The First Wave of change, launched by the agricultural revolution of 10,000
years ago, led to the transition from hunting, gathering, and foraging to the
great peasant societies of the past. The Second Wave of change, triggered by
the Industrial revolution some 300 years ago, gave rise to a new
factory-centered civilization. It is still spreading in some parts of the
world as hundreds of millions of peasants, from Mexico to China, flood into
the cities searching for minimal-skill jobs on factory assembly lines. But
even as the Second Wave plays itself out on the global stage, America and
other countries are already feeling the impact of a gigantic Third Wave partly
based on the substitution of mental power for muscle power in the economy.
The Third Wave Information Society is more than just technology and
economics. It is not just "digital" and "networked." Painful social, cultural,
institutional, moral, and political dislocations accompany our transition from
a brute force to a brain force economy. The Third Wave helps explain why so
many industrial-era institutions, from giant corporations to governments, are
dinosaurs gasping for their last breath. It is why America is suffering from
simultaneous crises in everything from education system, the health system,
and the family system to the justice system, and the political system. They
were designed to work in a mass industrial society. But America has left that
Driven by global competition and other forces, America today is completing
its transition from a Second Wave nation with a rusty smokestack,
assembly-line economy to a sleek computer driven, information and media dense
economy and social system that, surprisingly, will have many features of the
pre-industrial past. Swept along by the Third Wave of history, we are creating
a new civilization.
During the first wave most people
consumed what they themselves produced. they were neither producers nor
consumers... they were "prosumers""... It was the industrial
revolution, driving a wedge into society, that separated these two functions,
thereby giving birth to what we now call producers and consumers. This
split led to the spread of the market or exchange network-- that maze of
channels thru which goods and services produced by me reach you and vice
versa... (yet) ... whether we look at self-help movements (or self-service
stores & gas stations), do-it-yourself trends, or new production technologies,
we find the same shift toward a much closer involvement of the consumer
in production. In such a world, conventional distinctions between producer
and consumer vanish. The "outsider' becomes the insider..."(Toffler,
The Third Wave, 1980-pgs. 266,275)
The primary work describing the Information Revolution was The Third Wave, by
Alvin and Heidi Toffler. It's an
excellent book and well worth reading.
According to Toffler, we started off as hunter-gatherers. We were
nomads. We chased our food and moved as the food moved, following water and
seasons. The sick, old, and weak were left behind and died. Our tools were the
blade and the club, mimicking the weapons of animals. The valued commodity was
The First Wave:
The Agricultural Revolution
The first wave started as people realized that they could raise crops in the
ground. People stayed in one place. The old, the sick, and the weak stayed with
the family, and we developed treatments for them.
Families were extended; generations lived on the same land. Their sense of
time was cyclical, seen as repeated cycles of moons, crops, and seasons.
Everybody worked the farm. People were generalists, able to do many things.
There was very little waste. Consider how a farm uses every bit of a butchered
hog for food, clothing, candles, etc.
Any products that were produced were custom made, by hand, among the family.
Work was done in the home or on the farm, from which we get the phrase
cottage industry. Barter was the medium of exchange. The valued commodity
was land, and so that's what was taxed, usually as a share of the foodstuffs
grown in the land.
Their tools were the inclined plane, the lever, and the wheel and axle. They
used the blade as a plow. These tools magnified human strength.
The information available to people during the First Wave was limited to some
verbal narratives and to what their senses apprehended (from which we get the
Biblical euphemism, he had knowledge of her). Since information came from
experience, people with more experience had more information, and we valued age.
The First Wave Transition
Transitions are generally painful things. Change does not go smoothly.
The farmers had conflicts with the remaining hunter-gatherers. Sometimes
raiding parties would attack the food stores, and the farmers needed armies to
New types of conflicts arose among the farmers; who owned which land? Who got
to use the available water? Who specified where the latrine was? We developed
community laws and designated people to enforce them.
How did they pay for the laws, the protection, or the land? Generally, they
taxed what was valuable, paying a large portion of their crops to a local
Three innovations set the stage for the Second Wave.
- Accurate clocks (usually each town could afford one, and placed it in a
tall tower for visibility) permitted the coordination of activities to a degree
not possible before.
