Part of the problem with the awful kind of augury performed by Alvin Toffler and the futurists is that it is heretical to any religion outside L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology, and part of the problem is that it is aesthetically vulgar, but most of the problem is that it is all so silly it feels a little small-minded to notice that it is heretical and vulgar. Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?
And yet-well, and yet, there is a seductive consistency to Toffler’s prognostications, and he surely seems to know a lot about a lot of different kinds of things, and after all he might be right about the shape of things to come. And once we start to think this way-as Speaker Newt Gingrich apparently has-we are caught, for something lives in all of us that wants to shake loose from our petty little thoughts, that wants to move around and think big thoughts, that wants to get up and do the Big Think in just the way that Toffler and his fellow prophets of the technological future all seem able to do.
We ought to be at least initially skeptical whenever we encounter simplicity used to explain complexity, but the explanatory range of a thought is not exactly what makes the thought big. Big thinking almost always involves the prediction of specific future events, and thus not every big explanation is born from thinking big. Aristotle was not a big thinker, though Plato could be from time to time. St. Thomas Aquinas never did the Big Think, though St. Bonaventure felt the urge occasionally. Even Hegel was not prone to thinking big by predicting the specific future, though Marx was when the unbuttoned mood was on him.
Just predicting the future, however, is not enough to constitute a Big Think. St. John of Patmos was not a big thinker and neither was Nostradamus, but Swedenborg, Joachim of Flora, and H. G. Wells were. The key to thinking big is the determination of specific future events according to a theory; the key is the construction of a systematic morphology of time, an analogy in which the appearance of something in a known system of the past or the present requires the appearance of an anologue in an unknown but analogous system of the future. Big thinking is the replacement of direct causal relations with the weird and wonderful causality of analogy: if an event occurs in one system, then the parallel event must occur in an analogous second system-even though we see no direct cause for the event within that second system.
If no prediction of the future short of divine revelation were possible, then we could dismiss the futuristic prophecies of big thinkers as easily as we dismiss the astrological fantasies of the Psychic Friends Network on late night television. But the problem is that all social commentary, all political thought, and all moral judgment rely on the fact that the future is at least partially predictable, on the fact that we can have some knowledge of the shape of things to come. But the difference between big thinking and the kind of predictions we have to make to live our lives is not one of degree (as though technological futurism were normal scientific prediction carried just a little too far) but one of kind: big thinking scorns to link known causes to predictable effects.
Some people are better than others at discerning the future. All of us can figure out, a second before the train barrels past, whether we could have made it across the railroad tracks. But some people can judge much earlier what’s coming down the tracks-when the train first rumbles into sight around the bend, when we still have time to try to make it through the crossroads. The future is partially predictable, and some people seem to have a talent for the sort of practical judgment that discerns the present links joining future events to past causes. But the big thinker scorns these little causal links of practical judgment. The big thinker is the man who doesn’t need to see the long black train coming ‘round the bend; he just knows-after careful consultation of his watch and minute calculations in the margins of his train schedule-that we can make it safe across the tracks.
Of all the thinkers of the Big Think, the biggest was Oswald Spengler-
and the most self-congratulatory. “In this book,” he wrote of his own Decline of the West (1918), “is attempted for the first time the venture of predetermining history.” Spengler claimed to have found the Archimedean point for undertaking the “Copernican Revolution” of history and thus for seeing history in its “morphological” forms. The morphologist of history sees that each culture has in it elements that correspond to elements in other cultures: as the ancient Mediterranean decayed into the imperialism of Alexander the Great, so the modern West must shortly have its Alexander. This is not cause and effect, any more than the fact that a dog has paws causes a cat to have paws. The “form” of mammal is the same in both dogs and cats despite their differences. The morphologist of history looks not for cause and effect (the old structures of bad science), but for Destiny: the inescapable recreation of the stages of general Culture in every moment of each specific culture.
We do not reach down to what is wrong with the Big Think by listing Spengler’s many factual errors about the past and failed predictions about the future. The Big Think is not wrong because Spengler was a sloppy historian, a proto-Nazi, and a terrible writer, though he was all three. Spengler’s Big Think is wrong because it replaces fact with method, proof with illustration, and cause with parallel. Spengler is wrong not so much because the ostensible facts he deigns to gather are often mistaken, but because he gathers his facts solely to illustrate an idea that he just knows from the beginning has to be true since it explains so much.
