Book Review: Revolutionary Wealth by Alvin and Heidi Toffler
Ever since Future Shock made waves in 1970 with its vision of a future moving faster than our ability to cope with it, the husband and wife team of Alvin & Heidi Toffler have become the go-to futurists for people trying to understand the world from a macro perspective. Their new tome, Revolutionary Wealth, is another birds-eye view of the world as it is and an educated guess as to where it's going.
The Tofflers take the position that knowledge is the key to creating a richer (literally and figuratively) world. The good news is that knowledge is not finite and can be shared and expanded upon to create greater wealth for everyone. The bad news is that knowledge becomes obsolete so quickly and is so quickly replaced by new knowledge that our slow-moving institutions can?t keep up. In addition, those who lack access to knowledge may be left behind.
This can lead to what the Tofflers call ?desynchronization,? which can give rise to everything from the ethics violations of many major corporations (thanks to their greater knowledge of the market than the slow-moving government regulators who are supposed to be watching them), to schools that no longer work, to terrorism. In addition, those who don?t feel comfortable with the pace of change, or feel that changing times threaten their livelihood, will drag their feet and attempt to hold change back. (An interesting example that the Tofflers offer is the attack on scientific advances by religious, environmental, and other groups who feel their turf is threatened.)
The Tofflers spend a good deal of space in the book discussing ?prosumers?, or consumers who also produce. This generally refers to all the things people do that keep the world running even though they don?t get paid, from taking care of a sick relative to raising kids. More interesting to the wealth discussion, perhaps, is that thanks to the Internet and other technologies, amateur prosumer scientists and techies have a greater ability to create valuable products and knowledge than ever before. ( An example is the Linux operating system--free, open-source Web server software that has been constantly improved by thousands of volunteer programmers and is now used by major corporations and governments.)
Revolutionary Wealth clearly believes that China has the capacity to shift tremendous amounts of wealth its way (this has already begun, actually). China?s ?twin track? strategy of using cheap labor for manufacturing while aggressively building its knowledge sector has been extremely successful. But China is not alone. India is also on a similar path, as are countries such as South Korea.
The Tofflers are excited about the ability of the knowledge economy to lift people out of poverty. To a certain extent, it?s a trickle-down effect?as the world?s wealth increases and more workers are needed to feed the machine, the poorest countries get invested in and more people are put to work. But they are also talking about programs such as microloans in small communities, and using Internet access in remote areas to help people compete in the knowledge arena.
As in all the Toffler books, there are interesting tidbits that make you entertain possibilities you never thought of before. Revolutionary Wealth discusses the potential for a ?personal fabricator??people already download and edit music at home, eventually they could download patterns and have a desktop fabricator actually create toys or other items right in front of them. Money technologies are discussed, such as the potential for ?boycott? credit cards that restrict purchases from stores that a movement deems to be on the wrong side of the ideological divide. And what about the rights of clones? The Tofflers see a future in which the next group fighting discrimination could be the people cloned from your very own DNA.
Revolutionary Wealth paints a picture of a world in overdrive, with vast potential for creating a higher standard of living across the globe. But it?s a messy path, and the unpredictable actions of those who don?t feel the benefits or who are inevitably left behind could cause it all to crumble. No doubt the future will not be as glorious as it might be or as difficult as it could be. Where things go right and where they go wrong can?t easily be predicted, but Revolutionary Wealth puts you smack dab at the fork in the road, fascinatingly describing all the possible paths.
Published 09/07/10 (Modified 12/09/10)