- The printing press permitted large-scale, accurate duplication and
transmission of information across space and time. Literacy became a new
- The quest for farm implements led to new developments in metallurgy,
notably iron and steel.
The Second Wave:
The Industrial Revolution
Our tools progressed, and we harnessed powerful forces of nature to amplify
the power of our earlier tools. We applied wind, water, coal, steam, and oil to
the basic tools and produced railroads, clipper ships and steam ships, and
Second Wave work involved investments (capital) in expensive equipment,
people (labor) to work the machines, and a location (factories) where all the
parts could come together.
These new focuses brought us new groups. Only the Capitalists could afford
the investments. A species called Managers appeared to keep the Labor working
for the Capitalists. Labor, in turn, organized into Unions. The Corporation gave
the business the legal status of a person.
The notion of the factory as the place of work extended beyond manufacturing:
schools were factories for learning, hospitals were factories for treatment,
asylums were factories for the sick.
As work moved from the home to the factory, people moved to cities. Often the
husband went to work (in a second wave job) while the wife stayed home tending
to first wave duties, and gaps appeared between the once-equal genders. The
nuclear family became the normative unit.
The Second Wave Transition
Details of The Second Wave
Second wave workers were specialists to such a degree that barter was no
longer practical. Cash money became the lifeblood of the economy. Banks started
dealing with the working class. When money became more important than land, we
started taxing money (both as income and profits).
Second Wave work was something quite separate from the house. The pinnacle of
success was to have a career, a predictable, symbiotic relationship with one
Here's an interesting scenario: The husband spends his worklife in a factory
driven by second-wave, stop-watch timing. The wife spends her worklife in a home
driven by first-wave, cyclical time. When He takes Her out on a Saturday night,
he paces, fumes, and looks at his watch because "women have no sense of time".
Ring any bells?
The factories consumed and processed raw materials, often exploiting natural
resources in a non-sustainable manner. They found that bigger factories worked
cheaper, and they competed on economies of scale. We later found out that
economies of scale were restrained by the law of diminishing returns; the
efficiency of the factory had limits.
The factories mass-produced standard products for mass markets. (You could
have any color Ford you wanted, as long as it was black.) Middlemen and brokers
provided the interface between the factories and the consumers.
Organizations progressed as the factories and corporations developed. The
vertical org-charts represented the chain of command. The structure of General
Motors wasn't that different from the US Army.
Efficient use of the factories introduced time analysis. Frederick Taylor
introduced the notion of linear, rather than cyclical, time.
The two World Wars drove the combatants to emphasize their manufacturing
capabilities, driving the Second Wave to its peak. Production capacity won the
wars as much as men with rifles did.
The information available to people increased. Printed materials conveyed
information accurately across time and space. Libraries formed repositories of
knowledge and thoughts. Information was stored in analog media, including books,
photographs, and audio recordings.
Military needs set the stage for the Information Revolution.
- Ballistics computations drove the development of the first computer.
- Code breakers needed de-ciphering systems, which developed into
information processing systems.
- Radar sensor systems extended human sight beyond the visible horizon.
- The Cold War forced military investment in information-based command and
The Third Wave:
The Information Revolution
Just as manufacturing came out of the peak of the agricultural era, the
information age came out of the peak of the manufacturing era. The huge
companies and military organizations needed to track what they had, what they
were doing, and what they were spending.
The new tools amplified our senses and memories, rather than our strengths.
Radar systems warn us of incoming missiles, robot calipers detect tiny
variations in ball bearings, and CD-Roms store our accumulated knowledge.
One early, widely developed info system was the telephone network. Several of
our other technologies (fax systems, the internet) ride over the phone network.
It's not evident, but the phone network is the technological marvel of our age.
Work isn't done in a factory anymore. Many of the factories (including the
corporate headquarters, the administrative factory) have downsized, outsourced,
and shut down.
Now that information is abundant, we no longer value older people as
repositories of knowledge. In fact, we suffer from information overload.
Too often, our systems deliver deafening noise without meaning.
The Third Wave Transition
The career, the social compact between the employer and employee, is a
wistful nostalgia. Employees are responsible for their own careers now, which
will involve many changes.
