Saturday, August 13, 2016

Reflections on the Works of the Late Alvin Toffler

Alvin Toffler, who died recently aged 87, was the first author whose ideas I took seriously. The Third Wave and Future Shock introduced me to themes and subjects that I still think about today. 

Toffler translated.

I long ago forgot most of what he had to say, but I think Toffler’s biggest insufficiency as a thinker was his tidy division of history into specific periods: in his case, the “first wave” agricultural economy, the second an industrial economy, with the third wave being the information economy. 

This is, in fact, quite common in social-science, and inevitable in the study of history. Thus, in the Occidental tradition, the past is divided up into Classical, Medieval and Modern eras, though no one during medieval times considered themselves as being in the “middle” of anything. 

In a more religious era, history was divided up starkly between the birth of Christ and after. Toffler himself had been a Marxist, and Karl Marx also followed a tripartite method by dividing history into Feudal, Bourgeois and Capitalist eras. 

These categories are all artificial, of course, but they are a way of grappling with social phenomena by grouping them according to presumed temporal and spatial characteristics. Thereby, new information can be construed in terms of the mental groupings, thus saving the energy of having to consider and examine each thing discretely in turn. 

Past Alvin Toffler.

It isn’t as though sociological and historical categorization always departs from the facts on the ground: the Latin world of the fifth century was plainly different from the “dark ages” that followed, just as the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries were different from the nineteenth. But perhaps it was reconsideration of Toffler’s central argument that the “third wave” information-economy is really so dramatically different from the second-wave industrial economy, which lead me to be wary of this kind of categorization entirely. 

Instead, I’ve developed an idea in which particular artificial forms are brought into existence, and which in turn contain all potency which are variously acted upon their users. 

In a book called simply Cities, author John Reader summarizes the first civilized society, in Mesopotamia, and the cuneiform tablets found in the thousands by archaeologists (and deciphered thanks to the Rosetta Stone) which more often than not document the quotidian acts and thoughts of Sumeria.  Reader writes that they offer many “glimpses into the lives of ordinary people thousands of years ago, and accumatively they evoke a sense of how little the fundamentals of life have changed. Our lives and theirs could have been interchangeable. Only time separates us; we could have functioned there, and they could have functioned here. That this might seem at all surprising is a consequence of the way history is told. Accounts of ancient cities and societies have for generations tended to concentrate on the higher rungs of society, implicitly stressing the presence and overwhelming importance of kings and conquerors. To a degree, this is inevitable, since temples, palaces and treasure-trove burials have always been the prime target of anyone digging up ancient remains. ... Nowadays far greater attention is paid to evidence from lower down the social ladder.” (Reader, Cities, William Heinemann, 2004, p. 33).

Rosetta Stone.

My theory has long been that modernity pushed each of the variables of characteristic of "civilization", but to an extreme. Yet all of these variables were present in ancient Mesopotamia, just as they were in classical Greece, ancient Rome, imperial China, pre-Columbian America, and anywhere else that could subsidize city life. 

Later, Reader describes how ancient Attica’s control of the trade in grain supported financially the fluorescence of Athens during the fifth and fourth centuries BC: “As their populations grew, the city-states were obliged to look further and further afield for their grain supply. Those with limited wealth, or situated inland, had precious little chance to alleviate their plight and succumbed to more powerful states, while those on the coast, with access to timber and shipbuilding expertise, looked across the sea for alternative supplies, and the interacting agencies of need, ingenuity and initiative soon created a network of trade routes across the Aegean and beyond. This was a critical point in the development of the city as a functioning entity. It was beginning to reach out on a grander scale than ever before — though certainly not as a source of benevolent influence, simply to secure whatever it needed to survive. During the fifth century BC, Athens was bringing grain form the shores of the Black Sea, tapping into the western end of Russia’s great wheat lands. By the fourth century, the city controlled the grain trade of the entire eastern Mediterranean.” (Reader, pp. 54-55).

Later in Rome, in 123 BC, “laws were introduced establishing the basic right of every Roman citizen to a monthly ration of grain at a fixes that undercut prevailing market prices. The intention here was to even out the price fluctuations resulting from variations in supply, but the taxes imposed to pay the subsidies needed to gain the suppliers’ support for the scheme made it a hot political issue for the next sixty years. A law extending the number of grain distribution recipients was passed in 62 BC, and when Clodius became tribune four years later he abolished payment for the grain ration altogether. From then on, supplying a monthly ration of grain — free — to every eligible citizen became the responsibility of Rome’s governing authority. ... Moreover, Clodius’ law appears to have extended beyond the mere distribution of grain to cover all matters concerning both public and private supplies, the grain fields, the contractors and the grain stores.” (Reader, p. 57).

Reading these passages reminded me of a book I read years ago called The History of Money, by Jack Weatherford. Given that civilization preceded the invention of money (by thousands of years for the original city-based cultures), Weatherford coined the term “tributary” economy to describe the trade before coinage. 

