Alvin Toffler, Advanced technology favours cultural diversity

One highly revealing test of cultural diversity in any literate society has to do with the number of different books published per million of population. The more standardized the tastes of the public, the fewer titles will be published per million; the more diverse these tastes, the greater the number of titles. The increase or decrease of this figure over time is a significant clue to the direction of cultural change in the society. This was the reasoning behind a study of world book trends published by UNESCO. Conducted by Robert Escarpit director of the Center for the Sociology of Literature at the University of Bordeaux, it provided dramatic evidence of a powerful international shift toward cultural destandardization.

Thus, between 1952 and 1962 the index of diversity rose in fully twenty-one of the twenty-nine chief book-producing nations. Among the countries registering the highest shifts toward literary diversity were Canada, the United States and Sweden, all with increases in excess of 50 percent or more. The United Kingdom, France, Japan and the Netherlands all moved from 10 to 25 percent in the same direction. The eight countries that moved in the opposite direction—i.e., toward greater standardization of literary outputwere India, Mexico, Argentina, Italy, Poland, Yugoslavia, Belgium, and Austria. In short, the more advanced the technology in a country, the greater the likelihood that it would be moving in the direction of literary diversity and away from uniformity.

The same push toward pluralism is evident in painting, too, where we find an almost incredibly wide spectrum of production. Representationalism, expressionism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, hard-edge, pop, kinetic, and a hundred other styles are pumped into the society at the same time. One or another may dominate the galleries temporarily, but there are no universal standards or styles. It is a pluralistic marketplace. When art was a tribal-religious activity, the painter worked for the whole community. Later he worked for a single small aristocratic elite. Still later the audience appeared as a single undifferentiated mass. Today he faces a large audience split into a milling mass of subgroups.

According to John McHale: “The most uniform cultural contexts are typically primitive enclaves. The most striking feature of our contemporary ‘mass’ culture is the vast range and diversity of its alternative cultural choices … The ‘mass,’ on even cursory examination, breaks down into many different ‘audiences.”‘ Indeed, artists no longer attempt to work for a universal public. Even when they think they are doing so, they are usually responding to the tastes and styles preferred by one or another sub-group in the society. Like the manufacturers of pancake syrup and automobiles, artists, too, produce for “mini-markets.” And as these markets multiply, artistic output diversifies.

The push for diversity, meanwhile, is igniting bitter conflict in education. Ever since the rise of industrialism, education in the West, and particularly in the United States, has been organized for the mass production of basically standardized educational packages. It is not accidental that at the precise moment when the consumer has begun to demand and obtain greater diversity, the same moment when new technology promises to make destandardization possible, a wave of revolt has begun to sweep the college campus. Though the connection is seldom noticed, events on the campus and events in the consumer market are intimately connected.

One basic complaint of the student is that he is not treated as an individual, that he is served up an undifferentiated gruel, rather than a personalized product. Like the Mustang buyer, the student wants to design his own. The difference is that while industry is highly responsive to consumer demand, education typically has been indifferent to student wants.

(In one case we say, “the customer knows best”; in the other, we insist that “Papa—or his educational surrogate—knows best.”) Thus the student-consumer is forced to fight to make the education industry responsive to his demand for diversity. While most colleges and universities have greatly broadened the variety of their course offerings, they are still wedded to complex standardizing systems based on degrees, majors and the like. These systems lay down basic tracks along which all students must progress.

While educators are rapidly multiplying the number of alternative paths, the pace of diversification is by no means swift enough for the students. This explains why young people have set up “para-universities”—experimental colleges and so-called free universities—in which each student is free to choose what he wishes from a mind-shattering smorgasbord of courses that range from guerrilla tactics and stock market techniques to Zen Buddhism and “underground theater.” Long before the year 2000, the entire antiquated structure of degrees, majors and credits will be a shambles. No two students will move along exactly the same educational track. For the students now pressuring higher education to destandardize, to move toward super-industrial diversity, will win their battle.

It is significant, for example, that one of the chief results of the student strike in France was a massive decentralization of the university system. Decentralization makes possible greater regional diversity, local authority to alter curriculum, student regulations and administrative practices. A parallel revolution is brewing in the public schools as well. It has already flared into open violence. Like the disturbance at Berkeley that initiated the worldwide wave of student protest, it has begun with something that appears at first glimpse to be a purely local issue.