Alvin Toffler, The Revolution of our lifetime

It has been observed that if the last 50,000 years of man’s existence were divided into lifetimes of approximately sixty-two years each, there have been about 800 such lifetimes. Of these 800, fully 650 were spent in caves. Only during the last seventy lifetimes has it been possible to communicate effectively from one lifetime to another—as writing made it possible to do. Only during the last six lifetimes did masses of men ever see a printed word. Only during the last four has it been possible to measure time with any precision. Only in the last two has anyone anywhere used an electric motor. And the overwhelming majority of all the material goods we use in daily life today have been developed within the present, the 800th, lifetime.

This 800th lifetime marks a sharp break with all past human experience because during this lifetime man’s relationship to resources has reversed itself. This is most evident in the field of economic development. Within a single lifetime, agriculture, the original basis of civilization, has lost its dominance in nation after nation. Today in a dozen major countries agriculture employs fewer than 15 percent of the economically active population. In the United States, whose farms feed 200,000,000 Americans plus the equivalent of another 160,000,000 people around the world, this figure is already below 6 percent and it is still shrinking rapidly.

Moreover, if agriculture is the first stage of economic development and industrialism the second, we can now see that still another stage—the third—has suddenly been reached. In about 1956 the United States became the first major power in which more than 50 percent of the non-farm labor force ceased to wear the blue collar of factory or manual labor. Blue collar workers were outnumbered by those in the so-called white-collar occupations—in retail trade, administration, communications, research, education, and other service categories. Within the same lifetime a society for the first time in human history not only threw off the yoke of agriculture, but managed within a few brief decades to throw off the yoke of manual labor as well. The world’s first service economy had been born.

Since then, one after another of the technologically advanced countries have moved in the same direction. Today, in those nations in which agriculture is down to the 15 percent level or below, white collars already outnumber blue in Sweden, Britain, Belgium, Canada, and the Netherlands. Ten thousand years for agriculture. A century or two for industrialism. And now, opening before us—super-industrialism. Jean Fourastié, the French planner and social philosopher, has declared that “Nothing will be less industrial than the civilization born of the industrial revolution.”

The significance of this staggering fact has yet to be digested. Perhaps U Thant, Secretary General of the United Nations, came closest to summarizing the meaning of the shift to super-industrialism when he declared that “The central stupendous truth about developed economies today is that they can have—in anything but the shortest run—the kind and scale of resources they decide to have…. It is no longer resources that limit decisions. It is the decision that makes the resources. This is the fundamental revolutionary change—perhaps the most revolutionary man has ever known.” This monumental reversal has taken place in the 800th lifetime.

This lifetime is also different from all others because of the astonishing expansion of the scale and scope of change. Clearly, there have been other lifetimes in which epochal upheavals occurred. Wars, plagues, earthquakes, and famine rocked many an earlier social order. But these shocks and upheavals were contained within the borders of one or a group of adjacent societies. It took generations, even centuries, for their impact to spread beyond these borders.

In our lifetime the boundaries have burst. Today the network of social ties is so tightly woven that the consequences of contemporary events radiate instantaneously around the world. A war in Vietnam alters basic political alignments in Peking, Moscow, and Washington, touches off protests in Stockholm, affects financial transactions in Zurich, triggers secret diplomatic moves in Algiers. Indeed, not only do contemporary events radiate instantaneously—now we can be said to be feeling the impact of all past events in a new way. For the past is doubling back on us.

We are caught in what might be called a “time skip.” An event that affected only a handful of people at the time of its occurrence in the past can have large-scale consequences today. The Peloponnesian War, for example, was little more than a skirmish by modern standards. While Athens, Sparta and several nearby city-states battled, the population of the rest of the globe remained largely unaware of and undisturbed by the war. The Zapotec Indians living in Mexico at the time were wholly untouched by it. The ancient Japanese felt none of its impact. Yet the Peloponnesian War deeply altered the future course of Greek history. By changing the movement of men, the geographical distribution of genes, values, and ideas, it affected later events in Rome, and, through Rome, all Europe. Today’s Europeans are to some small degree different people because that conflict occurred.

In turn, in the tightly wired world of today, these Europeans influence Mexicans and Japanese alike. Whatever trace of impact the Peloponnesian War left on the genetic structure, the ideas, and the values of today’s Europeans is now exported by them to all parts of the world. Thus today’s Mexicans and Japanese feel the distant, twice-removed impact of that war even though their ancestors, alive during its occurrence, did not. In this way, the events of the past, skipping as it were over generations and centuries, rise up to haunt and change us today. When we think not merely of the Peloponnesian War but of the building of the Great Wall of China, the Black Plague, the battle of the Bantu against the Hamites—indeed, of all the events of the past—the cumulative implications of the time-skip principle take on weight.

Whatever happened to some men in the past affects virtually all men today. This was not always true. In short, all history is catching up with us, and this very difference, paradoxically, underscores our break with the past. Thus the scope of change is fundamentally altered. Across space and through time, change has a power and reach in this, the 800th lifetime, that it never did before.

But the final, qualitative difference between this and all previous lifetimes is the one most easily overlooked. For we have not merely extended the scope and scale of change, we have radically altered its pace. We have in our time released a totally new social force—a stream of change so accelerated that it influences our sense of time, revolutionizes the tempo of daily life, and affects the very way we “feel” the world around us. We no longer “feel” life as men did in the past. And this is the ultimate difference, the distinction that separates the truly contemporary man from all others. For this acceleration lies behind the impermanence—the transience—that penetrates and tinctures our consciousness, radically affecting the way we relate to other people, to things, to the entire universe of ideas, art and values.

To understand what is happening to us as we move into the age of super-industrialism, we must analyze the processes of acceleration and confront the concept of transience. If acceleration is a new social force, transience is its psychological counterpart, and without an understanding of the role it plays in contemporary human behavior, all our theories of personality, all our psychology, must remain pre-modern. Psychology without the concept of transience cannot take account of precisely those phenomena that are peculiarly contemporary.

By changing our relationship to the resources that surround us, by violently expanding the scope of change, and, most crucially, by accelerating its pace, we have broken irretrievably with the past. We have cut ourselves off from the old ways of thinking, of feeling, of adapting. We have set the stage for a completely new society and we are now racing toward it. This is the crux of the 800th lifetime. And it is this that calls into question man’s capacity for adaptation—how will he fare in this new society? Can he adapt to its imperatives? And if not, can he alter these imperatives? Before even attempting to answer such questions, we must focus on the twin forces of acceleration and transience. We must learn how they alter the texture of existence, hammering our lives and psyches into new and unfamiliar shapes. We must understand how—and why—they confront us, for the first time, with the explosive potential of future shock.