Who: Alvin Toffler
Where: Bel Air Hotel, Los Angeles, CA,
April 9, 2008
On the Menu:
Accelerating time, changing spatial relationships and shared knowledge.
In 1970, around the time when others were producing fairy tales like the 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock laid out soberly and precisely how advances in technology would change society, culture and the way we do business. At the Bel Air Hotel they know how to recognize a celebrity. They also know how to distinguish mere transient fame from lasting influence. Toffler surely has that. He has been consulted by politicians ranging from the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. He has been named among the 50 most important Westerners shaping China’s modern development since Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and one of the most listened-to voices in American business, on par with Bill Gates and Peter Drucker.
This is why, perhaps, the restaurant staff in Bel Air treats Toffler with understated reverence. Toffler, who will celebrate his 80th birthday in October, certainly looks very much the sage. But he is anything but pompous. On the contrary, he has a nimble mind and takes a lively interest in the world around him. He certainly continues to give a lot of thought to the forces that will influence our world over the next three decades.
But first, he warns against extrapolating the future from the present and encourages us to look at broad, fundamental concepts instead. The first such concept is time. “Sure, time has accelerated — we predicted that in Future Shock. What’s important now is that time accelerated differently for different parts of society.”
Imagine a cop standing on the side of a highway with a speed gun. A car zooms by at a hundred miles per hour. It is Big Business, which moves very quickly and, because it needs to compete, adapts instantly to the changing environment. Non-governmental organizations and other parts of civil society are like small cars with people in them. They are tooting around at a slower speed but they still move very fast. And then there are various institutions and the public sector, which are crawling along at no more than 15 miles per hour — if that.
This is a condition which Toffler terms “desynchronization.” His worst example of desynchronizationis the education system. In their current form, public schools in the United States came into being in the late 19th century. A great debate was raging at the time. Most parents didn’t want schools, because they needed their kids to start working early. Public education was instituted when Big Business weighed in and demanded schools that would instill industrial discipline into future workers. Schools had to teach the importance of being on time, how to follow instructions and other skills that would be required at a large factory.
But changing the education system, adapting it to the needs of companies competing in the age of informatics, runs up against tremendous institutional inertia that may be impossible to overcome.
“Bill Gates did something recently which I had been expecting him to do for a long time,” says Toffler. “He came out and said that our educational system is broken. It can no longer be fixed and a new one will have to be built from scratch.”
Toffler shakes his head in disbelief every morning, when he sees yellow school buses ferrying students to school: “They are teaching kids to commute.”