Alvin Toffler, one of the world's best-known futurists receives an exclusive interview from Yong Tang, People's Daily correspondent based in Washington, DC.
Alvin Toffler, one of the world's best-known futurists takes a photo with Yong Tang (R), People's Daily correspondent based in Washington, DC.
Alvin Toffler is one of the world's best-known futurists and social thinkers. His books, such as Future Shock, The Third Wave and Powershift, continue to be read in more than 50 countries. They have drawn comment from and have affected the strategic thinking of leaders from around the world and have significantly influenced contemporary thought about the information revolution, social transformation and the speed of change. Toffler works in close intellectual partnership with his spouse, Heidi Toffler, who has co-authored many of his works. His new book Revolutionary Wealth was published in Chinese a few months ago and soon has became a bestseller in Mainland China.
Recently Yong Tang, People's Daily Washington-based correspondent, did a face-to-face interview with Mr. Alvin Toffler.
The Third Wave, an influential book in China
Yong Tang: When did you visit China for the first time?
Toffler: My wife and I went to China for the first time on January 1, 1983, shortly after we finished writing The Third Wave, and we produced a television program based on our book. We lectured at the Chinese Society for Future Studies, which was a branch of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. We also showed the television program. And then we left. Two years later we were on our way to Paris for a conference, and I was reading the French magazine L'Express. It said the best selling book in China after the speeches of Deng Xiaoping was The Third Wave.
Yong Tang: So you were surprised?
Toffler: Yes, very surprised.
Yong Tang: You might get a lot of royalty!
Toffler: Yes, but we got zero royalty. (Laugh)
Yong Tang: Did you authorize any Chinese publishing house to publish your book The Third Wave?
Toffler: No, we hadn't authorized anything.
Yong Tang: So it was pirated!
Toffler: Yes, exactly! (Laugh) But I believe it was pirated at the wish of the Politburo. (Laugh)
Yong Tang: Anyway your popularity was increased tremendously in China.
Toffler: Yes, we are not sorry, we are happy because we think the book helped promote reform in China.
Yong Tang: Some popular terms in Chinese society even came directly from The Third Wave. Do you know how influential you are in China today?
Toffler: We know when we come to China. We have been to China probably half a dozen times. We were in China about two years ago. People came up to us and told us that they can still remember bicycling ten miles to watch The Third Wave television program. Even now, they say to us "You changed China". I say the book and TV program may have had some impact, but China has been around for five thousand years.
There's a funny story about that. Before leaving America, I told Heidi not to bother bringing the television cassette to China because I thought it would not be shown and nobody would see it. She said don't be stupid! It will be seen at the top! And apparently it was. (Laugh)
No country can wipe off poverty overnight
Yong Tang: In The Third Wave you said China was a complex society with three distinct groups in it: First Wave rural people who are basically farmers, Second Wave urban people who work in factories and other traditional industries, and now Third Wave people who are involved with or use information technology.
Toffler: When I visited China in 1998, I was told by the Chinese State Planning Commission that there were 10 million people who belonged to The Third Wave category. That group has vastly increased since then.
Yong Tang: What is your updated estimate today?
Toffler: I don't have the number but obviously there are many millions more people in The Third Wave sector today. Look at how many Chinese people are online now and use computers and cell phones.
Yong Tang: As you may know, the gap between the city and the country is growing rapidly in China today.
Toffler: The State Planning Commission gave me numbers in 1998. They said in China there were 900 million First Wave people, 300 million Second Wave people and 10 million Third Wave people. But obviously things are accelerating and going much much faster now. The gap between the countryside farming population and the industrial population is very large now. The gap between the Second Wave population and The Third Wave population is increasingly larger also, not just concerning income, but also about lifestyle, values and everything else. Just look at China's young people.
Yong Tang: So it is tremendously unbalanced, isn't it?
Toffler: But that is inevitable. The same thing happened during the Industrial Revolution in England which produced a widening gap between city people and country people. Back then they had only two groups to deal with. The situation is much more complicated in China today because there are three groupings.
