Alvin Toffler: the man who saw the future

Alvin Toffler © Getty images
American futurologist Alvin Toffler

We have yet to marvel at underwater cities and space colonies. But many of the other predictions made by American futurologist Alvin Toffler, dubbed the “guru of the post-industrial age”, who died last week aged 87, have proved remarkably prescient. One case in point is his view that developed countries would shift from having economies focused on manufacturing, towards having economies centred around services, knowledge and data.

“The illiterate of the 21st century,” wrote Toffler in his first major book, Future Shock, published in 1970, “will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” Inevitably, the rapid pace of change would leave many behind, causing “confusional breakdowns”, which in turn would lead to social alienation and rising crime.

Yet, technological change would also have its benefits. Toffler believed that the internet and interactive media would liberate the masses from lives spent in the office. But at the same time, consumers in the internet age would become “victims of that peculiarly super-industrial dilemma: overchoice”. Indeed, it was Toffler who popularised the term “information overload”.

His books, which also included The Third Wave (1980) and Powershift (1990), were hugely influential – fans in the business world included Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim, and reportedly CNN and AOL founders Ted Turner and Steve Case. In the political sphere, followers included Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and China’s reformist prime minister, Zhao Ziyang. One-time Republican speaker Newt Gingrich called The Third Wave “one of the great seminal works of our time”.

However, UK prime minister Harold Wilson was less impressed. He refused to meet Toffler on the basis that he had written for Playboy.