Alvin Toffler: What he got right - and wrong

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The ideas of Alvin Toffler

Futurologist Alvin Toffler captivated millions worldwide with his profound forecasts on everything from the rise of the internet to a new wave of drugs and crime.

The esteemed author, most remembered for his books Future Shock and Third Wave, died at the age of 87 at his home in Los Angeles.

Future Shock - which sold millions of copies, was translated into dozens of languages and still remains in print - posited that rapid social and technological progress would sweep society into a new, unrelenting era of change.

Toffler's work captured the attention of global figures including Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, China Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang and Mexican business guru Carlos Slim, all of whom sought advice from the futurologist guru.

In honour of Toffler, who popularised the term "information overload", here are some of his most prescient predictions and other failed forecasts.


Rise of internet and cable television

The author rightly predicted a knowledge-based economy would eclipse the post-industrial age, shifting focus from manufacturing and labour to information and data.

"The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn," he wrote in one of his observations.

Toffler also predicted the spread of interactive media, online chatrooms and devices that remind you "of your own appointments".

"Advanced technology and information systems make it possible for much of the work of society to be done at home via computer-telecommunications hook-ups," he wrote.

Genetic engineering and cloning

Though his predictions focused on the human condition more than scientific advancement, Toffler foresaw a future where a woman would be able to "buy a tiny embryo, take it to her doctor, have it implanted in her uterus...and then give birth as though it had been conceived in her own body".

His forecast that humans would breed babies with "supernormal vision or hearing" and other abilities may now seem a bit outlandish, but he did foresee the advancement of cloning.

"One of the more fantastic possibilities is that man will be able to make biological carbon copies of himself," he wrote.

Image source, Science Photo Library

The demise of the nuclear family

Toffler predicted a symptom of rapid change would be the dissolution of the family unit. The author noted it would lead to a rise in divorce rates while society would also begin to embrace the LGBT community.

He wrote, "we shall... also see many more 'family' units consisting of a single unmarried adult and one or more children. Nor will all of these adults be women... As homosexuality becomes more socially acceptable, we may even begin to find families based on homosexual marriage."

He also acknowledged the societal shift in delaying the decision to have children.

"Why not wait and buy your embryos later, after your work career is over? Thus childlessness is likely to spread among young and middle-aged couples; sexagenarians who raise infants may be far more common."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The White House lit up in rainbow colours after gay marriage became legal in all 50 states


In the age of Amazon and the proliferation of online marketplaces and share economies, Toffler's thoughts on consumerism as a global trend ring true.

"People of the future may suffer not from an absence of choice but from a paralysing surfeit of it. They may turn out to be victims of that peculiarly super-industrial dilemma: overchoice."

In coining the term "prosumer," Toffler predicted the emergence of the combined role of producer and consumer, or the trend of do-it-yourself (DIY) in every aspect of life.

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The decline of cities

Toffler predicted that cities would lose significance with "the shift of work from both office and factory back into the home".

However, more people live in cities than ever before. By 2050, about 66% of the world's population is expected to live in urban areas, according to UN estimates.

Image source, Reuters
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A shopping mall and surrounding neighbourhood in Singapore

Colonies in space and underwater cities

The author believed a "new frontier spirit" would lead to the creation of "artificial cities beneath the waves" as well space colonies.

The continuation of 1960s prosperity

In Future Shock, Toffler also viewed the rise in prosperity as a new norm rather than a trend, but corrected himself in an interview with Wired magazine in 1993.

"We made the mistake of believing the economists of the time," he told Wired.

"They were saying, as you may recall, we've got this problem of economic growth licked. All we need to do is fine-tune the system. And we bought it."

Media caption,

Martin Raymond: "Everybody misunderstands futurology. It isn't about predicting as such, it's more about analysis of data"

Social alienation

Some critics contend that he failed to see the human ability to adapt to the accelerated pace of change.

Author Shel Israel dismissed Toffler's idea that a wave of information and data would spark social isolation.

"We are not isolated by it. And when the information overloads us, most people are still wise enough to use the power of the 'Off' button to gain some peace," Mr Israel wrote.

But global strategist Parag Khanna said Toffler simply viewed it as there would be some winners and losers when it came to dealing with change.

Image source, Thinkstock

Though Toffler's legacy may be coloured by many of the predictions he made in his work, Mr Khanna points out that he actually derided the infatuation with specific forecasts and predictions.

In fact, he explicitly said in Future Shock that he was not making predictions.

"No serious futurist deals in prediction", he wrote. "These are left for television oracles and newspaper astrologers."

While Toffler may applaud today's advancement predictive analytics, Mr Khanna says, the author felt "the most important thing is to understand the general outlines of where we're going".