These groups have very different interests. The farming population wants the highest possible price for food. The urban industrial population, not surprisingly, would prefer the lowest possible food price. The Third Wave population has its own concerns. Tensions like these are present in every country, not just in China. But in China everything is in such a gigantic scale. It is harder to deal with these tensions. New waves of change always bring new tensions. The question is how you prevent those tensions from getting out of control.
Yong Tang: Can China go directly from the First Wave to The Third Wave by leapfrogging the Second Wave?
Toffler: There are small countries which can do that. But a country with a population of China's size may have a very hard time doing that. In our new book, Revolutionary Wealth, we talk about transforming agriculture, dealing with poverty not just in China but everywhere by advancing to what we call "hyper-agriculture". Hyper-agriculture is on the horizon. It will use advanced technology and can be highly productive. It doesn't just produce food. It also produces energy and high-value added materials for many other products. But it requires an educated workforce.
I don't believe you can wipe out poverty quickly and immediately. No country can do that overnight. What you can do is educate the current generation of farm children in new ways, and begin the search to see if technologies that are created for other purposes can also be modified for use in agriculture. We have medications designed to treat one disease which often can also, alone or in combination, prove effective against other illnesses.
Yong Tang: Yes, many Chinese farmers today are beginning to use advanced technologies like cell phones. Even my parents who are in China can talk with me via a cell phone when they are still working in the fields. It is quite amazing.
Toffler: Cell phones are a technology used in agriculture, but the ones we write about in Revolutionary Wealthare much further advanced. We know how to produce genetically modified food which will carry vitamins and medications. We write about the possibility of implanting sensors in plants so that each plant could tell you when it needs water and nutrition. You can link those sensors to satellites which could tell you where you should apply custom-made fertilizers.
That is just the beginning of ways to take agriculture technologies to a very high level. Today's rural children will grow up in a world in which agriculture will have become one of the most advanced industries. But all that requires education and government cooperation. It is not easy and it is not immediate. It may take decades.
Yong Tang: But in my hometown the way of doing farming is still very primitive. Most of the work is done by hand. In the foreseeable future the farmers just can't afford to such expensive high technology.
Toffler: I understand that. But the first step is to undertake research into new technologies useful for agriculture. Technology by itself cannot solve the problem of poverty, but poverty in the fields cannot be solved without technology.
Timing the most difficult thing in forecasting
Yong Tang: You made a number of major predictions in the 1970s and 1980s. So far what predictions have been proven wrong?
Toffler: I don't like the word "prediction". It suggests certainty. And nobody knows the future with certainty. We can, however, identify ongoing patterns of change. "Forecast" is a better word.
So which of our forecasts have not occurred? In our first major book, Future Shock, published in 1970, we said that there would be cloning of animals and human beings by 1985. That was the best guess given to us by a leading Nobel Prize-winning biologist. We based this estimate on him.
From this experience, I learned that the most difficult thing in forecasting is the timing. You can say something is going to happen, but it is very hard to say precisely when. In that book we also wrote about throw-away products. We said people might someday wear paper clothing. Everybody said it didn't happen. And they are right. But in my suitcase I still carry a little tiny plastic package with paper underwear in it. I have carried that paper underwear around since the 1970s. (Laughing) But of course paper clothing never became a major product.
On the other hand, when people tell futurists they missed a forecast, we can always say, "It hasn't happened -- YET." So we may be wrong about paper clothing, but in that same book 36 years ago we forecasted cable television, video recording, virtual reality, changes in family structure in the United States (family size becomes smaller and smaller), and many other things that did happen. Most important, was the correct central theme of Future Shock -- that change was going to accelerate in the decades ahead. And that has certainly happened -- no where more so than here in China.
Yong Tang: After The Third Wave, you forecasted that mankind would move to other planets in the universe and that is what you call the Fourth Wave.
Toffler: Right. Actually, we believe the fourth wave will involve both a combination of biological advances and digital technology, and a serious movement into space.
