Ed Driscoll

Predicting The 21st Century -- In 1980

Back in 1998, as part of their 30th anniversary, Reason looked at numerous books on the future written during those past thirty years, to see who got it right, and who–really–got it wrong. (Paging Mr. Ehrlich, Mr. Paul Ehrlich to the white courtesy phone, please).

I think you could make a pretty good case that Alvin Toffler’s 1980 book, The Third Wave was one of the books that got it right. There’s a reason why Newt frequently sited it during the heady Contract With America days of 1994 and 1995, and why it still holds up fairly well today. It doesn’t hurt that Toffler had already written Future Shock in the late 1960s, which–while still enjoyable–was quickly rendered somewhat dated with its atmosphere of sixties’ zeitgeist. Toffler wouldn’t make that same mistake again with The Third Wave.

Here are my thoughts on Toffler’s book, written for an Electronic House magazine subscribers’ newsletter, and reprinted here by permission. (The resource links at the end of the post are also from the original newsletter):

Getting It Right: The Book That Predicted the Smart Home

Since we’re in the first decade of a new millennium, it’s always fun to look back at books written many years ago that attempted to predict the future, and see who got it right. Those that tended to be wildly optimistic (Flying cars! Vacations on the moon!) along with those that tended to be wildly pessimistic (Nuclear winter! Massive overpopulation!) usually fell short of the mark.

One book that largely did get it right was Alvin Toffler’s “The Third Wave,” first published in 1980, and continuously in print since. Toffler actually did a pretty good job of forecasting the smart home and the reasons for it.

Written During Faltering Economy

To understand how significant a leap this was, it helps to remember the economy of the late 1970s: hyperinflation, astronomical interest rates, and rampant unemployment were all features of the era. But Toffler was able to look at why these things were occurring: much of the free world was making the transition from a rustbelt mass-production assembly line economy of heavy manufacturing to a high tech, on-demand, service-oriented economy.

So in 1980, as the American economy was bottoming out, perhaps Toffler would have sounded wildly optimistic even to himself when he predicted the rise, over the next couple of decades, of networked computing, telecommuting, flex-time, the end of the dominance of mass media, standardized mass production replaced with customization, and the smart, automated home.

Welcome To The Electronic Cottage

“The Third Wave” contained a chapter called, “The Electronic Cottage”. In the late 1970s, few homes had VCRs, fewer still had a personal computer. Cable TV was still rather rare, and most homes had communications technology scarcely advanced since the mid-1950s: radio, TV, a record player, and a single-line telephone.

What Toffler did was to look at the first microcomputers rolling off the assembly lines at Apple, Commodore and Tandy (who produced the TRS-80), and extrapolated how they would change society the same way the motor did. The first steam-powered machines were enormous locomotives. Then the motor became progressively smaller as it was fitted into cars, powered assembly lines, then air conditioners, and even down to handheld hair driers. Eventually, Toffler deduced, the microchip would be inside not just the computer and pocket calculator, but it would control lights, thermostats, communications, and even coffee makers and microwave ovens.

Today, the average den contains a PC with a broadband Internet connection, a wired or wireless LAN to the rest of the house, multiple phone lines, hundreds of channels of satellite or digital cable, DVDs, CDs, and increasingly, an MP3 server. That’s a staggering amount of communications and computing technology, which of course, is only going to increase.

And the introduction of that technology has radically changed society. More and more people work non-standard hours, and/or telecommute from home. Instead of newspapers and television having a monopoly on news and opinion, personal Web sites and Weblogs have created much more of a two-way dialogue between “big media” and the rest of us. And all of these changes are the end result of the fact that we all now do live in some sort of electronic cottage.

Few of these changes could have been predicted 25 years ago, yet Toffler’s “The Third Wave” got many details of the future right. If it’s not there already, maybe it should be in your smart home’s library.

Resource Links

Toffler Associates–Alvin Toffler’s consulting firm.

Discussing War and Anti-War with Alvin Toffler“–My September 2001 interview with Toffler on the initial implications of 9/11.

Chasing The Long Tail“–My look at how the Internet is radically transforming pop culture.

SmartHome.com–Where to find many of the gadgets that would have been science fiction 25 years ago.