Nothing is as dated as the future, and nothing more nostalgic than the prophetic notions we held in days gone by. The smart house and the paperless office, the classless society and the withering away of the state are exhibits now closed in Tomorrowland, but to remember them is to remember how things used to be. For twenty years, in his best-selling futurist trilogy Future Shock, The Third Wave, and Powershift, Alvin Toffler has been predicting the imminence of the future. About some events he turned out to be right, about others wrong, but the most remarkable thing about his prophecies is how rapidly they, like Spengler’s, came to seem old.
Perhaps this rapid aging of the thesis of the book itself proves that there was something to Toffler’s 1970 Future Shock, which asserted that the future comes faster in these late times than it used to. Under the baleful influence of his brother Brooks, Henry Adams put a similar thesis in a 1909 essay, “The Rule of Phase Applied to History,” claiming that each new age is in length only the square root of the age before-and predicting that human thinking will come “to the limit of its possibilities in the year 1921.” It didn’t happen that way, of course, but the prophesies of Adams, and of Spengler shortly after him, captured the sense of a world worn out that many people felt at the time. And so, too, Toffler’s Future Shock captured the sense of unassimilated change that many people felt in the silly season of the late sixties and early seventies.
It was with The Third Wave in 1980, however, that Toffler found at last the Spenglerian morphology for predetermining history that made it all explain so much. Just as the first wave of agricultural technology was in its ebbing overwhelmed by the flow of industrial technology, so the ebbing wave of industry is now being overwhelmed by the wave of electronic technology. To the shrimp and seaweed tossed by combers, swirled in the backwash and drowned in the breakers, life may seem confusing. But to the big thinker standing on the beach with his schedule of ocean tides, the pattern of the waves is plain.
The pattern that he claims to see is that the struggle for power is the struggle to control knowledge. In The Third Wave Toffler seems to argue that the source of power has always been the control of knowledge (and thus that even first-wave feudalism and second-wave industrialism ought to be explained as knowledge control), while in his 1990 Powershift he seems to argue that only with the third, electronic wave of technology does knowledge control become the source of power. But either way, all the changes apparently overtaking modern civilization are best understood as struggles to control the flood of information cast upon us by electronic technology.
There is an odd sort of optimistic pessimism about all big thinkers, for the future is determined and there is nothing we can do about it except understand it through big thinking. Certain family planning measures “could help us ease our way into tomorrow, minimizing for millions the pain of transition,” Toffler writes in The Third Wave. “But whether painful or not, a new family system is emerging to supplant” our old one, and we had best just stand aside before the unstoppable wave sweeps us under. Just as the anti-industrial Luddites vainly tried to hold back the second wave before they sank, so-Toffler sees in good morphological fashion-anti-technologists vainly try now to hold back the third wave. They too will sink, and the only dry person will be the big thinker on the beach who stands above the unstoppable waves.
With this pattern in place, Toffler and the futurists can explain everything. When the Communist regimes were successful in Eastern Europe, it was because they controlled knowledge. When the Communist regimes collapsed, it was because they could no longer do so. Toffler was, one supposes from his work, an anti-Communist. But his writing about communism asserts an oddly valueless necessity. Communism failed because it foolishly tried to control communication in a global economy, and not because people thought democracy was better. An anarchic sort of democracy appears simply because no government is capable any longer of imposing intelligible order on information.
The content of this information is finally unimportant-though Toffler tends to think of it as always knowledge about how to do things. The third wave has a strange, self-fulfilling quality about it, since the knowledge for which companies and governments spy upon each other is mostly knowledge about the technologies for gaining knowledge. Moral knowledge seems not to exist in this wave, and Toffler generally equates morality with social necessity. The role of the churches in the overthrow of Communist regimes he praises only because the churches offered a system for the exchange of knowledge that was outside government control, and not because the churches held any knowledge that people desired.
But the Big Think is always impersonal in exactly this way, whether in Spengler, or Adams, or Toffler, or any of their innumerable imitators. The predetermined future is coming willy-nilly, and only the big thinker who knows the big picture will be calm. And in Toffler’s vision, since power is knowledge of the ways to gain knowledge, only big thinkers like Toffler will have power. The rest of us-raising our children, trying to tell right from wrong, living our lives as best we can, using the technology that seems helpful to us and ignoring the rest-are apparently doomed to helpless lives swirling in the backwash.
Joseph Bottum is Associate Editor of First Things.