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ALVIN TOFFLER: THE THIRD WAVE                                                                                                                                                                                       (1980. London: Pan Books Ltd in association with William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd)

The Third Wave is essential reading.

We study history books filled with the minutiae of human carnage, when in this global world we should be studying the great revolutions that brought about fundamental changes in human perceptions and ways of living. We should be studying books like Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave; books that lift us out of narrow, limited perspectives and enable us to develop a holistic understanding of human progress. Our thinking about human development should not be dominated by conquest and exploitation; these should be put into proper perspective by widening the contexts in which they occur.

Using waves as the metaphor for changes in the means of production that result from technological advancements, Alvin Toffler puts all of human history in context and makes it possible for us to understand the meanings we have made and are making of our existence.

As all communities in a particular wave, regardless of cultural differences and geographical location, adopt similar tools, resources and sources of energy, they develop a common mode of production that leads to common labour practices, pace of life, means of communication, mobility, understanding of environment and belief systems. In The Third Wave, movement from one wave to the next is shown to be the result of major technological innovations that lead to new modes of production and new patterns of life.

The Agricultural Revolution constitutes the First Wave, the Industrial Revolution, the Second Wave and the Third Wave is based on the revolution brought about by Computer Technology. The Third Wave, first published in 1980, gives the approximate rise of each civilizing wave: the Agricultural Revolution about 8000 B.C., the Industrial Revolution, between 1650 and 1750 A.D. and the third, the Computer Age, from about 1955. Toffler does not give exact dates because changes in the human condition are like waves – beginnings and endings cannot be exactly pinpointed. According to Toffler, the first wave lasted thousands of years, the second wave only a couple of centuries and, he predicted, the third wave would last only a few decades.

In general, the majority of people rise with each new wave leaving behind small pockets of people in the old wave. The transition from one wave to another leads to tremendous advancement. With each new wave comes a faster pace of living, greater freedom from drudgery, greater mobility, greater acceptance of diversity, greater demands for individual freedom, greater advancements in medical care and understanding of the human condition. . But like all transitions, they also have a negative side: disorientation, trauma, and conflicts come in the wake of the breakdown of old patterns. And there is greater depletion of natural resources that increases threats to the natural environment and the continuation of all life.

(The transition to the second and third waves arose out of developments in the West. With the Second Wave came colonialism, exploitation and racism. And in the nineteenth century Second Wave conditions were imposed on African and Eastern countries that, in the twentieth century, also imported Third Wave advances without having abandoned First Wave thinking and customs. Consequently, people in these countries live in a confusion of all waves and many of their problems stem from multiple consciousnesses.)


THE FIRST WAVE                                                                                                                  
The First Wave, the Agricultural Revolution, began about 8000BC, when human beings became cultivators. In all First Wave communities from China to India to Africa to Europe to the Americas,

... land was the basis of economy, life, culture, family structure, and politics. In all of them life was organised around a village.                                      In all of them, a simple division of labour prevailed and a few clearly defined castes and classes arose: a nobility, a priesthood,                      warriors, helots, slaves or serfs. In all of them power was rigidly authoritarian. In all of them birth determined one’s position in life.                          And in all of them, the economy was decentralised, so that each community produced most of its own necessities. (35)

The land was their natural resource. Human and animal muscle power, sun, wind and water power were their sources of energy; all were renewable. They gave up nomadic ways, lived in settled communities and established large extended families to work the land. They were both producers and consumers and, for the most part, were self-sufficient.

Political and social power in the First Wave of civilization was based on ownership of land and though this changed in the Second Wave, the notion of land ownership as the source of power still persists and is kept alive today through political mechanisms. Politicians,

... are still not (my emphasis) elected as representatives of some social class or occupational, ethnic, sexual or lifestyle grouping,  but as representatives of the inhabitants of a particular piece of  land; a geographical district. First Wave people were typically, immobile, and it was therefore natural for the architects of industrial-era political systems to assume that people would remain in one locality all their lives. Hence the prevalence, even today, of residency requirements in voting regulations. (83)


The second wave

The Second Wave, the Industrial Revolution, brought in the electrically driven machine that totally reorganised human society. Where people of the First Wave were producers and consumers, the Second Wave was characterised by a split between production and consumption. Some became producers but the majority became dependent workers in factories operating machines or in government and private institutions which adopted the factory model of operation – division of labour and assembly-line interdependence regulated by the clock.

This fundamental split between production and consumption led to segmentation in all aspects of life. Work was split into units – division of labour – to accommodate production along assembly lines; time became linear and was split into units – seconds, minutes, hours – to ensure punctuality, synchronisation of work, and to meet deadlines. Families were split into nuclear units as division of labour required individuals not family groups. Men went to work and women stayed at home and acquired inferior status. Space was divided into units and people occupied standardised living quarters. Farms lands were divided into units for the production of marketable crops. In politics, representative government was reduced to “its ultimate particle,” (123) the vote. Atomization, the pursuit of the essential unit became a dominant principle that influenced all aspects of life and would lead eventually to the splitting of the atom (and the emergence of nuclear energy which would herald the Third Wave). (Even the psyche was split. Literature produced novels like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and psychologies of split personalities.)

Production was speeded up through:
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 - Division of labour that led to specialization and concentration of work.                                                                                                                                           – Synchronization of work through the interdependence required by the assembly line.                                                                                                                     - Machine technology that led to mass production, the standardization of products, mass distribution through markets for mass consumption.  Mass production, which needed much more than the local supply of raw materials, led to the exploitation of First Wave countries (in Africa and the East) which were ravaged for raw materials and sources of energy, both human and natural. And as mass production also depended on mass consumption, First Wave countries were roped into the market economy of the colonisers, Britain, France and other European countries, and became consumers of the products manufactured from their raw materials. American industrialism’s encounter with First Wave communities was limited to native Americans until after World War II.

