What Did Alvin Toffler Predict? Did Toffler Predict Crypto/Web3 Foundational Knowledge?

What Did Alvin Toffler Predict? Did Toffler Predict Crypto/Web3 Foundational Knowledge?

Man remains in the end what he started as in the beginning: a biosystem with a limited capacity for change. When this capacity is overwhelmed, the consequence is future shock.”
– Alvin Toffler, “Future Shock” (1970)

Futurologist Alvin Toffler died in 2016. Shortly thereafter, the BBC published an article detailing what Toffler got right about the future – and what he got wrong. He was credited with prophetic visions regarding the Information Age and its implications, genetic engineering (see: CRISPR), the demise or regular postponement of nuclear family formation and the anxiety-inducing environments “prosumers” – consumers with seemingly-unlimited consumption choices – would eventually find themselves in.

Of the latter, Toffler wrote: “People of the future may suffer not from an absence of choice but from a paralyzing surfeit of it. They may turn out to be victims of that peculiarly super-industrial dilemma: overchoice.”

Paralyzed by overchoice are the millions of Netflix users scrolling through infinite lists of movies and shows, old and new, in every imaginable genre, before rinsing and repeating on Hulu, never making a choice.

Paralyzed by overchoice are the countless Amazon users endlessly sorting and filtering. Refining searches and reading reviews. Before finally closing their laptops, having decided on too much or nothing at all.

It is important to point out, early on, when dealing with Toffler. That futurologists – serious futurologists, that is – study trends, draw lines to logical conclusions and provide analysis.

They are not, nor do they claim to be, tabloid astrologists or television oracles. They do not tell us what will occur in the future as much as what could occur. More Arthur Nielsen than Nostradamus. They employ analytical expertise to illuminate what may lurk around the corner. Moreover, based on where we’ve been and where we are. Thinkers, not seers, often pleased when following generations avoid doomed paths that once seemed likely based on previous trajectories.

Similar in tone to his prediction that people of the future (i.e., us) would experience a paralysis of overchoice. Toffler wrote in The Third Wave. A groundbreaking analysis of human progression. Looking from the Agricultural Era (the first wave that lasted for a millennia) to the Industrial Era. (The second wave that started in Western Europe during the seventeenth century.) Furthermore, to the Information Era. (The third wave that we are currently in.) Lastly, that, “Loneliness is now so widespread it has become, paradoxically, a shared experience.”

That statement was written in 1980, over two decades before the dawn of social media.

Just as loneliness becoming a “shared experience” seemed paradoxical to Toffler 40 years ago, the word “social” in “social media” seems misplaced to many of us today.

The idea that constant torrents of information, images, updates, pings, rings. And glaring LCD/OLED screens would trap us like balcony moths. As a result, lead to mass social isolation was not, and is not, universally accepted. (Although it has been validated in dozens of academic studies. Including a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. That found adolescents with high social media usage. Defined as two or more hours per day, were twice as likely to report feelings of social isolation than their counterparts with low levels of social media usage, defined as a half hour or less per day).

Author Shel Israel, who covers social media for Forbes, wrote in a 2012 rebuttal of Toffler’s analysis: “We are not isolated by it [the endless bombardment of information]. And when the information overloads us, most people are still wise enough to use the power of the ‘off’ button to gain some peace.”


Few of us are wise enough to take breaks; even less are free to ever completely turn it off for a meaningful amount of time.

In fact, in a 1996 radio interview on The Connection on WBUR in Boston, David Foster Wallace – an author who openly confronted the fact that he was the product of a raised-on-TV generation, materially more comfortable than their parents’ generation in almost every conceivable way, but spiritually and emotionally despondent – made a similarly miserable observation about the role that technology and the never-ending stream of entertainment it provides plays in our lives. Responding to the interviewer’s question about the internet supplanting television as the dominant medium through which we receive information and entertainment, Foster Wallace remarked:

“The idea, though, that improved technology is going to solve the problems that the technology has caused seems to me to be a bit quixotic. I understand that there’s a certain amount of hope about the internet democratizing people and activating them. The fact of the matter is that it seems to me if you’ve still got a nation of people sitting in front of screens, interacting with images rather than each other, feeling lonely and so needing more and more images, you’re going to have the same basic problem. And the better the images get, the more tempting it’s going to be to interact with images rather than other people, and I think the lonelier it’s going to get. That’s just my suspicion, my own opinion.”

