Book Review: “Revolutionary Wealth”

28th May, 2006

How It Will Be Created and How It Will Change Our Lives
By Alvin and Heidi Toffler

If we were living through a great economic revolution, would we know it? It’s easy to get carried away, after all. Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener of the Hudson Institute predicted in 1967 — in a carefully researched publication — that by 2000 we would have undersea colonies, personal flying platforms and cities lit by artificial moons.

Futurology has its perils, but it holds no terrors for Alvin and Heidi Toffler, perhaps the world’s most famous prognosticators. Their latest book, Revolutionary Wealth, foretells the next great economic revolution. In fact, since the preferred Toffler style — in such blockbusters as Alvin’s Future Shock and The Third Wave — is to highlight recent events as a taste of things to come, we are led to believe that the revolution is here already.

But what is this economic revolution that they herald? That is not quite clear. It will be big and fast, certainly, and government institutions are likely to be left behind. Moreover, the Tofflers think we are going to get dramatically richer.

There has to be some truth in this, at least from an economic perspective. As the Berkeley economist J. Bradford DeLong has noted, global income per person grew nearly tenfold during the 20th century. In the 19th century, it merely trebled — which was more than enough to astonish Karl Marx. No other century comes close. So economic growth itself is a relatively recent story.

Those statistics seem a fair reflection of the speed with which the world has been changing for the last 200 years, even if they tell only part of the story of economic and social change. We live in revolutionary times, but so did our parents, and their parents — indeed, the last 10 generations. It isn’t quite clear, then, whether the revolution the Tofflers have in mind is business as usual or an even more astounding process of economic change. One presumes the latter, although, beyond the occasional nugget, Revolutionary Wealth eschews a historical perspective.

The Tofflers do well when throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks: a dieters’ credit card that won’t work at Taco Bell, urine analysis every time you use your own bathroom or a hepatitis vaccine administered through genetically engineered bananas. Some of the forecasts are provocative — notably the rise of a Chinese leader, a Mao II, who sweeps away the communists with a strange, savage Christian fundamentalism. Many will scoff, but this unlikely event is the sort of imaginative thinking that a decent futurologist needs to produce. Still, the Tofflers do not spend enough time making the case for Mao II. Nor do we get much elaboration of the observation that the end of the age of oil will disrupt political and religious structures in the Middle East. A good point, but can we hear more?

Moreover, too much of the book is wasted on the familiar. We are told that people today watch a lot of hospital dramas and have access to medical information on the Internet, and so they arrive at their doctors’ offices armed with preconceptions about their treatment. Instead of extrapolation or further investigation of what this means, the Tofflers offer bluster: “Here, changes in relationships to the deep fundamentals of time and knowledge have radically altered medical reality.”

It is a shame that the Tofflers did not dip further into the growing literature on earlier economic revolutions. Robert J. Gordon of Northwestern University has skeptically contrasted the Internet to five truly revolutionary technologies: electricity, the internal-combustion engine, bulk chemical processing, information technologies such as the telephone and the telegraph, and (funny but true) indoor plumbing. These astonishing clusters of innovation set a high benchmark for anyone claiming that change is about to accelerate today.

History also tells us that new technologies often outpace social and organizational change but have little effect until society catches up. Paul A. David, an economic historian at Stanford, has shown how much had to bend or break before electrification became economically significant: a huge shock to the labor market as borders were closed in 1914, and in the 30 years following Edison’s illumination of the streets of New York, a reorganization of American factories encompassing everything from the architecture to the employment contracts. It would have been fascinating to see the Tofflers discuss these remarkable stories and draw lessons for today’s communications technologies.

Unfortunately, the Tofflers have little time for history and less still for economists, whom they dismiss as “inerrantist” and overfond of jargon. But Revolutionary Wealth contains more jargon than a dozen economics papers, including such gems as “obsoledge,” “complexorama” and “producivity.”

This is not mere quibbling. Good futurology is the art of telling a good story. The story must be new, and it must be persuasive; the scenarios need to be plausible as well as provocative. Revolutionary Wealth is breathlessly enthusiastic, but that is not the same thing. This will be a useful scrapbook for the apparently limitless army of professional soothsayers, but most readers will prefer a simpler, stronger tale. Or so I predict.

The Washington Post, Book World, 28 May

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