessly past the rain-swept window.”...

(The entire section is 2553 words.)

Christian Science Monitor (review date 12 February 1982)

SOURCE: Review of The Third Wave, by Alvin Toffler. Christian Science Monitor (12 February 1982): B5.

[In the following review, the critic offers a positive assessment of The Third Wave, calling the work “an important book.”]

In [The Third Wave,] his first major book since the prize-winning Future Shock, Alvin Toffler says, the future already has begun. Or, put another way, the present has long since begun to grind to a halt. And when was the beginning of the end? Probably Aug. 8, 1960, the day an Exxon executive decided to stop paying some of the taxes his firm had been charged by oil-exporting countries. This was the move that prompted...

(The entire section is 196 words.)

Eliot Janeway (review date 28 June 1983)

SOURCE: Janeway, Eliot. “Toward a Cottage in Our Commerce.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (28 June 1983): 2, 10.

[In the following review, Janeway praises aspects of Toffler's arguments in Previews and Premises, but notes that several of his core ideals are oversimplified.]

I confess to never having read Alvin Toffler before. I found him [in Previews and Premises] not only extremely well educated but able to handle his intellectual inventory with virtuosity and aplomb. This is a good deal more than can be said for most fixtures in “pop culture.”

Ready admiration for Toffler's literary agility also presents a problem: It lowers...

(The entire section is 923 words.)

Andrew Mendelsohn (essay date 4 April 1988)

SOURCE: Mendelsohn, Andrew. “Deng's Big Bang.” New Republic 198, no. 14 (4 April 1988): 15-17.

[In the following essay, Mendelsohn discusses the popularity of The Third Wave in China and assesses its impact on Chinese politics and politicians.]

In 1983 it looked as if China's Politburo would adopt something out of American pop culture as a new ideology. Confucius, Marx, and Mao bowed out. Alvin Toffler moved in. When the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences invited the “future shock” sociologist to lecture on his American best seller The Third Wave, audiences in Beijing and Shanghai listened to him as if he were an oracle. Premier Zhao Ziyang had...

(The entire section is 1707 words.)

Alex Raksin (review date 28 October 1990)

SOURCE: Raksin, Alex. Review of Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century, by Alvin Toffler. Los Angeles Times Book Review (28 October 1990): 6.

[In the following review, Raksin asserts that the central ideas in Powershift are unoriginal, overly simplistic, and sometimes factually inaccurate.]

Alvin Toffler's world [in Powershift] is so rocked by “powershifts,” you'd think he was writing on the San Andreas Fault: “We live at a moment when the entire structure of power that held the world together is now disintegrating. … We stand at the edge of the deepest powershift in human history. … Gone is the...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Earl Lee (essay date spring 1993)

SOURCE: Lee, Earl. “Beyond the Third Wave: Prophets of a New World Order.” Midwest Quarterly 34, no. 3 (spring 1993): 351-62.

[In the following essay, Lee describes Toffler as one of a series of “social prophets” who have made predictions about the future, comparing Toffler's Powershift to The Managerial Revolution by James Burnham. Lee criticizes Toffler for assuming that new technological developments will have a positive impact on society.]

Alvin Toffler in his latest book, Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century, describes the effect on American society of the coming “third wave”—the so-called...

(The entire section is 3536 words.)

Peter Grier (review date 4 January 1994)

SOURCE: Grier, Peter. “Probing the Cultural Roots of War.” Christian Science Monitor (4 January 1994): 13.

[In the following review, Grier compares and contrasts War and Anti-War with A History of Warfare by John Keegan.]

Over the centuries, the battles of different wars have often been fought on the same patch of ground. The most pronounced example of this curious pattern, notes John Keegan in his new book A History of Warfare, is Edirne, in European Turkey. Fully 15 battles or sieges are known to have occurred at this historic crossroads—the first between the Roman Emperor Constantine and his rival Licinius, in AD 323, and the last between...

(The entire section is 929 words.)

Michael Clarke (review date July 1994)

SOURCE: Clarke, Michael. Review of War and Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century, by Alvin and Heidi Toffler. International Affairs 70, no. 3 (July 1994): 538-39.

[In the following review, Clarke questions some of the central ideas put forth in War and Anti-War, but recommends the book as one that raises important questions about the future.]

The Tofflers have appropriated the future in their seemingly endless quest for an understanding of post-modernism. Here [in War and Anti-War] they turn their attention to the problem of war in the twenty-first century and provide a breathless account of ‘third wave’ society getting to...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Edward Cornish (review date July-August 1994)

SOURCE: Cornish, Edward. “Can We Make Wars Kinder, Gentler?” Futurist (July-August 1994): 43-4.