A prescient suspicion, indeed. Instagram was founded a decade and a half after that interview aired. The world we find ourselves in today is actually more surreal than a nation sitting in front of screens all day, at home and work, living vicariously through images. We’ve literally seen people get hit by busses crossing streets because they’re staring at their smartphones; others have fallen off of cliffs trying to capture the perfect selfie to impress their “followers.”

“This book.. contends that the world has not swerved into lunacy, and that, in fact, beneath the clatter and jangle of seemingly senseless events there lies a startling and potentially hopeful pattern… The Third Wave is for those who think the human story, far from ending, has only just begun.”
– Alvin Toffler, “The Third Wave” (1980)

We suffer from overchoice and technology has, paradoxically, pushed us further apart as a social society. That much seems clear. But what did Toffler get wrong in his visions of the future? What possibilities did he identify that never came to pass? One thing the BBC pointed out in its retrospective was the possibility that large cities would decline in size and importance.

Cities have not declined. Since Toffler laid out that possibility, we’ve seen the opposite: global mass migrations to urban areas. Roughly 80% of Americans live in urban areas. Globally, the figure is closer to 55%. The United Nations predicts that by 2050, it’ll be around 68%. In 1990, there were only 10 megacities (cities with populations of more than 10 million people) in the world. Today, there are 33. In a decade, they predict there will be 43.

“Trends, no matter how powerful, do not continue in a straight line.”
– Alvin Toffler, “The Third Wave” (1980)

It was in The Third Wave that Toffler foresaw a computer-enabled halcyon future for post-industrial societies in which working from home would become the norm. He didn’t mention the internet, because it didn’t exist at the time, but he did recognize that advancements in microprocessors would soon allow us to automate almost our entire home environments. Calling the computer an “antidote to blip culture,” he certainly recognized the immense power this monument of human achievement held, without knowing precisely how that power would manifest itself.

The possibility that large urban centers would decline in size was directly related to the rise in home computers and “electronic cottages,” homes in which the computer would play an increasingly prominent role. Toffler believed that as we moved from an industrial society to a service sector economy. Moreover, it would be in both the best interests of workers and employers to promote working from home and avoiding the time and costs associated with commuting as much as possible. If and when commuting to and from an office became obsolete, so would the importance of geographic proximity to it, thus increasing the chances that bustling activity in city centers would decline.

Few companies have embraced the idea of a fully-remote workforce. The ability to work from home once or twice a week has become now typically considered a perk. That doesn’t allow for freedom of location. Workers find themselves tethered to their physical office locations.

The future seems inevitable but it’s taking a long time. We’re experiencing future lethargy, not future shock. So lethargic, we are, that perhaps only a global catastrophe could snap us out of it and provide the proper accelerant.

[COVID-19 enters from stage left, grins, leaves.]

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
– Alvin Toffler, “Future Shock” (1970)

The pandemic has forced employers’ hands, several years earlier than anticipated. A slow transition morphed into something magnitudes faster. Any business owner whose core offering does not absolutely require face-to-face interaction must justify the costs of operating offices. They must ask where else that money could become spent. If they’re worried about employees who work from home slacking off. They must acknowledge that those same employees slack off in the office, or replace them. Furthermore, wider nets will be cast for talent, as geographic location becomes a secondary or non-consideration.

The end of an inertial period.

Everything becomes aligned for it to happen sooner than expected; and if it does, it could be accompanied by a decline in the importance and size of massive city centers.

Time always tells.

“We who explore the future are like those ancient mapmakers, and it is in this spirit that the concept of future shock and the theory of the adaptive range are presented here — not as final word, but as a first approximation of the new realities, filled with danger and promise, created by the accelerative thrust.”
– Alvin Toffler, “Future Shock” (1970)

Written by Joe McKeating


(atriapro.com) is a professional learning platform for organizations and individuals to gain the crypto/web3 foundational knowledge they need. The flagship “Foundations” program offers a thorough but accessible education in distributed computer networks, blockchain technology, consensus mechanisms, hash functions, mining, staking, cryptocurrency, smart contracts, non-fungible tokens and decentralized finance.

What Did Alvin Toffler Predict? Did Toffler Predict Crypto/Web3 Foundational Knowledge?