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Three Waves of Alvin Toffler. The Basic Points

I.    Introduction. Impressions about the book.

      Reading the book “The Third Wave” by Alvin Toffler left  a  very  deep
mark in my memory. There are only a few people  in  the  entire  world  that
have the kind of mind that allows them to look at regular life  differently,
analyze it and make assumptions that regular people wouldn’t even notice.  I
think that Alvin Toffler is one of these people.
      Even though I don’t agree with the author on some matters, I  want  to
admit that “The Third Wave” is the book  that  was  written  by  a  man  who
really cares about the issues he is  exploring  and  who  is  also  a  great
expert in his field of study. Even if I  did  not  know  Alvin’s  biography,
after reading the book  I  could  assume  that  exploring  human  evolution,
social issues and history has always been a goal of his life.
      Basically, the book tells us about the author’s seeing  the  evolution
of the human society. I can imagine how fresh  and  outstanding  seemed  his
idea of dividing the flow of human  history  and  development  into  several
phases that he called “waves” twenty years  ago  when  his  book  was  first
published in 1980. Since that time “The  Third  Wave”  has  been  translated
into all major languages and became very popular all over the world.
      While reading “The Third Wave” I  kept  asking  myself  the  question:
“What would Alvin change if he wrote this book nowadays”. I  don’t  want  to
judge him for some of his forecasts that never came true especially  because
he urged the readers not to filter out single items, but look at the  system
in its entirety.
      Lots of changes have happened since the  book  first  saw  the  world.
World Wide Web brought a piece of informational freedom  into  almost  every
house, the big empire U.S.S.R collapsed (even Alvin did not believe in  this
p. 314), finally, we met the new millenium. We are now much  deeper  in  the
third wave  and  this  Alvin’s  work  is  still  popular  and  very  actual.
Moreover, it became a reference frame for the future research and  is  being
studied in colleges like DeVRY.
      Another issue I want to point out here is the importance of the  Alvin
Toffler’s work. Even if there were still some people  who  do  not  want  to
look back and to explore our history, they would probably want to know  what
is going to happen to them tomorrow or after a certain  period  of  time  in
future. At the very beginning of the book, in the introductory  part,  Alvin
warns the readers about expecting  any  kind  of  prognosis  or  predictions
throughout the entire book so it would not look like a Nostrodamus  prophecy
or an encyclopedia of the future. He is aware that he does not  have  enough
information and/or knowledge to make some judgements  and  purposely  leaves
this type of questions wide open for dispute. The author  gives  the  reader
or the future explorer directions, the basic outlines that should be  filled
up by them. “Sometimes it is better to ask the right  question  rather  than
to give the right answer to the wrong one”(6).

II.   The Principe of the evolution according to Alvin Toffler
      The book consists of two major parts where the  author  describes  the
first two waves that the human society  came  through  and  also  the  third
wave. It is the wave that we are living in right now. But first, let’s  take
a look at the whole theory that Alvin tries to explain in his work.
      According to the author, the human evolution is not  stepless  but  it
consists of several stages. So far, the society  has  experienced  three  of
them. When there is a coincidence of several factors,  we  can  witness  the
shift between the waves. The shifts are the  most  painful  moments  in  the
human history. Most of the Civil wars happened at those  times.  “The  Civil
war was not fought exclusively, as it seemed to many, over the  moral  issue
of slavery or such narrow economic issues as tariffs. It was fought  over  a
much larger question: would the rich new continent be ruled  by  farmers  or
by industialazers, by the forces of the First Wave or the Second?” (23)
       Alvin  Toffler  considers  energy  dependency  to  be  a  fundamental
principle of any civilization. The need for a new kind of energy is  one  of
the causes of shifting to a new wave. For example, during  feudalism  people
used horse power or even human power  in  agriculture  or  in  construction,
which was also considered to be a source of  energy.  “The  precondition  of
any civilization, old or new, is energy. First  wave  societies  drew  their
energy from “living batteries” – human and animal  muscle-power  –  or  from
sun, wind and water”(25). “As late as the French  Revolution,  it  has  been
estimated, Europe drew energy from an estimated 14  million  horses  and  24
million oxen”(25).
      The increase in human population evoked the  need  for  bigger  fields
and more buildings, which could no longer be achieved by using the  existing
tools. In order to move forward, people needed new tools, such as  tractors,
trains, cars etc.
       However, the need for a new kind  of  energy  was  not  a  sufficient
condition to make a shift. Many agricultural civilizations like China,  Rome
or Greece died and never moved to the next stage. The need should be  backed
by developments in science and technology which  manifests  the  coincidence
needed for the civilization shift. A good example of that was the  invention
of the steam engine in the 18th century when the  agricultural  civilization
received a great push that moved it into the industrial age later.
      All other issues, such  as  technical  progress  and  even  political,
economical and social sides of the society are  only  the  consequences  and
they are being changed in order to fit the new reality.  “Industrialism  was
more than smokestacks and assembly lines. It was a rich,  many-sided  social
system that touched every aspect of human life and  attacked  every  feature
of the First Wave past” (22).

