The Third Wave (Toffler book)

The Third Wave is a 1980 book by Alvin Toffler. It is the sequel to Future Shock (1970), and the second in what was originally likely meant to be a trilogy that was continued with Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century in 1990. A new addition, Revolutionary Wealth, was published, however, in 2006 and may be considered as a major expansion of The Third Wave.

The Third Wave
Bookcover of The Third Wave.jpg
First edition
AuthorAlvin Toffler
CountryUnited States
SubjectsSocial Science, History, Futurology
PublisherWilliam Morrow (US)
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover and Paperback)
ISBN0-517-32719-8 (hardcover), ISBN 0-553-24698-4 (paperback)
Preceded byFuture Shock 
Followed byPowershift 

Toffler's book describes the transition in developed countries from Industrial Age society, which he calls the "Second Wave", to Information Age "Third Wave" society.

Toffler's wave theoryEdit

In the book Toffler describes three types of societies, based on the concept of 'waves'—each wave pushes the older societies and cultures aside.

Anthropological interpretationEdit

The transition from the earlier hunter-gatherer societies to the agrarian and agricultural societies is also known as the Neolithic Revolution. This coincides with the transition from the Mesolithic era to the Neolithic era (respectively, the Middle and Late Stone Age). The transition from the Paleolithic to the Mesolithic (Early to Middle Stone Age), in turn, largely coincides with the emergence of the modern Homo sapiens from earlier, related archaic human species.

Nearly extinct in the present-day world, hunter-gatherer societies (which one might term the "Zero Wave" societies) are not recognized in Toffler's scheme. Similarly, in the classical Three-age system, distinctions are recognized between the Stone Age era Bronze Age, Iron Age, the boundary between the latter two c. 1300–1200 BCE being as dramatic as that demarcating Toffler's waves. None of these phases are clearly recognized in the Toffler scheme, in part due to the prevalence of the latter phase amongst present-day pre-industrial societies.

The transition from Toffler's First Wave and Second Wave is sometimes also recognized as a transition from the Iron Age to the Steel Age. At present, there is no clear delineation of the latest transition, though sometimes the term Post-industrial society, originating from Daniel Bell, is used, in addition to Toffler's "Third Wave society".

The important point is that the nature of society (relationships between people and political and economic structures) is significantly altered by the impact of new technology. That to some degree peoples lives are modified to serve the technology.

Key characteristics of the third wave societyEdit

Though the society foreseen is still emerging, with the dramatic transitions of the past two decades (e.g. Cell Phones, Internet, the rise of non-national and super-national powers, etc.), several distinguishing features were posed as characteristic of this new society. Among others, these included

  • The rolling back of the Industrial-Era creed of "standardization", as exemplified in the one-size-fits-all approach typical of institutions of this era, such as the education system, factories, governments, mass media, high volume mass production and distribution, etc.
  • The attack on the nation-state from above and below and progressive obsolescence of the nation-state itself.
  • The assault on the nation-state from below would include both the gradual loss of consensus, such as has characterized the politics of the United States in the 21st century, as well as political turmoil in China (largely split amongst urban-rural lines), Israel (orthodox vs. secular), the Islamic world (fundamentalist or traditional vs. secular) and elsewhere. It would include the rise of regional interests and the progressive devolution of the nation-state itself; e.g. the autonomization of Wales and Scotland in Britain; of Nunavut and Canada; the frequent incidence of separatist movements, the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, the USSR, Ethiopia, the emergence of microstates, such as East Timor.
  • The assault on the nation-state from above would include the rise of powerful non-national entities: NGO's, multinational corporations, religions with global reach, and even terrorist organizations or cartels. It would include the progressive hemming-in of national economies and of nation-states under a growing network of super-national organizations and affiliations; e.g. the European Union, the North American Union, the newly formed African Union, as well as organizations such as the WTO, NAFTA or International Criminal Court.
  • The eclipsing of monetary wealth by knowledge and information as the primary determinant of power and its distribution. This was also discussed more fully in the sequel Powershift.
  • The eclipsing of manufacturing and manufacturing goods by knowledge-production and information-processing as the primary economic activity. This was significantly expanded on in the sequel Powershift, where Toffler nearly drew the line between the two along gender lines, coining the term "Material-Ismo" (a play on "machismo") to represent the infatuation with the industrial era world of manufacturing (as opposed to paper-pushing), and equating value with product (as opposed equating value with information). The criticism came down particularly hard on the former Stalinist societies, that have in recent years seen a substantial dislocation, particularly along gender lines, with female life expectancy now as much as 10 years greater than male life expectancy throughout the former USSR.
  • The emergence of various high technologies, such as cloning, global communications networks, nanotechnology, etc. However, these aspects were discussed in greater depth in Future Shock and somewhat deemphasized in The Third Wave.
  • A transformation of the very character of democracy, itself, from rule-by-periodic polling at the election booth, toward a more direct interaction between the government and its populace. To a large extent, this has already emerged with the rise of the Internet, though it has not yet congealed in the form of a fundamental revision of the constitution of any state.

Discussing the book in a later interview, Toffler said that industrial-style, centralized, top-down bureaucratic planning would be replaced by a more open, democratic, decentralized style which he called “anticipatory democracy.”[1]

Despite the forecast of the obsolescence of the order of nation-states, and the rise of super-national entities, what was not forecast was the emergence of a world political union cast in the form of the United States of Earth. In the framework of the Wave Theory of Toffler, such an institution, if constituted along lines similar to present-day nation states, would represent the very archetype of the Second Wave writ large. Curiously, the potential of a federal world union cast in the mould of a heterogeneous mix (e.g. nations, labor unions, religions affiliations, businesses, popular assemblies, IGO's, etc. all brought together in an overlapping mix) was left open.

Toffler left open both the question of what the outcome of the transformation of the structure of democracy was to entail, as well as the question of what kind of world order would supersede the order of nation-states. This became particularly acute in the 1993 addendum War and Anti-War which raised the issue of the "Genie out of the Bottle" (nuclear proliferation) and the illusion of the "Zone of Peace" being broken (i.e., 9-11, Madrid, London, etc.), but remained silent on the questions of what changes in the structure of the world would be required to resolve these dilemmas, if the nation-state is to become obsolete and "United State of Earth" type global organizations just as much so.

Fourth waveEdit

Though talk about another major historical watershed on a par with the Neolithic Revolution may seem premature, given that the Third Wave has only reached its crest with the advent of the Internet, one of the central themes of Future Shock is that history, itself, would accelerate to the point where all of the past would catch up with the present. Therefore, the question has been raised with increasing frequency as to whether a Fourth Wave is looming or already underway with the most recent dislocations that appear to be taking place in the world.

There has already been one book, published in 1993, titled Fourth Wave: Business in the 21st Century by Herman Bryant Maynard and Susan E. Mehrtens, which forecasts and advocates the rise of a form of eco-globalism in the 21st century. A closer reading of the book, however, may mistake its central theme as a partial completion of the questions left open by Toffler concerning the nature of Third Wave society at the global level, rather than another major historical watershed.

However, the question is still unresolved and no official word has been forthcoming from Toffler. Nor is one likely, given the quote "the sweeping synthesis [of the trilogy] Powershift).


  1. ^ Alvin Toffler, Previews & Premises: An Interview with the Author of Future Shock and The Third Wave, Black Rose books, 1987, p. 50, ISBN 0920057373, 978-0920057377

External linksEdit