What will be remembered about our lifetime one thousand years from today? They will look at our society as primitive and stupid and ignorant. But one thing they will remember is that we are the first society in human history to create wealth beyond our planet. I believe the next generation or two will see enormous increases in human activities in space. Combined with other changes, you will have a Fourth Wave society.
Yong Tang: Do you mean everybody could move into space or just the wealthy?
Toffler: No, I am not necessarily talking about people. Maybe that can also happen. We can use space technology to solve problems and create wealth here on Earth, as well. China has a very ambitious space program. I am planning another trip to China, and hope I can witness an actual Chinese space launch.
My impression is that the Chinese space program is extremely ambitious and involves many, many different projects. The question is whether the money will be there to carry out all of those programs.
Global wealth map to undergo dramatic changes
Yong Tang: In Revolutionary Wealth, you forecast that the global wealth map will undergo dramatic changes in favor of Asia and that Asia may become the dominant economic force in the world. Why are you so optimistic about Asia, and not very optimistic about Europe?
Toffler: That's correct. We are not optimistic about European development.
Yong Tang: But the European Union is becoming bigger and bigger?
Toffler: In my opinion, the European Union is also becoming weaker and weaker. (Laugh) It still believes that progress is about factories and it remains focused on Second Wave development. Third Wave development is often most evident in the smallest countries, such as Finland, Ireland, Slovakia. All the big countries in Europe are falling behind.
In 2000, European leaders met in Lisbon and announced that by 2010 Europe would be the greatest and most competitive information-based economy in the world. Then in 2001 the EU reported that not much had been done toward fulfilling this goal. The EU said the same thing in 2002, 2003, and so on. Each year it got worse and worse. In 2004, Germany's chancellor finally declared the Lisbon goal "unrealistic". One might even say that Europe is techno-phobic, while Asia, if anything, is techno-philiac.
Yong Tang: Just like America?
Toffler: Yeah, even more so. In Singapore Lee Kwan Yew changed Singapore from a backward port city to an advanced economy. When Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad took office, the primary products of his country were tin and timber. By the time he left office, it was semiconductor chips. South Korean under Kim Dae-jung became one of the most advanced IT economies in the world. In China there is a policy, which I trace to Deng Xiaoping, to try to become a Third Wave country. That is why our book The Third Wave sold so many copies in China. So, many Asian countries have had remarkable leaders who understood the importance of the IT industry, science and high technology generally.
Yong Tang: Maybe America will do better than Asia in the future?
Toffler: Very possibly. America has enormous cultural and financial resources, and is filled with entrepreneurs. In fact, China would not have achieved its current global position without America.
To understand why, we need to look back to the mid-1950s, when today's revolutionary economy was just beginning in the U.S. In 1956, Soviet leader Khrushchev said, "We will bury the West" -- a famous quotation. But in fact the revolution was already starting and nobody knew it.
At the time, I was here in Washington DC as a journalist covering Congress and the White House. The first mainframe computers were just beginning to migrate from the military and government into the business world. In 1956 very few people had television at home. If you wanted to watch television, you went to a bar. But within five years virtually everybody had a television set in his or her home. In addition, commercial jet aviation was introduced, shortening the time it took to fly across the country.
Then on my birth date of October 4, 1957, Russia launched Sputnik, the first satellite. That led the U.S. into the space program. Washington made enormous investments in research, development, education and science. To carry out the space program, it required the integration of huge, complicated projects involving thousands of vendors and companies. You have to learn how to create and manage temporary organizations around specific problems. That is how the idea of systems came into being. Today we routinely think about systems, sub-systems, and interactions among systems. That came out of our experiences with the space program, and it subsequently had major impact on how American companies re-designed themselves.
In that period, you also got rock music, new styles of literature and Hollywood movies that starred anti-heroes rather than heroes. Meanwhile, the Internet was created by the Pentagon to protect communications in case of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union.
Later, as computer use spread and the IT industry exploded, American companies began to outsource component manufacture and chip-making to Japan. Partially as a result, the Japanese economy grew quickly. Japan began to invest outside Japan -- in South Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia. Eventually, investments reached China. And all these investments can be traced back, directly or indirectly, to the coming of the Third Wave and the development of the computer industry in the United States.
