Technorealism, Alvin Toffler, and the Forgotten Third Wave

The author of this Harper's article doesn't get the landscape.

I can only think of Arthur Jensen's messianic business ecumenicism from the 1976 film Network.

But that's to be expected from Harper's: the high watermark of urbane industrial civilization now in its twilight. Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.

There's a reason why, in the last ten years, there's been a massive resurgence in the adoption of jettisoned militant mass ideologies of the twentieth century across the board, not just within the alt-right.

The death of industrial society has arrived on time, just as people like Alvin Toffler and the Technorealists predicted twenty-five years ago. Toffler's Third Wave has landed, with all the implications that they predicted occurring.

And accordingly, that final cohort of Second Wave industrial society left behind is rising up in a futile attempt to stem the inevitable tide of history that is, in fact, coming to replace them, something predicted often in the past.

And the members of that cohort aren't just the bitter white working class in the rust belt that voted for Trump, larping as Nazis. It includes the liberal arts graduates that are now trapped in the service industry ranting about Capitalism, larping as Party members.

It also includes the career politicians and old-style party organs.

It includes the brick-and-mortar retail economy. It includes paper and cable journalism. These are all industrial paradigms catered towards the generation of mass culture.

And it's like Wily E Coyote, tunnel-visioned, racing off a cliff and only falling when he looks down.

It's what Alvin Toffler termed demassification:

  1. A process in which a relatively homogeneous social collectivity (or one conceptualized as such) is broken down into (or reconceptualized in terms of) smaller, more diverse elements.

  2. The decline of mass culture and mass society (also associated with audience fragmentation) as consumers have gained more choice of media content since the advent of satellite broadcasting and the web: see also mass consumption; narrowcasting; target audience.

  3. (advertising) A basic format, appeal, or discourse since the mid 1980s, cast in terms of self-distinction and uniqueness in a massified world (see also advertising formats). Its themes include authenticity, creativity, play, reflexivity, and diversity. Products are offered as a way of standing out from the crowd or as props for self-construction.

Alvin Toffler in an interview with Wired in 1993:

"We call it a civilization because it's not just the technology that's changing. The entire culture is in upheaval. All the social institutions designed for the second wave - for a mass production, mass media, mass society - are in crisis. The health system, the family system, the education system, the transportation system, various ecological systems - along with our value and epistemological systems. All of them.

"And the emerging third-wave civilization is going to collide head-on with the old first and second civilizations. One of the things we ought to learn from history is that when waves of change collide they create countercurrents. When the first and the second wave collided we had civil wars, upheavals, political revolutions, forced migrations. The master conflict of the 21st century will not between cultures but between the three supercivilizations - between agrarianism and industrialism and post- industrialism.


"The place we need really imaginative new ideas is in conflict theory. That's true with respect to war and peace, but also it's true domestically. The real weakness throughout the country is the lack of conflict resolution methods other than litigation and guns. As you increase social diversity, you do two things simultaneously: You increase potential trade-offs, and also potential conflicts. The trade-off possibilities are so complex that the institutions that we rely on to make those, to broker the deals, are overwhelmed. One of the functions of a legislature is to negotiate compromises among various constituencies. Well, the constituencies today are so numerous, their demands are so complex, and the rate of change in their demands and in the constituencies is so high that nobody in Congress represents anybody anymore. They represent themselves. Because their constituency changes from day to day. And as a consequence, their ability to broker out differences to arrive at compromise is more limited than it was.


"Why are all of our institutions and systems suddenly in simultaneous crisis? Because they were all designed for the mass industrial society that treats people in large numbers rather than in smaller, more defined and more changeable groupings. Constitutional constraints make it impossible for them to adapt in order to serve small grouplets and to provide niche services. The real big crisis that faces this country is a constitutional crisis. For the United States to make a swift, smart, and smooth transition into the wealth creation of the knowledge-based third wave there has to be a third-wave constituency in America. And the place that has to come from is the knowledge workers and from the third-wave corporations and industries. They've got money, they've got brains. But the core of the "brain-force economy" is politically retarded - it has a low political IQ and has not achieved political self-consciousness. The old smokestack barons and trade union leaders who dominated during the second wave are still running rings around you guys in Washington."