Too often, Dad's job in the steel mill was gone. Mom got a job working in a
phone center. The family unit has changed. It's not the nuclear family anymore;
the blended family has replaced Ward and June Cleaver. Gender
distinctions in the workplace are waning.
Money isn't important the same way as it used to be. It's still the medium of
exchange, and it's still good to have a lot of it, but the tangible, physical
presence of paper doesn't translate to the Third Wave too well. The credit card
is the new dollar bill.
Details of the Third Wave
- Work is done everywhere: at home, on the road, even in the office! (A
return to the cottage)
- Continual education is the pre-requisite for success.
- Size doesn't matter: Small, nimble, companies can compete with giant,
- Location, Space, and Mass don't matter. (No pun intended)
- Time matters dearly, and we call the new timeframe Internet time.
- We haven't figured out what to tax yet, but they're thinking hard about
- Some people argue that Women may be more disposed to success in the third
wave, dealing better with ambiguity, subtlety, collaboration, and context than
Digital Info and Processes
There are two types of information: digital and analog. Digital information,
once in a computer, can be whisked anywhere in the world with one click. It can
be rapidly moved without delay and without degradation. Digital information is
faster and more fluid than analog information.
Business processes can gain or suffer from the distinction. Analog workflows
built around a carbon-paper information system, a paper-driven scheduling
system, and an analog voice driven messaging system, have a hard time competing
against a digital info system, web-based scheduling, and digital messaging
The United States' most successful export industry is the entertainment
industry, shipping movies and music (which are, after all, only digital files)
around the world. How does Hollywood organize around work?
Each film or video is a unique project, developed by a distinct organization,
linking people with an incredible range of skills, and the whole shop disbands
when the project is over. This is called a hyper-organization, suggesting
rapid, churning linkages, as opposed to the GM hierarchical org-chart.
Your super market's frequent shopper card and your credit card's frequent
flyer miles program provide manufacturers with detailed customer information, in
an arrangement called one-to-one marketing. You'll get coupons that vary
from your neighbor's. Instead of mass-marketing, third wave products are mass
customized for individual tastes. (Think Land's End).
The implication is that the information gained in a transaction may be more
valuable than the profit from the deal.
The One-to-One Future
Customers now interact directly with manufacturers. First it was 800 numbers,
then it was websites. You call their phone center (located adjacent to a FedEx
hub), and your sweater with your initials is delivered by 2:00 the next day.
That sweater wasn't lying around, ready to be delivered; increasingly, the
product isn't finished until just before it goes into the package.
All of a sudden it didn't matter where the phone center was. It could be in
Utah or the Sun Belt. And then we realized it doesn't matter where the Company
was, and maybe every section of the company should exist where it's most
efficient. Like Mexico, or India. Here's a Third Wave mantra: Place doesn't
The losers in this new world were the middlemen, the intermediaries. The
buzzword is disintermediation, the elimination of all steps between the
producer and the consumer. Car Salesmen, Brokers, Insurance salesmen: they're
all going under the ax. Toyota's busiest dealership in the US is it's website.
Computers summarize the reports and data that used to be the realm of middle
manager, who were intermediaries between the shop floor and the annual report.
The gutting of middle management severed the career ladder.
The Second Wave featured economies of scale, limited by decreasing returns.
The Third Wave economy is different.
- If you bought the very first fax machine, it probably cost $18,000, and
you couldn't use it because nobody else had one.
- Ten years ago, you'd pay $500 for a fax, and your purchase would connect
you to hundreds of thousands of fax machines.
- This week, you can buy one for $80, and that amount will buy you a
connection to millions of fax machines.
This is the paradox called the network economy: as the size of the network
grows, the price of the device falls to near-zero, but the value of the device
climbs astronomically because of it's connections.
This is a huge notion. For instance, we give cell phones away if you'll agree
to a $20 monthly fee, and you can use that cellphone to call people around the
globe. We used to pay for internet access, but now people are giving us web
access for free if we'll watch their ads.
In the second wave, the phone company handled your voice needs, and the
electric company handled your energy needs. Since information became digital,
your cable-TV company can sell you phone service, and the electric company can
sell you internet access. The old distinctions are blurring, and it's a very
confusing time. We call this Digital Convergence. Increasingly, companies are
all in the same business: meeting customer needs through information.