 III. First two waves.

   1. First wave.
      According to the author, the people of the First Wave were  the  first
civilization that ever existed on the face of the Earth. He  does  not  deny
that people did exist before that, but I did not find any evidence  that  he
considered those people to be a  civilization.  In  his  book  he  talks  of
“civilized” people, those who adopted the agricultural style  of  life,  and
the rest of the population, people called “primitive”, the  ones  who  could
not switch to the  progressive  way  of  living  and  were  left  behind  in
barbaric world. “During the long  millennia  when  First  Wave  civilization
reigned supreme,  the  planet’s  population  could  have  divided  into  two
categories – the “primitive” and the “civilized”.  The  so-called  primitive
peoples, living in small bands  and  tribes  and  subsisting  by  gathering,
hunting, or fishing, were those had been passed  over  by  the  agricultural
      The  distinctive  feature  of  the  agricultural   society   was   the
decentralization of power. People still  had  to  live  together  mostly  in
small groups because it was the only way to feed themselves and to  survive.
But there was no centralized government over them that would  lead  them  or
try to organize people for bigger projects. Brutal physical force  was  used
as a method  of  solving  either  private  or  social  conflicts.  ”In  most
agricultural societies the  great  majority  of  people  were  peasants  who
huddled together in  small,  semi-isolated  communities.  They  lived  on  a
subsistence diet, growing just barely enough to keep  themselves  alive  and
their masters happy” (37). The trading was developed  very  poorly  and  the
market itself did not exist at all. Even though that there was  some  simple
division of  labor  and  several  communities  specialized  in  producing  a
particular kind of food or simple labor tools, mostly  they  just  naturally
exchanged their products with the other groups. Money did not exist  in  the
agricultural era.
      As I already mentioned in the basic principles of the Alvin  Toffler’s
theory, the  social  life  of  the  people  is  a  secondary  issue  and  is
subordinated to certain civilization rules. The agricultural age was a  nice
example. The family structure was also preconditioned  by  the  human  needs
for survival. Lots of relatives lived at the same place  mostly  because  it
was easier to cultivate land and grow their harvest this way.
      The social life of the majority of people was quite monotonous due  to
the lack of  travelling.  An  average  person  living  in  agricultural  age
probably met fewer people during his or her life than we do in one month  or
even a week.
      The agricultural era was and, probably, will be  the  longest  in  the
history of the human society. It took more than a  1500  years  for  several
little currents of the first wave to come together and form the  big  stream
that wold later grow into the Second Wave.

