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Tales of Technology: 'The Third Wave' meets 'The Fourth Turning'

Or why our world's future may all come down to the battle of Fifth Avenue between 'Dahntahn' Luddites and Oakland erudites

Sunday, August 01, 2004

By James H. Morris

Was the American Civil War about slavery or states' rights? Neither, according to futurist Alvin Toffler, author of "The Third Wave." He says it was a decisive battle between the first wave, agriculture, and the second wave, industry.

The South represented a way of organizing civilization that was 3 millennia old based on land and farming, while the North represented the new wave based upon energy and industry. Toffler's book was about new organizing forces, information and knowledge, that would override energy and industry as the focus of mankind's progress in a post-industrial age.

Toffler's road map seemed pretty good during the 1980s and 1990s. Computers continued to proliferate. The Internet really was unleashed by Al Gore who understood the information economy much better than most politicians. While he obviously wasn't the engineer, he implemented funding and regulatory policies that were crucial. Silicon Valley appeared to be the center of the new world the way Detroit and Los Angeles had dominated the automobile and entertainment industries.

After early doubts, evidence emerged that computers really did enhance productivity. Even Alan Greenspan declared that the economy moved into a new, higher growth mode because of information technology. The Nasdaq soared.

But in 2000, we took a U-turn on the road to the Third Wave: fears of Y2K computer failures proved unfounded, and fear-based spending on new computers stopped, the information economy slowed, the stock market bubble burst, Gore lost the election to two men from the oil industry, an ambitious program to increase federal funding of information technology was cut back, general support for science declined.

Texas-based Enron attacked California, the center of information technology, by manipulating energy prices. Commentators added a cruel twist by claiming the energy problems were caused by two many computers consuming electricity. So it appears that the Second Wave, industry, is not quite over.

The thing to understand about Toffler's waves is that they don't replace each other; they build on each other. Agriculture didn't disappear; it just left center stage because we got so good at it that it became a commodity. In the 1800s, almost everyone was farming. Now less than 10 percent of us do, but we still have plenty to eat.

Industry became the central focus when its projects, such as the management of energy, became more important and profitable than agriculture's. Nuclear power is both a triumph of man's quest for limitless energy and a sign that the Second Wave is ending: we can unleash enough energy to destroy civilization.

But there is still some unsolved problems related to energy and industry: controlling nuclear power, oil shortages, global warming and pollution. Until we can make energy and industry completely straightforward with no problems, investment of money, people and brains will go there. And we'll still be stuck at the end of the Second Wave.

A less famous book, "The Fourth Turning" by William Strauss and Neil Howe, might explain why the Third Wave has hit roadblocks. Their simple theory is that Anglo-American civilization runs on 80-year cycles divided into 20-year generations patterned after the four seasons.

In this theory, winter is the "fourth turning," a time of death and cataclysmic change. We're heading into it. Fourth turnings have always involved big wars: the War of the Roses, the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II. This theory is based on generational psychology: it takes 80 years for the people to forget how painful war is.

The baby boomers' generation is now in control, and boomers believe it is their right and duty to change the world, while the newest generation, starting to turn 20, is more willing to serve as foot soldiers in wars. This theory also can help explain the extreme political polarization in our country. The blue states want to move into the Third Wave while the red states are saying "Not so fast, computer boy!" Conservatives use broadcasting, a Second Wave medium, to influence voters, while liberals use the network to solicit money, develop ideas and organize parties.

What's going to happen?

The Third Wave has to help the Second Wave finish its business. Just as tractors, fertilizer and other gifts of industrialization helped farmers increase their productivity, computers must help solve the remaining problems of industrialization. This means using information technology to tame energy, prevent pollution, cure the traffic congestion and other ills of the Second Wave.

Look at a Prius or an all-electric car, and you'll see them bristling with information technology. Similar applications of technology such as computer controls that ensure the safety of nuclear energy would be a decisive way to solve a Second Wave problem.

What about the big war predicted in 2020 by the Fourth Turning? To fit the wave theory, the war would have to pit an information-based civilization against one that wants to perpetuate industry. In this corner, representing the Second Wave are the people who will control energy and manufacturing: the red states, the Saudis (or their replacements) and China. In the opposite corner, representing the Third Wave are information enthusiasts: the blue states, Japan, Bangalore and Europe.

Obviously, this sort of alignment splits many existing political entities. For example, Oakland has signed up for the Third Wave while "Dahntahn" is stuck in the Second. I look forward to the battle of Fifth Avenue, the proximal cause of which might be an attempt to tax the universities.


(James H. Morris is dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. You can contact him via e-mail at