Yong Tang: What do you see as the likely future for China?
Toffler: I would be cautious in making a forecast.
Much of what is written about China in the world outside its borders is based on simplistic projections of ongoing trends -- and, too often, on false or inadequate data. If you read a forecast based on straight-line projection, you should always question it, because history does not follow straight lines. And neither does the future. I can still remember when, a few years ago, The Economist magazine had a cover story entitled "China Superpower 2020". That became a clich��| in the West. It implied that China was on a straight-line course to becoming the world's most dominant nation. But it is far too simple and naive to think about the straight-line development. China, like everywhere else, will undoubtedly experience dramatic ups and downs in its future. That might include internal conflict.
In the past, China followed a "city-first" policy designed to extract capital from the First Wave sector to finance Second Wave, urban industrial development. In fact, that was what also happened after the Communist revolution in Russia when Lenin, and especially Stalin, came to power. I think a major problem facing the Chinese leadership is how to prevent "wave conflict", not just between the countryside and the city, but also between The Third Wave sector and others.
During the Industrial Revolution, England also faced wave conflict between the countryside and the people who wanted to develop the cities. In the United States during the 1860s there was a civil war between the technologically more advanced and industrializing North and the backward, slave-based South. It was the worst war in human history in terms of causalities. The north won and that is why we became an industrial power. If the north hadn't won, industrialization would have taken much longer.
So where you have waves of change, you have conflict. The question is how do you manage that conflict so that it doesn't become violent. That is the question facing China today. Your police departments reported 87,000 violent protests last year. So wave conflict is a serious issue for China.
Information technology's role
Yong Tang: How can information technologies like the Internet and blogs change the society?
Toffler: It may become more and more difficult for the government to control communications. The opening up of the Internet and cell phones will rapidly change every country, especially those countries in which communication is underdeveloped or deliberately limited by the government. Cell phones are changing the relationships of parents to children. Children talk via cell phones using languages their parents even don't know. They use coined words or abbreviations. It is changing politics as well. In the United States there is a group of people who used the Internet to raise money for Democrats in the last campaign. Democrats use the advanced technologies, but their ideas are still too old, going back to the Roosevelt era.
Yong Tang: Is that why Democratic presidential candidates can't win elections?
Toffler: It is said that the Democrats can win only if the Republicans shoot themselves. (Laugh). And the Republicans are working hard to shoot themselves right now. Personally I feel the political discussion in the United States right now is very backward. There is still no widespread political recognition of the conversion to the knowledge-based economy. They are still using political ideologies traceable back to the 1930s.
Yong Tang: How will information technology influence international relations?
Toffler: The speed with which China and Asia in general adopted cell phones; computers and other IT technologies came as a shock to the United States and the West. There was an arrogant assumption on the part of many in the West that the West is always ahead in technology, but they suddenly discovered that this is not always the case. The future power of a country will be heavily determined by technologies.
Yong Tang: Two American professors recently claimed that America has gained nuclear primacy, thus making the Mutually Assured Destruction strategy unworkable. America could destroy Russian long-range strategic nuclear forces in a first strike. Is the possibility of a nuclear war larger than ever before?
Toffler: The possibility of a nuclear war of that kind is 0.00000001. I don't think that is going to happen. I think war starting in some other ways and in other parts of the world could, however, escalate into nuclear conflict. And if terrorists or a terrorist regime acquires nuclear weapons, all bets are off.
Yong Tang: So human race will not destroy itself in the future?
Toffler: If there were a serious conflict over Taiwan that leads to the involvement of other countries, then you could have something like a world war or a gigantic regional war. That could lead to irresponsible use of weapons of mass destruction, not just nukes. So the anti-proliferation regime is extremely important. I wish China would take stronger steps to persuade North Korea and Iran not to have nuclear weapons.
Yong Tang: How do you think jobs will change in the future? Will all the work be done at home?