Business Implications of The Third Wave
- Time moves faster
- Compete on information
- Seek digital processes
- Place and Distance don't matter
- Avoid inventory, bricks, and mortar
- Build information and relationships
- Use the web for two-way communications
- The information gained in a transaction may be more profitable than the
Toffler, Alvin. (1980).
The Third Wave. New York: Bantam Books
"A powerful tide is surging across much of the world today, creating a new,
often bizarre, environment in which to work, play, marry, raise children, or
retire. In this bewildering context, businessmen swim against highly erratic
economic currents; politicians see their ratings bob wildly up and down;
universities, hospitals, and other institutions battle desperately against
inflation. Value systems splinter and crash, while the lifeboats of family,
church, and state are hurled madly about.
…many of today’s changes are not independent of one another. Nor are they
random. For example, the crack-up of the nuclear family, the global energy
crisis, the spread of cults and cable television, the rise of flextime and new
fringe-benefit packages, the emergence of separatist movements from Quebec to
Corsica, may all seem like isolated events. Yet precisely the reverse is true.
These and many other seemingly unrelated events or trends are inter-connected.
They are, I fact, parts of a much larger phenomenon: the death of industrialism
and the rise of a new civilization.
Lacking a systematic framework for understanding the clash of forces in
today’s world, we are like a ship’s crew, trapped in a storm and trying to
navigate between dangerous reefs without compass or chart. In a culture of
warring specialisms, drowned in fragmented data and fine-toothed analysis,
synthesis is not merely useful—it is crucial.
For this reason, The Third Wave is a book of large-scale synthesis. It
describes the old civilization in which many of us grew up, and presents a
careful, comprehensive picture of the new civilization bursting into being in
So profoundly revolutionary is this new civilization that it challenges all
our old assumptions. Old ways of thinking, old formulas, dogmas, and ideologies,
no matter how cherished or how useful in the past, no longer fit the facts. The
world that is fast emerging from the clash of new values and technologies, new
geopolitical relationships, new life-styles and modes of communication, demands
wholly new ideas and analogies, classifications and concepts. We cannot cram the
embryonic world of tomorrow into yesterday’s conventional cubbyholes. Nor are
the orthodox attitudes or moods appropriate.
Toffler’s assumption: the "revolutionary premise" –
change is not chaotic or random but forms a sharp, clearly discernible
changes are cumulative – adding up to a giant transformation
change comes in waves – history is a succession of "rolling waves of change"
If we identify key change patterns as they emerge, we can influence them
We are the final generation of an old civilization and the first generation
of a new one; much of our personal confusion, anguish, disorientation can be
traced directly to the conflict within us, and within our political
institutions, between the dying Second Wave civilization and the emerging Third
Wave… (p. 12)
The first wave was the rise of agriculture, beginning arbitrarily around 8000
B.C.. Before this time, from the beginning of civilization, humans were
hunter-gatherers, living in small, often migratory groups, feeding themselves by
foraging, hunting, fishing, herding. Pre-first wave populations could be called
"primitive," while second wave could be called civilized.
The first wave, then was a process of civilization. Land was the basis of
economy, life, culture, family structure, politics. Life was organized around a
village. A simple division of labor prevailed; a few clearly defined castes and
classes arose. Power was rigidly authoritarian. Birth determined one’s position
in life. The economy in each town was decentralized, so each community produced
most of its own necessities.
The agricultural revolution, the first wave, was almost exhausted by the end
of the seventeenth century, when the industrial revolution began in Europe,
specifically England around 1650 to 1750. "Industrialization was more than
smokestacks and assembly lines. It was a rich, many-sided social system that
touched every aspect of human life; it put the tractor on the farm, the
typewriter in the office, the refrigerator in the kitchen…It universalized the
wristwatch and the ballot box.
It is interesting to note the clash of civilizations between second and third
wave In the settlement of the United States. The first settlers established an
agricultural civilization. But hard on the heels of the farmers came the
earliest industrializers, pushing the farms further west.