   2. Second Wave

      Causes of shifting into the second wave

      Like I said before there should have been  a  coincidence  of  several
factors to come together in order for a civilization to come into  the  next
stage. After a series of unsuccessful attempts  the  human  society  finally
made the move towards its future  and  started  the  big  clock  of  history
again. According to Toffler, it happened in the  18th  century  (All  Second
Wave societies began to draw their energy from coal, gas,  and  oil  –  from
irreplaceable fossil fuels. This revolutionary shift, coming after  Newcomen
invented a workable steam engine in 1712, meant that for the  first  time  a
civilization was eating into nature’s capital rather than merely living  off
the interest it provided”(25).
      The future need  for  new  kinds  of  energy  later  conduced  to  the
development in industry and technology. Finally, all the sides of the  human
life in the new age were changed in order to get more efficiency out of  new
industrial formations such as manufactories, factories, plants etc. At  this
stage the civilization needed entirely new  methods  of  organizing  people,
totally new economical and political systems.
      Unlike those of the Third Wave, the economical issues  of  the  Second
Wave can be talked about with quite a great deal of persistency. For  almost
three hundred years, we have had enough time  to  witness  and  analyze  the
process that took place and, finally, formed the economy of  the  industrial
      Now we can  definitely  say  that  the  main  concept  that  made  the
industrial production different from the agricultural one was  the  division
of labor. Establishment of the first manufactories is considered to  be  one
of the first steps of transferring into  the  industrial  age.  The  further
development of the Second Wave economy was preconditioned  in  many  aspects
by this principle.
      According to Toffler, there are six basic fundamentals the economy  of
any  industrialized  society  stands  on:  Standardization,  Specialization,
Synchronization,  Concentration,  Maximization   and   Centralization.   Not
getting into details, all of them  meant  to  optimize  the  economy  of  an
industrial society by  raising  the  efficiency  of  labor,  decreasing  the
production costs, speeding up the process etc.
      The main point that proves the accuracy of Toffler’s  theory  is  that
these principles work in any kind of industrialized society whether it is  a
capitalistic, socialistic or even the communistic one. With some  margin  of
error, they could be found in the economics of either USA,  former  USSR  or
China.  Countries  with  absolutely   different   history,   human   nature,
traditions or, what is the most important, different  kinds  of  governance,
still had to come through the same economical cycles  as  they  entered  the
industrial stage.
      The economic rules were not the only ones that were  developing  in  a
similar way in different industrialized countries.  The  political  and  the
social part of life also obeyed the strict laws of the Second Wave.
      Even though the political systems were rather different, they all  had
one  attribute  that  differentiated  the  industrial  societies  from   the
agricultural ones. It was the  strong  centralization  of  power  that  made
possible the establishment  of  big  corporations  and,  as  a  result,  the
realization of big projects.
      The author raises a  very  interesting  issue  about  the  force  that
really makes the power decisions and integrates  the  whole  system  in  the
industrial society. That force was the product of the  narrow  specification
and expansion of  production.  The  representatives  of  that  force  became
managers of all levels. They were the ones who got between  the  owners  and
the workers and made the thing run when the owner could  no  longer  control
the technological process. ”In the larger  firms  no  individual,  including
the owner or dominant shareholder, could even begin to understand the  whole
operation. The owner’s decisions were shaped, and ultimately controlled,  by
the specialists brought in to coordinate the system. Thus  a  new  executive
elite arose whose power rested no longer on ownership but rather on  control
of the integration process”(63).
      According to Toffler, the “executive elite” is the force  that  really
has control over the industrial society. Even though the real tools  of  the
industrial production like plants or factories belong either to  capitalists
or to the state in communistic societies, neither the owners, nor the  state
has the real power in the Industrialism.
       “Executive elite” is the people who are surfing on the  edge  of  the
Second Wave that came with the  Industrialism.  Those  are  the  people  who
really rule and have the power. They make corrections to  the  laws  through
their  representatives  in  parliament  or  through  their  people  in   the
headquarters of the communist party, they settle and stop wars, they are  in
control of destiny of the whole peoples in the industrial age.
      Anyway, we should admit that industrial era made our lives  much  more
exiting. People got an incredible  number  of  opportunities  they  couldn’t
dream of during the agricultural age. We can travel anywhere  in  the  world
within reasonable amount of time; telephone also made communication  between
people much easier; the achievements in medicine helped us  to  get  rid  to
many of fatal diseases and have greatly extended the human life,  mass-media
made the distribution of information  much  easier  too.  Nevertheless,  the
industrial era kind of human beings were still  used  only  as  a  tool  for
achieving certain aims. It was still not considered to be a primary link  in
the chain of the human existence.

  IV. Third Wave
      The chapter where the author asks more questions that provides
answers. Alvin gives the reader the right to decide which answers will most
likely fit the system. Anyone who can answer them will probably be able to
obtain a clear picture of what is going to happen to us in the near future.