Hyperdemocracy - Robert Wright, 1995:

"The oft-expressed hope for cyberspace is that any tendency toward fragmentation into contending groups will be offset by a capacity for edifying deliberation. And decorous dialogue has indeed been seen there. But cyberspace is also notorious for bursts of hostility that face-to-face contact would have suppressed. And a perusal of the Internet's newsgroups suggests that any tendencies toward convergence will have some real gaps to bridge. There's alt.politics.greens, alt.politics.libertarian, alt.politics.radical-left,, alt.politics.nationalism.white,, alt.rush-limbaugh.die.a .flaming.death. In a nation that has trouble fixing its attention on the public good and is facing increasingly bitter cultural wars, this is not a wholly encouraging glimpse of the future. There's no alt.transcendent.public.interest in sight.

Not to worry. In the Gingrich camp, optimism runs rampant. Alvin Toffler and a few other seers prepared a "Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age" for the Progress and Freedom Foundation, which supports Gingrich. The authors dismiss in Tofflerian language those who fret about social balkanization in cyberspace as "Second Wave ideologues" (that is, Industrial Revolution dinosaurs, not clued in to the "Third Wave," the knowledge revolution). "Rather than being a centrifugal force helping to tear society apart, cyberspace can be one of the main forms of glue holding together an increasingly free and diverse society." The key to a "secure and stable civilization" is to make "appropriate social arrangements." Unfortunately, they never get around to specifying the social arrangements."

R. U. Sirius in 1996:

"[A]nybody who doesn't believe that we're trapped hasn't taken a good look around. We're trapped in a sort of mutating multinational corporate oligarchy that's not about to go away. We're trapped by the limitations of our species. We're trapped in time. At the same time identity, politics, and ethics have long turned liquid. [...] Cyberculture (a meme that I'm at least partly responsible for generating, incidentally) has emerged as a gleeful apologist for this kill-the-poor trajectory of the Republican revolution. You find it all over Wired [an online magazine] - this mix of chaos theory and biological modeling that is somehow interpreted as scientific proof of the need to devolve and decentralize the social welfare state while also deregulating and empowering the powerful, autocratic, multinational corporations. You've basically got the breakdown of nation states into global economies simultaneously with the atomization of individuals or their balkanization into disconnected sub-groups, because digital technology conflates space while decentralizing communication and attention. The result is a clear playing field for a mutating corporate oligarchy, which is what we have. I mean, people think it's really liberating because the old industrial ruling class has been liquefied and it's possible for young players to amass extraordinary instant dynasties. But it's savage and inhuman. Maybe the wired elite think that's hip. But then don't go around crying about crime in the streets or pretending to be concerned with ethics."

Reasonable people on both sides of the aisle (the cyberdelics and the technorealists) knew or at least strongly suspected the implications of what a connected society would do to our life and civilization. They knew that this day would come and that it would be just as traumatic as it is and will be.

The 180-degree about-face against Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook in the last year has been a collective recognition by the powers of the 20th century that the landscape has changed beyond recognition.

One can almost trace the palpable reaction of this Ancien Régime to two realizations in 2017:

It was Facebook, not Russia, that caused catalyzed the election of Donald Trump.

And Mark Zuckerberg was preparing a presidential run in 2020 with the power of Facebook and Big Tech behind him.

It's pretty apparent that the reason Trump won wasn't Russian intervention (note the extremely Second Wave nature of the explanation: nations playing at geopolitics). It was the intervention of Facebook.

It was the intervention of Twitter and 4chan.

Russia assisted the technological giants in overthrowing traditional bureaucratic government in exactly the same way that the Divine King Louis XVI assisted the Continental Army in overthrowing Constitutional Monarchy in America a decade before the revolutionary wave came to France.

The election of 2016 was the absolute subversion of the idea and practice of legitimate bureaucracy and traditional media and all the Second Wave political science.

Hillary Clinton, by all metrics of traditional Second Wave culture, should have had the presidency locked down pat. She put in the time. She had all the qualifications. She said and did all the Right Things to win. She was backed by all the right interests.

Yet she lost to an unqualified demagogue that understood the potential of technology.

But make no mistake: Donald Trump isn't the apotheosis of a new form of politics.

He's exactly what he seems: a geriatric boomer playing with "the cyber".

Donald Trump isn't the 21st century Hitler. If anything, he's the Franz Von Papen of the 21st century. He's not in control. He's a naive puppeteer that believes he can control the zeitgeist that will soon envelop him.

He's not alone in this delusion: the Democratic Party isn't the controlling party in the alliance with Silicon Valley, as they're rapidly finding out as well.

The titular origin of Wag the Dog sums it all up:

Why does a dog wag its tail?

Because the dog is smarter than the tail. If the tail was smarter, it would wag the dog.