Economic and social tensions between First Wave and Second Wave forces grew
in intensity until 1861, when they broke into armed violence. The Civil War "was
not fought exclusively…over the moral issue of slavery or such narrow economic
issues as tariffs. It was fought over a much larger question: would the rich new
continent be ruled by farmers or industrializers….?
Today the First Wave has virtually subsided, except in some first-world
countries and tribal populations in Africa and South America.
The Second Wave continues to spread in second-world countries, as they build
mills, plants, factories, railroads. The force of the Second Wave is not yet
"The nuclear family, the factory-style school, and the giant corporation,
became the defining social institutions of Second Wave societies" (p. 30).
"In one Second Wave country after another, social inventors, believing the
factory to be the most advanced and efficient agency for production, tried to
embody its principles in other organizations as well. Schools, hospitals,
prisons, government bureaucracies, and other organizations thus took on many of
the characteristics of the factory—its division of labor, its hierarchical
structure, and its metallic impersonality." (p. 31)
Effects/Facets Across Waves:
First wave – "living
batteries" – human and animal muscle power/ second wave –
irreplaceable fossil fuels/ third wave -
Bio-tech, renewable, solar; hydrogen fuel cell
first wave – "necessary inventions" – winches,
wedges, catapults, levers, hoists/ second wave – electromechanical
machines, moving parts, belts, hoses, bearings, bolts – machine tools for mass
production/ third wave – computer
First wave – handcraft methods of production,
custom products, small markets, slow distribution/transportation/ Second
wave – rail/highways, complex mass distribution networks, mass
production/ Third wave – specialized; computerized supply chain
First wave – large, multigenerational families, immobile
(rooted to the soil)/ Family as economic unit of
production/ second wave – nuclear family, smaller, more mobile,
more fragmented/ Third wave – expanded, blended, amalgamated
First wave – home schooling, small schools, less education
needed/sought/ Second wave – mass education; overt curriculum – 3
R’s; covert curriculum—obedience, rote, repetition; regimentation (factory work
required these); children started school younger, stayed longer/ Third
wave – individualized, distributed (online learning)
First wave – individuals "sole proprietors" – no real business
form/ Second wave – huge corporations, "immortal beings" /
Third wave- networks, relationships &
First wave – face to face, person to person – means of sending
messages across time/space limited, reserved for rich and powerful, under social
control, weapons of the elite/ Second wave – massive amounts of
information now needed – postal services "the right arm of our modern
civilization" / internal communications within companies also spiraled
//Telephone and telegraph ...Mass society required mass communications (one
sender, many receivers/technology) – newspapers, magazines, television, radio,
-- "all of them stamp identical messages into millions of brains" / "facts"
(mass-manufactured)/ Third Wave- digital, interactive,
instantaneous, global, networked
The invisible wedge:
The Second Wave…violently split apart two aspects of our lives that had
always, until then, been one, driving a giant invisible wedge into our economy,
our psyches, and even our sexual selves.
The Industrial Revolution, although it created a new social system, also
ripped apart the underlying unity of society, creating …economic tension, social
conflict, and psychological malaise.
The two halves of human life that the Second Wave split apart were production
and consumption. Until the IR, the vast bulk of all foods, goods, services, were
consumed by the producers themselves, their families, or a tiny elite….
In most agricultural societies the great majority of people were peasants in
small, semi-isolated communities….who …lacked the incentive to increase
production (beyond their own immediate needs). The small amount of commerce that
existed represented only a trace element in history, compared with the extent of
production for immediate self-use.
In First Wave economy, Sector A (production for own use) of society was huge;
Sector B (production for trade) was tiny. So, for most people, production and
consumption were fused into a single life-giving function.
The Second Wave violently changed this situation. Instead of essentially
self-sufficient people and communities, it crated a situation in which the
overwhelming bulk of all food, goods, and services was destined for sale,
barter, or exchange. It virtually wiped out of existence goods produced for
one’s own consumption; everyone became almost totally dependent upon food,
goods, or services produced by somebody else.
In short, industrialism broke the union of production and consumption, and
split the producer from the consumer.
"The marketplace" became the center of life; the economy became "marketized".