Toffler: We wrote in the 1980s that more and more people would work at home. When we wrote that, people said it was impossible and crazy. Two years after that, The New York Times ran a story on its front page saying the idea of working from home was far-fetched. Several years later it ran an article on page one in the exact same location. This story said, as if it was a new idea, that people were indeed working at home. (Laugh) Technologies make it highly productive to work from home. Many jobs don't require daily face-to-face interaction with other workers.
When I wrote about what I called the "electronic cottage" -- working from home -- in the 1980s and went to Japan to talk about it with Japanese people, they said, well, maybe in America, but never in Japan, because our homes are too small. Now the Japanese government has recently announced that by the year 2010 it expects to have 20 percent of the entire workforce working at home. One out of every five Japanese will work at home if they carry out their mission. I think the trend is going to spread and it is going to change the nature and size of homes and change family relations in Japan. For example, women can work and take care of their kids at the same time. There was a joke in the United States that "IBM" meant, "I've been moved". A company sent you from Detroit to Denver and you moved your family and then you moved to somewhere else. That will be less and less common since IT and digitalization make it possible for many jobs to be done anywhere at anytime.
Yong Tang: Do you work at home?
Toffler: Of course, always.
Yong Tang: So you don't need a car?
Toffler: I own a car because I like to get out of the house. I use it every day. I am a strange character. I am not a typical American. Because I work at home I have a disease called "Cabin Fever". Americans know that term. It means people need to get out of the house frequently. I actually go out three times a day to eat my meals in restaurants. My wife is a great cook, but I like to get out of the house. Even when I was in Washington DC as a reporter covering Capitol Hill, I did interviews like you do, and then I would go home to write my story. So I always work at home.
Yong Tang: How will education change in the future?
Toffler: The present education system in the U.S. and the West, and probably in China as well, is a system designed to create factory workers. If you look at mass education in the United States in the 1800s, some parents sent their children to school while some kept their children in the fields. When rural people came into the cities, companies needed workers for their factories. But what they got were workers who were born on farms and grew up in rural circumstances. Employers soon came to the conclusion that these workers were not efficient. They came late or they took many days off. That might not mean much in the field, but it means a lot in a factory. A single worker coming late to the assembly line could force hundreds or even thousands of other workers to stand around waiting. Companies began to demand that schools create what they called "Industrial Discipline". Even today, we have schools modeled on that. Children must be in school on time. They must do rote and repetitive work.
Now the economy is different. We need a new education model. We need to raise difficult questions. Should you compel all kids to start school at the same age? Perhaps some kids should start school at four or five, some at seven. Some attending classes in the morning, others in the evening. Students need alternative courses and different ways of working with each other. There will be a very noisy, loud and painful debate about whether we should even have compulsory education.
Also, we need to recognize that not all important learning takes place in a school. For example, when I bought my first computer in 1976 or so, I needed a "computer guru" to teach me how to use it. Who, in those days, was a "guru"? The answer was, anyone who bought the same machine one week before I did. He was more experienced than I was, and could teach me. A month later, I might know more than my "guru". So I would teach him. What you have in the U.S. is about 150 million people who can use a computer, but never went to school to learn how. Education, but no school!
We need to rethink the most basic assumptions about education. I was impressed when I visited a school in Tokyo. Ten-year-old kids were learning higher mathematics. But I was depressed by one thing: they left there at 10:30 at night and started at 8:00 o'clock the next morning. Is that a good school system? The answer is it may make kids smart but it doesn't make them happy or creative. We will encourage creativity because the country which is most creative will become the most economically successful.
Yong Tang: Do you think environmental pollution and energy shortages will be solved in the future? How do you think transportation mode will change in the future?
Toffler: There is no shortage of energy, it is a shortage of brains. We can get energy from the moon or the sea or the sun. The question is how and at what cost. It is also political. Big oil companies and oil-rich nations don't want to change. The issue could be solved by human effort and by applying brains and political will. I don't believe we are going to run out of energy.
