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
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
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
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
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
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.