In several prominent works of nonfiction Alvin Toffler has explored the effects of new technologies on human life and society. Earlier civilizations based on agriculture (the “First Wave”) or industry (the “Second Wave”) are now being supplanted by a “Third Wave” of service industries based primarily on knowledge and information, not commodities or products. This Third Wave is characterized by rapid change, flexibility, and diversity. Humans once developed a sense of identity largely from fixed experiences, spending their lives in the same place, at the same job, and within the same traditional family and society. In contemporary society, however, people increasingly move and change their jobs regularly while living in a variety of nontraditional family and social structures.
Many decry this loss of permanence in human life, but Toffler sees it as an opportunity. No longer chained to their original set of circumstances, and enjoying access to millions of people via modern transportation and computer networks, people can choose their identities. They may identify themselves by associating with ethnic or cultural groups, with organizations of professionals or hobbyists, with religions, or with social movements. If people are unhappy with their families, jobs, or groups, they can leave them and seek other alternatives. The danger is that such an extreme variety of choices may be psychologically disturbing, even paralyzing, inducing what Toffler terms “future shock”; but people must adjust to this freedom, because returning to previous, fixed values and situations is impossible.
Future Shock focuses most on the problems—and possibilities—facing contemporary people; Toffler’s other studies of coming changes in business and government, notably The Third Wave and Powershift, also involve questions of identity. These books describe the flexible, decentralized, and democratic institutions that will necessarily evolve in response to new conditions. Toffler regularly argues that new technologies will liberate, not enslave, people, and he has enjoyed growing influence. In the 1980’s, he met with Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, and in the 1990’s, his works were often cited by Newt Gingrich, who introduced an anthology of Toffler’s writings.