The market economy, which was born of the split between production and consumption, created a new relationship between producers and consumers. Consumers, who had formerly been self-sufficient because they were also producers, became dependent on producers for work, goods and services. But their conditions of living were greatly improved as industrialism, though it created dependency, moved them out of mere subsistence living.

For producers, large scale production led to large scale thinking, the development of corporations that undertook large scale projects, such as big buildings, big ships etc. Their control of production led to concentrations of people in urban areas, and to the development of systems such as central banking, the postal system, mass media, mass education, mass transportation, road and rail systems, bureaucracies and representative government. And all this growth culminated in the ultimate product of centralization, the Nation State.

“In such a society, irrespective of its political structure, not only products are bought, sold, traded, and exchanged, but labour, ideas, art, and souls as well.” (55) In other words, religious, political and other ideologies grow out of the mode of production. Whether you are communist or capitalist makes little difference; your way of life is determined by the techno-sphere – the interrelated “energy system, production system and distribution system.”(41).

Conflict in societies that arises from the clash of people in different modes of production can be confused with more readily identifiable symptoms, such as moral or economic issues. According to Toffler:

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 new rich continent be ruled  by the forces of the First Wave or the Second Wave? Would the future       American society be basically agricultural or industrial? (37)

The Civil War represented a clash of waves and encompassed a much wider disparity than the ideological differences between Communism and Capitalism both of which adopted the Second Wave mode of production.


According to Toffler the segmentation of society in the Second Wave needed as its concomitant the means for integration:  

Industrialism, as we have seen, broke society into thousands of interlocking parts – factories, churches, schools, trade unions, prisons, hospitals, and the like. It broke the line of command between church, state and the individual. It broke knowledge into specialized disciplines. It broke families into smaller units. In so doing, it shattered community life and culture.                                                                                                                         Somebody had to put things together in a different form. (75)

Toffler gives us the Integrator as that somebody who reassembled the parts into a new whole. Power could no longer be associated with ownership of land or the means of production; it was now vested in the Integrator, the person who controlled the means of integration, i.e. the CEO.

The new power of the Integrators was, perhaps, most clearly expressed by W. Michael Blumenthal, former US Secretary of the Treasury. Before entering government Blumenthal headed the Bendix Corporation. Once asked if he would some day like to own Bendix, Blumenthal replied: ‘It’s not ownership that counts – it’s control. And as Chief Executive that’s what I’ve got!’ (77)                                                                         Under socialism as well as capitalism, therefore, the integrators took effective power. For without them the parts of the system could not work together. The ‘machine” would not run. (77)


Out of this driving need for the integration of Second Wave civilization came the biggest co-ordinator of all – the integrational engine of the system: big government. It is the system’s hunger for integration that explains the relentless rise of big government in every Second Wave society (78)

Left to private enterprise alone, industrialization would have come much more slowly – if, indeed, it could have come at all. Governments quickened the development of the railroad. They built harbours, roads, canals, and highways. They operated postal services and built or regulated telegraph, telephone, and broadcast systems. They wrote commercial codes and standardized markets. They applied foreign policy pressures and tariffs to aid industry. They drove farmers off the land and into the industrial labour supply. They subsidized energy and advanced technology, often through military channels. At a thousand levels, governments assumed the integrative tasks that others could not; or would not perform. {78)

For the government was the great accelerator. Because of its coercive power and tax revenues, it could do things that private enterprise could not afford to undertake. Governments could ‘hot up’ the industrialization                process by stepping in to fill emerging gaps in the system – before it became possible or profitable for private companies to do so. Governments could perform ‘anticipatory integration.” (78-9)

... indust-reality, the cultural face of industrialism, fitted the society it helped to construct. It helped create the society of big organizations, big cities, centralized bureaucracies, and the all-pervasive marketplace, whether capitalist or socialist.  It dovetailed perfectly with the new energy systems, economic systems, political and value systems that together formed the civilization of the Second Wave. (125)

Toffler makes us aware that in all areas of living we adapt to the means of production and become products ourselves. We tend to use the word “freedom” very loosely without a real understanding of the extent to which we conform to the production rationale that we adopt at a given time. We equate freedom with elections because we abstract both from the mode of production.                                                                                          

According to Toffler:

... elections,(in the United States of the ‘fifties) quite apart from who won them, performed a powerful cultural function for the élites.  To the degree that everyone had a right to vote, elections fostered the illusion (my emphasis) of equality. Voting provided a mass ritual of reassurance, conveying to the people the idea that choices were being made systematically, with machine-like regularity, and hence, by implication, rationally. Elections symbolically assured citizens that they were still in command – that they could, in theory a least, dis-elect as well as elect leaders. In both capitalist and socialist countries, these ritual assurances often proved more important than the actual outcomes of many elections. (89)                                                                                    

In applying Toffler’s analysis to South Africa, I see that because we now have universal suffrage, we believe we are free. But what does this ‘freedom’ mean? It simply means that Black people are no longer restricted to the lower end of the production line.  Under apartheid, the most effective systems for curbing Black progress were job reservation and Bantu Education that kept Black people in predominantly First Wave mode while the privileged class operated in Second Wave mode.  Oppression depended on denying Black people access to control of new modes of production. The racism inherent in the process obscured our ability to see that power was in the hands of those who control the mode of production.  Now that we have a Black government, we are beginning to understand.  With industrial systems breaking down, with new modes of production in the offing, and with an understanding of the way we are moulded by modes of production, we may perhaps find ways to establish a more equitable society.  But that is, and I believe will always be, an idealistic notion.

Right now in South Africa, we need to examine carefully and without reference to race, where control of integration of the modes of production lies and how this control is applied.