Civilizations in the New World didn’t have money at all before the arrival Europeans, and Weatherford describes how the Aztec empire of Mexico “operated primarily on the basis of tribute, the markets functioned as subsidiary parts of the political structure, and many different standardized commodities served as forms of near-money. ... The vast bulk of goods that passed through the Aztec Empire moved primarily as tribute from the peripheral parts of the empire to its capital. In this regard, the Aztec Empire was like virtually all other empires in the era before the spread of money. Ancient Egypt, Peru, Persia, and China all functioned as tributary systems rather than market systems.” (Weatherford, The History of Money: From Sandstone to Cyberspace, Three Rivers Press, 1997, p. 19).

The Latins ascended to civilization following the invention of money, initially using the Greek currency but ultimately adopting their own standardized coinage. 

Although the Roman state (as republic and then empire) presided over a highly sophisticated market economy, its free distribution of grain harkened back more so to the tributary systems of the pre-money era. 

Amongst the Aztecs, Egyptians, Persians and so on, the expropriation of staple farm goods was not only to enrich the upper-class, though it certainly did that. Part of what was taken was redistributed in turn, to maintain the loyalty of the urban masses, as was the case in Rome. 

It demonstrates that apparently contrasting social behaviour can coexist simultaneously within the same culture. It could be tributary relations in a monetary economy; another example is hunting, which persisted in every society until very recently, millennia after farming had purportedly made it “obsolete.” 

Similarly, Roman history also shows how ancient is the rationalization of production, supposedly a hallmark of Toffler’s “second wave.” 

The historian Howard Saalman noted that “Industrialization, it should be said, is not synonymous with mechanization. It does imply an organized process of production and distribution of goods and services — and a genius for order and organization was the very basis of the Roman state. Everything from fun to funerals found its place in the legally and traditionally ordered scheme of things and — up to a point — everything worked well. If mechanization remained relatively limited it was because cheap and slave labor provided the required substitute, as in the American south of the early nineteenth century. No project the Romans undertook failed because of inadequate technology.” (Saalman, Medieval Cities, Braziller, 1968, p.12).

According to Toffler’s schemata, ancient Rome was a “first wave” society, in no essential way different from the very first farming cultures — which is a patent absurdity. 

As Saalman writes, “The Romans enjoyed their country villas and romanticized the rural idyll of Homeric times. But the land between their cities was rationalized by division into one-hundred-foot square units and farmed with an efficiency that can only be labeled `industrial agriculture.’ With the masses of population concentrated in large cities throughout the empire, less effective means of food production, of overseas and overland transportation, of agricultural products, or of less highly developed port facilities and storage terminals were practically unthinkable. With the satisfaction of basic needs and growing prosperity came a growing demand for manufactured products of all kinds. Roman craftsmen were prepared to make, and Roman merchants were ready to distribute, an impressive variety of products which gave life in urban apartments and rural homes a standard which compares favorably with later centuries. Architecture and engineering — utilizing stone, brick, and concrete masonry as well as metal, wood and glass — achieved a level of accomplishment by which all conceivable needs from those of frontier camps to those of town palaces could be and were met.” (Saalman, p. 12-13).

A "first wave" settlement: depiction of ancient Roman city that became Koln or Cologne, Germany.

All of this was even more the case with China, which remained without a substantial urban population until relatively late in history. It developed into a organized, legitimatized state relatively quickly, however, and after some centuries became the most technologically advanced of human societies. Chinese ingenuity during the Song dynasty from the eighth century, far surpassed that of western Eurasia at the time. 

In China sophisticated engineering and advanced technology was employed to ensure the cultivation and distribution of the staple rice crop. One of the definitive features of “first wave” cultures, Toffler argued, was “decentralization”: population and authority remained scattered, uncoordinated, semi-legitimate. 

With the “second wave”, this gave way to the centralization of people in cities, and of power in formal, legitimate government. In imperial China, the vast majority of the population remained in villages, but their actions were coordinated by a despotic monarchy and centralized bureaucracy. It was a system established two centuries before Christ and which persisted (with periodic breakdowns and strife) until AD 1911. 

There is simply no way to categorize China in terms of “first wave” or “second wave”, although perhaps Toffler argued these categories only applied to the Occident. It still makes no sense, because the Roman empire doesn’t fit into them either. Its population was, too, largely on the countryside, but nevertheless depended on the centralized authority of the SPQR. 

When Rome fell, the civilization itself largely faded away for a true “first wave” decentralization of population and delegitimization of authority. In the Third Wave and Future Shock also, Toffler describes how the new society’s conceptions of space and time will supersede the “linear”, “Newtonian” viewpoint characteristic of second-wave industrial societies. 

Toffler seems to have chosen the term “wave” (to describe what later be better-known as a “paradigm”) so to convey the chaotic non-linearity of sociocultural change as wrought by technology, it being no more resistible than any other force of nature. But it turns out that Toffler’s own terminology was in itself highly “linear” in so far as he proposed that the socio-technological “waves” arrive sequentially, and don’t seem to mix together, as was plainly the case with Rome and China.