Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.