[The Montana Professor 1.1, Winter 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]


Alvin Toffler
Bantam Books, 1990

William Plank
Modern Language & Literature
Eastern Montana College

The theme of Toffler's latest book is that the age of rapid information technology is changing the nature of power, altering the system of the creation of wealth, producing a super-symbolic economy, and demassifying production. This state of affairs will lead to a shift in the power structure. Whatever real insights and valuable intuitions Toffler might have are disguised, hidden, and mutilated by prolixity, lack of precise definitions, false and oversimplified assumptions based on irrelevant or ambiguous material, outright historical error, pointless sentences, non-sequitur information, statements of the obvious with the air of amazing discovery, a hyperventilated style full of too-cute neologisms ("fam-firms"), ignorance of or inattention to communication theory and philosophy of technology of the last forty years, an inflated prophetic tone, and a constant self-congratulation for revealing to the fortunate reader secrets of such import. It is therefore not surprising that in the "Personal Preface," he appears to give some credit for his insights to hours of interviews with Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

He finds, for example, that the "heyday of doctor domination" in America is over and that the time of writing prescriptions in Latin (a semi-secret code) can no longer keep patients in ignorance. It is simply not true, as he claims, that medical journals and texts were restricted to professionals. Even fifty years ago, every family in my bucolic neighborhood in the Ozarks had a "doctor book"! He claims that the "knowledge monopoly of the medical profession has been smashed" because the 2,354-page Physicians' Desk Reference is "readily available to everyone," because anyone with a personal computer and a modem can access the Index Medicus, because "a video version of material from the JAMA is broadcast by three hundred stations on Thursday nights," etc. Toffler ignores that the PDR and the IM are mostly a mystery to anyone without solid training in pharmacology, chemistry, and physiology (and a PC and modem) and that the failure of public education during the last decade has made it impossible for a large percentage of Americans to read the directions on an aspirin bottle, much less the PDR. It is some credit to the education of prescription drug junkies that they find the PDR useful. Given the widening of the education gap, it is simply false that "in many other fields, too, closely held specialists' knowledge is slipping out of control and reaching ordinary citizens." The Reagan years concentrated wealth, education, and the access to information in the upper classes.

An academic reading Toffler's book is likely to find his blood pressure rising. "The most important economic development of our lifetime has been the rise of a new system for creating wealth, based no longer on muscle but on mind," he writes. But we saw such things happen already in the 15th century, when the feudal nobleman was frustrated by the power the banker and a money economy exercised over the values of the warrior class. Nothing is new as Toffler claims. Japan's substitution of "the knowledge-based technologies of The Third Wave," ignoring the nature of Japanese culture, is not an adequate explanation for Japan's recent economic importance. There is not therefore "a spread of this new knowledge economy," power is being reaffirmed in the traditional economic classes. And the recent failure of the Soviet Union's ideology is not the result of such a failure to embrace the information--it had always been a failure because it destroyed individual initiative.

In fact, there is no powershift. The monopoly of the wealthy and the educated extends to a monopoly on information, despite the PDR, and such a use of electronic information is a conservative social force. Joseph Weizenbaum recognized this long ago in Computer Power and Human Reason, where he wrote that the computer's ability to keep records on public welfare tends to perpetuate a system of public welfare which might otherwise fall to pieces and demand some other solution to the problem of poverty. The so-called revolution of electronic information has so far tended to preserve the status quo of power.

His analyses of the reaffirmation of religion in Islam and in Catholicism largely ignore the history of Islam and its recent fragmentation in the invasion of Saddam, the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian attack on Mecca, the warring Islamic clans in Beirut and the Syrian presence there. And the popularity of the present pope and his political activism cannot hide the weakening of orthodoxy because of feminism, birth control and abortion, the English language mass, and the extensive marriage, cohabitation, and homosexuality in the priesthood.

It is hard to conclude, as Toffler does, that we are witnessing the "hidden shift in the relationships between violence, wealth, and knowledge as societies speed toward their collision with tomorrow." We have seen it all before, in the rising bureaucracy of Phillip the Fair, in the banking of Jacques Coeur, in the 16th century translations of the Bible, the results of which turned Europe upside down, in the 17th century voyages of discovery and the notion of the primitive, colonialism and foreign trade, in our accommodation to modernism and the development of subjectivity since the Renaissance, in post-Nietzschean post-modernism, in structural cultural relativism, etc. It is hard to be impressed by such typical Tofflerian sentences as, "Wherever the industrial revolution passed, it shifted economic processes into a higher gear." Perhaps I am being unfair and this book is not for use by historians, sociologists, and philosophers...and is only meant as popular reading for the layman.

The idea that the information "revolution" is demassifying society and production is simply preposterous. Anyone who watches television, that privileged window on American culture, can tell that the media promote a profound standardization of the emotions, of humor, of the relations between the sexes and general interpersonal relations, of the consumption of material goods, of tastes in clothes, physical appearance and posture, in music, in facial expression, in language usage, in medications, in public comportment, and even in religious practice. To assume, as Toffler does, that the superficial variety of products that automation and electronic information storage make possible has anything to do with demassification--this is the same as claiming that we are becoming more and more free of the internal combustion engine because we have twenty-five models of Ford automobile and a hundred color combinations to choose from, whereas in 1949 we had only five.

At last, Powershift is much too long at 551 pages (plus index). Do yourself a favor and read the four-page summary in Newsweek (10 October 1990). And if you want to know something about technology, communications, and power, read Hedrick Smith's The Power Game, Wiezenbaum's Computer Power and Human Reason, Ellul's The Technological Society, Marcus's One Dimensional Man, Serres' The Parasite, Deleuze's Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, or Levy's Barbarism with a Human Face. If you are concerned about the nature of the symbolic society, read Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings (Stanford UP, 1988).

Yet, Toffler's work is enormously popular. Tolstoy didn't like Shakespeare: he thought the bard's fame was the result of mass hysteria.

[The Montana Professor 1.1, Winter 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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