Futurism now seems like an old-fashioned enterprise, redolent of the 1960s, when people dreamed of jet-packs and meals in astronaut-tested pills. Toffler, whose death at age 87 on Monday is now being reported, was one of the most famous futurists of the late 20th century. His 1970 book Future Shock was a massive bestseller, with the title becoming a part of the language.
In a 1995 New Republic profile of Toffler and his wife (and frequent collaborator) Heidi, John Judis rightly objected to the idea that the Tofflers were schlocky popularizers. Instead, as Judis argued, they had genuine insight into the patterns of a changing world:
In a Los Angeles Times column on Gingrich, Robert Borosage, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, pronounced Alvin Toffler’s major book, The Third Wave, a “melange of pulp sociology, pop culture, and hot facts.”...
These are predictable reactions, but the Tofflers deserve better. They are not academic social scientists, but that shouldn’t necessarily be a drawback at a time when so much of academic social science is dominated by neo-positivism and bad French philosophy. They certainly aren’t world-historical geniuses on the order of de Tocqueville or Weber, but they are serious students of economic history whose work is much closer to Daniel Bell and Peter Drucker than to John Naisbitt and George Gilder. During the ‘60s, they were among the first to understand the dramatic changes in work and society created by computer technology. Alvin Toffler authored studies for IBM, Xerox and AT&T that anticipated by decades the problems of technological unemployment and bureaucratic stasis.
Alvin Toffler, RIP.