Yong Tang: Some have said futurists are just like salesmen who are trying to sell new ideas. Someone has also claimed that futurists are like God or Jesus in your heart. How do you think of those comments?
Toffler: I certainly don't feel like GOD. (Laugh). First of all people who say that don't know what a futurist is. People who say that are themselves futurists and don't know it. For example there are 6 billion futurists on the planet. Everyone is a futurist. Stop and think. You are thinking this interview will end pretty soon and you will go to attend another meeting. It is a forecast. You drive your car and you are forecasting that cars alongside you will not swerve and collide with you. Everybody is making forecasts every moment of every day. This week an article appeared on Science magazine. It said even apes forecast and look ahead.
Futurists are those who think about the world or an aspect of the world over a longer term, not the next ten minutes or the next day. Heidi and I don't own a crystal ball. What we do is we read everything we can. We try to read materials from outside the United States. We travel and talk with people who are making changes and inventing things. We collect information from them. Then we decide what is important and what is not, and then we write a book. We don't believe we have some kind of religious magic. Nothing we write is certain or secure. As far as I am concerned, anybody who claims to "know" the future with certainty is what Americans call a quack -- someone not to be taken seriously.
Yong Tang: I know you have a company. Who are your clients? Do you have any Chinese clients?
Toffler: We have a consulting company called Toffler Associates. We work with a lot of telecommunications companies like Verizon. We work with NGOs. We work with Boeing and NASA.. We have business in Latin America, Brazil, Singapore, but not in China. Not yet.
Yong Tang: Do you know of a Chinese futurist whose name is Wang Xiaoping? She is a young girl in her 20s. Her book Second Declaration is quite popular in China. The main idea is that human society may evolve from monkeys to human beings to immortals. Someone said she is the Chinese version of Alvin Toffler.
Toffler: No, I don't. I would like to see the translation so I could read it. If she is saying we are not at the final stages of evolution, that there is further evolution, I think it is correct. But I don't know if she is correct.
Yong Tang: Your wife Heidi is also a futurist?
Yong Tang: It is very unusual. The wife and husband working in the same profession.
Toffler: In part, we invented the profession. (Laugh).
Yong Tang: Why did you decide to marry a lady who is also a futurist?
Toffler: Well, we got married years before we began writing about the future. My wife is brilliant. She and I argue and fight about ideas all the time. We have been doing this over the years. It is healthy arguing. We have been married for 56 years. We share the same values and we share the same information, but we don't always agree with the interpretation of that information.
Yong Tang: I know you two have different interpretations of the fourth wave?
Toffler: She emphasizes space a lot and I think she is right.
Yong Tang: Don't you feel angry or uncomfortable with arguing?
Toffler: Not at all, just the reverse. I am proud of her and I am proud of me being proud. (Laugh) She is a terrific lady and I have learned a lot from her, as she has from me.
Yong Tang: Most of the time you will accept her suggestions?
Toffler: She will accept my argument and I will accept hers. If I don't agree with her, I won't write it. At the same time she may very well persuade me. We go back and forth. It is a very helpful process. We have been arguing for 56 years but we still love each other. I miss her and she misses me and we love each other like kids.
Yong Tang: You were once a reporter with Fortune magazine?
Toffler: They called me an associate editor, but I was a writer and columnist. I was there for 2 ? years. That was a very valuable period because it gave me my introduction to business issues. If you asked me what my profession is, I would say I am an author and writer first, and secondarily I am a futurist. I have wanted to be an author and writer since I was seven years old.
Yong Tang: Being a futurist is profitable?
Toffler: Books can be profitable for writers -- unless they are pirated. And we have been pirated in many countries, including China. (Laugh)
Yong Tang: Probably not now? Now China has a relatively much stronger intellectual property protection than it had 20 years ago.
Toffler: I hope that is true.
Yong Tang: So I am sure your new book Revolutionary Wealthmay sell even better than The Third Wave. Then you could make more money.
Toffler: I hope that many Chinese will get a chance to read Revolutionary Wealthand see the future in a new way.
By Yong Tang, People's Daily correspondent based in Washington, DC