      In this chapter I found the most places where I want to argue with
the author. It was not surprising for me because this part of the book was
meant to describe the future structure of the society. Like I mentioned
before, I have been wondering, what would be different in this book if it
were written now, not twenty years ago. On the other hand, even now we
still do not have enough experience to decide whether Toffler's theory is
      The need for a new kind of energy and further discovering of
irreplaceable fossil fuels was the reason of shifting into the second wave.
But as we all know, the reserves of fossil fuels are not endless on the
Earth and moreover, with the current consumption rate we are going to have
them for a hundred more years. All this plus the increasing need for more
powerful energy have created the potential situation for transferring into
the next era or “The Third Wave”. ”In 1973, when the Yom Kippur War broke
out and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries suddenly stepped
out of the shadows. Choking off the world’s supply of crude oil, it sent
the entire Second Wave economy into a shuddering downspin”(131).
      I found the author’s opinion about the nuclear energy power
surprising. He considers both nuclear energy and the fossil fuels to be
obsolete, and he is looking for something else in terms of new era’s
energy. “In short, though nuclear reactors or coal gasification or
liquefaction plants and other such technologies may seem to be advanced or
futuristic and therefore progressive, they are, in fact, artifacts of a
Second Wave past caught in its own deadly contradictions”(138).
      In my opinion, deriving energy from nuclear fuel cannot be called
obsolete. On the contrary, this kind of energy is only at the very first
stage of being used by humans. There are still lots of problems like the
poor safety of nuclear reactors or technical impossibility to create a
compact nuclear engine at the current stage, but we should not forget, that
the efficiency of the steam engine was also very poor and comprised less
than 5%!
      Of course, new sources of energy will be discovered by human beings
in future, but today the use of nuclear energy is very advanced. I think
that this the Third Wave civilization kind of energy. Moreover, I tend to
think that the beginning of the new era should be considered in connection
with the discovery of nuclear power rather than with the potential
exhaustion of fossil fuels.
      In terms of economic and political issues, the author’s conclusions
seem to be pretty clear and logical. New discoveries in technology
contribute to free information flow. Such a great popularity of the
Internet in many countries all over the world is a very nice proof for
Alvin’s ideas about semi-direct democracy as the political structure of the
new society.
      There is no doubt that the existing political system will not work
after the shift into the new era. Terrorism became an every-day word in our
language. Big and powerful countries like former U.S.S.R and now Russia are
struggling trying to keep their territory together. Separatism became a
very important problem in many other countries in all parts of the world.
This all indicates that the existing political system is already obsolete
and the governments no longer keep the situation under control. ”No
government, no political system, no constitution, no charter or state is
permanent, nor can the decisions of the past bind the future forever. Nor
can a government designed for one civilization cope adequately with the
      Alvin sees the solution in an absolutely new political system where,
unlike in an industrialized era, the minorities have the power and form the
structure of the society. “The first, heretical principle of Third Wave
government is that of minority power. It holds that majority rule, the key
legitimating principle of the Second Wave era, is increasingly obsolete. It
is not majorities but minorities that count”419.
      Implementing the minority power principle into our life is supposed
to change the whole political system and end up as a new kind of a
democratic society – semi-direct democracy.
   V. Watching the Shift. Conclusion.
      If we look back at our history, we can easily  notice  that  the  time
during the transition into the Second Wave was the most violent and  brutal.
We are now  observing  another  transition,  now  into  the  Post-industrial
      It took us less than three hundred years  to  jump  from  Second  Wave
into  post-industrial  society   which   much   faster   than   agricultural
civilization could make it into Industrialism.  This  could  mean  not  only
acceleration in social development or  the  technical  progress;  the  «wave
glitch» we are living in may turn out to be a bigger drama than it  used  to
be three hundred years ago.
      One of the questions that Alvin did not raise in his book is that  the
people themselves could be in control of  civilizational  changes.  All  the
achievements in technical, political and technical sciences should not  only
be used as a self-developing tool,  but  people  can  and  should  use  that
knowledge in order to control the development of their history.  We  do  not
want to think that the civilization we are entering now is going to  be  the
last one on the face of the Earth. Our children  and  the  children  of  our
children have the same right to leave and enjoy their lives as  we  do  now.
We are the ones who have to make sure that the human history will  not  stop
today and the shift into another era will be completed.

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