In politics, Second Wave governments were torn by conflict between the
demands of producers (workers and managers) for higher wages, profits, benefits;
and the demands of consumers (including these very same people) for lower
What are the implications of this conflict today?
Culture too was shaped by this cleavage, producing the most money-minded,
grasping commercialized, and calculating civilization in history. Personal
relationships, family bonds, love, friendship, neighborly and community ties all
became tinctured or corrupted by commercial self-interest.
This concern with money, goods, and things is not a reflection of capitalism
(as Marx claimed) but of industrialism. It is a reflection of the central role
of the marketplace in all societies in which production is divorced from
consumption, in which everyone is dependent upon the marketplace rather than on
his or her own productive skills for the necessities of life.
Toffler asserts that "corruption is inherent in the divorce of production
This divorce of production from consumption even affected our psyches and our
assumptions about personality. Behavior came to be seen as a set of
transactions. Instead of a society based on friendship, kinship, or tribal or
feudal allegiance, there arose …a civilization based on contractual ties
The dual personality of producer/consumer…
The person who, as a producer, was taught to defer gratification, be
disciplined, controlled, restrained, obedient, a team player…was simultaneously
taught , as consumer, to seek instant gratification, to be hedonistic, to
abandon discipline, to pursue individualistic pleasure.
Sexual split --- between men as "objective" in orientation, and women as
In First Wave societies. Most work was performed in fields or
at home, with the entire household working together and with most production
destined for consumption within the village or manor. Work life and home life
were fused, intermingled; division of labor was very primitive, with low levels
The Second Wave shifted work to factory, introducing a much
higher level of interdependence—collective effort, division of labor,
coordination, integration of many different skills. Success depended upon the
carefully scheduled cooperative behavior of thousands of far-flung people, many
of whom never laid eyes on one another. This also brought severe conflict over
roles, responsibilities, rewards.
More and more production was transferred to factory and office; the
countryside was striped of population.
But in the home, there was still interdependence. Each home remained a
decentralized unit engaged in biological reproduction, child-rearing, cultural
transmission. The housewife continued to "produce" but only for Sector A (her
own family). As the husband marched off to do the direct economic work, the wife
generally stayed behind to do the indirect economic work. He moved, as it were,
into the future; she remained in the past.
This division produced a split in personality and inner life.
The public nature of factory/office brought with it an emphasis on objective
analysis and objective relationships. Men were encouraged to become "objective".
Women performed in social isolation and were taught to be "subjective"
(incapable of rational, analytic thought that supposedly went with objectivity).
Women leaving home to work were accused of being "defeminized" tough, cold –
Sexual differences and sex role stereotypes were sharpened by the misleading
identification of men with production and women with consumption, even though
men also consumed and women produced.
Once the invisible wedge between production and consumption was hammered into
place, separating producer from consumer, profound changes followed:
Market needed to connect the two; New political, social conflicts--New sexual
The split also meant that all Second Wave societies would have to operate in
similar fashion, meeting certain basic requirements.
1. Standardization – millions of
identical products; weights and measures; prices; money, language, technology…..
2. Specialization – elimination of
diversity in language, leisure, life-style ; diversity of work – only one task
per person "professional"
3. Synchronization - careful organization
of work; coordination of efforts; beat of the machine not of nature;
punctuality; hours/days/weeks set aside for specific activities; school year
4. Concentration - total dependent on
highly concentrated deposits of fossil fuel; population; work (in specific
locations, rather than everywhere); the poor, criminals, the insane;
concentration of flow of capital (to large corporations, banks); concentration
of production among only a few large producers (autos, breakfast foods)
5. Maximization – bigger is better; smaller
number of larger units; growth at all costs (GNP, etc.)
6. Centralization – of political power
(U.S. states consolidated); of industry (companies, industries, economy as a
distilled most of the components and tenets of Toffler's Weltanshaung
into a matrix which delineates each basic element of society and its essential
character in each of its "evolutionary" stages. As the matrix and Toffler
suggests "these critical junctures should not be envisioned so much as three
critical events which occurred in three particular moments in history, but
rather as successive waves of change, colliding and overlapping-- and which
impact every aspect of our lives."
In this week's lecture we will exam the essential characteristics of
these transitions across the 3 waves of civilization.