[In the following review, Cornish praises War and Anti-War as a important work that presents a disturbing look at the future of military warfare.]

You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.

—Leon Trotsky

Trotsky's sardonic assessment remains as valid today as in his own time. The Cold War may be over, but hot wars continue, and so does the global arms race. So we need to pay attention to Alvin and Heidi Toffler's new book, War and Anti-War a readable but...

(The entire section is 914 words.)

Alvin Toffler and Nathan Gardels (interview date summer 1995)

SOURCE: Toffler, Alvin, and Nathan Gardels. “Third Wave Terrorism.” NPQ: New Perspectives Quarterly 12, no. 3 (summer 1995): 4-6.

[In the following interview, Toffler discusses the implications for the future of terrorist warfare and the probability of rogue individuals having access to weapons of mass destruction.]

Just as the Non-Proliferation Treaty was renewed, the Supreme Truth sect raised a new spectre in the Tokyo subway: Mass destruction weapons are no longer controlled by states or diplomats signing pledges at the United Nations. Will democratic societies be able to control rogue groups as easily as rogue states now that lethal knowledge is available...

(The entire section is 1532 words.)

John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt (review date July-September 1995)

SOURCE: Arquilla, John, and David Ronfeldt. Review of War and Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century, by Alvin and Heidi Toffler. Comparative Strategy 14, no. 3 (July-September 1995): 331-41.

[In the following review, Arquilla and Ronfeldt compare War and Anti-War with two other books on the future of the American military—America's Military Revolution by William E. Odom and The Military Revolution by Geoffrey Parker.]

In national security policy circles and increasingly in academia, the notion of a revolution in military affairs (RMA) has caught on dramatically. Even the public has grown aware that a quantum shift is...

(The entire section is 5551 words.)

John B. Judis (essay date 9 October 1995)

SOURCE: Judis, John B. “Newt's Not-So-Weird Gurus.” New Republic 213, no. 15 (9 October 1995): 16-25.

[In the following essay, Judis discusses the influence of the ideas of Alvin and Heidi Toffler on American politician Newt Gingrich, arguing that Gingrich seems to have misinterpreted some of the Tofflers's central ideas.]

Before last November, once-bestselling authors Alvin and Heidi Toffler had fallen into relative obscurity. They were interviewed regularly by publications like Information Week and The New Perspectives Quarterly but not by The Washington Post or U.S. News and World Report. Their last book, War and Anti-War, had...

(The entire section is 6730 words.)

Alvin Toffler, Heidi Toffler, and Scott S. Smith (interview date March 1999)

SOURCE: Toffler, Alvin, Heidi Toffler, and Scott S. Smith. “Future Speak.” Entrepreneur 27, no. 3 (March 1999): 127-30.

[In the following interview, Alvin and Heidi Toffler discuss their predictions for the twenty-first century, particularly in the realms of business and industry.]

In ancient times, prophets foretold the future. In modern times, management gurus predict trends—in business, that is. But few forecasters have had the influence of husband-and-wife futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler.

In 1970, the pair sent shock waves around the world with their prophetic international megaseller, Future Shock. It foresaw an increasingly...

(The entire section is 1529 words.)

Tom Bethell (essay date May 2000)

SOURCE: Bethell, Tom. “Back to the Future.” American Spectator 33, no. 4 (May 2000): 16-17.

[In the following excerpt, Bethell observes that, contrary to Toffler's thesis in Future Shock, current advances in technology have not profoundly altered human life.]

I remember, around 1970, wondering what the year 2000 would be like and whether I would still be here. When you do that, you imagine the future in a very hazy, unfocused way, but at least it is different out there. Now here we are. And why is everything so much the same? That's what I didn't foresee. There is Ann, walking her dog. Here is the D.C. bus, lumbering up the hill, still belching smoke....

(The entire section is 1085 words.)

Further Reading


Brand, Stewart. Review of War and Anti-War: Making Sense of Today's Global Chaos, by Alvin and Heidi Toffler. Whole Earth Review, no. 86 (fall 1995): 76-8.

Brand discusses the analysis of military trends in War and Anti-War, calling the work a “well-focused book.”

Holderness, Mike. “Third Wave Wars by the Crystal Bombgazers.” New Scientist 141, no. 1908 (15 January 1994): 41.

Holderness questions some of the central ideas of War and Anti-War, and comments that the book lacks an appropriate measure of skepticism about the impact of technological developments on society....

(The entire section is 201 words.)