The Modern-Day Wealth of Nations?

Revolutionary Wealth: How It Will Be Created and How It Will Change Our Lives. By Alvin and Heidi Toffler. Knopf, 2006. 512 pages. $15.95.

In 1970, Alvin Toffler published Future Shock, an analysis of the accelerating waves of change moving through society. Toffler built on a number of movements already underway both social (the changes he discusses) and conceptual. His analyses of change fit well with other works theorizing change like Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Toffler helped create the profession of futurist and, after 30 years, remains one of our primary futurists.

That said, he strikes a decidedly different emotional tone in Revolutionary Wealth than he did in Future Shock where the term “future shock” itself refers to a baffled and overwhelmed state, close to alienation, that strikes people when they experience too much change too fast. In that early groundbreaking book, Toffler analyzed the changes, explained the accelerating rate of change and warned about the possible effects on humanity. In Revolutionary Wealth, the Tofflers again analyze and explain, but this time, while many individual challenges are identified, the tone is much sunnier. This really is a book about how immense and widespread wealth is moving through global society.

Revolutionary Wealth is an immensely ambitious book. It covers its topic from many different angles, and just about any reader will likely find something of value in its ten sections. These range from discussions of the changing nature of time to how knowledge should be evaluated. Each of these sections is divided into further sub-sections each of which is in turn marked by useful analogies, engaging narratives and schemas that can be applied usefully elsewhere. For example, section 19, “Filtering Truth,” includes a discussion of the “six filters” people use to sift information for credibility. The history and nature of each is explained along with brief illustrations of their relative value and validity (with the Tofflers ending by coming down squarely on the side of the scientific method).

Their embrace of science is part of their larger trumpet call of techno-economic triumph. The core of their claim is that the possibilities offered by information technology multiply the positive effects of all other efforts—that knowledge can be transferred more easily, problems tracked and responded to more promptly, solutions spread across the globe almost instantly and wealth first multiplied, then distributed, in an exhilarating and accelerating wave across the globe. Related technological advances, like mapping the genome (something made possible only through intense computing power), will attack other problems like world hunger through generated genetically modified plants that allow scientists to design crops rather than discover them through slow experimentation.

This integration of information technology is producing, the Tofflers claim, a marked change in the nature of wealth. Wealth had once been primarily tangible: land, gold, etc. It is becoming primarily intangible: knowledge, services, etc. This change is crucial because it becomes “non-rival.” Tangible goods are used up; if one person eats an apple, no one else can. However, intangible goods, like software files, can be used without consuming them. As more of our wealth moves into this category, it becomes “more inexhaustible.”

Heady stuff, and that’s just a bit of what the Tofflers tackle. Their discussion of prosumers (unpaid producers who make up an invisible part of the economy, like volunteers or the contributors to Wikipedia) casts light on just how much formal economics leaves out. Their discussion of the divergent rates of time—how different sections of society not only move at different speeds but also how those speeds are changing—is both intriguing and disturbing. The tensions and inevitable clashes between, say, business and technology surging ahead at one speed and lawmakers and public education system will only get worse.

Revolutionary Wealth is far from perfect. There are several core weaknesses. First, entire sections of this analysis is not particularly new and, in fact, has been made in more focused fashion by others. Second, Revolutionary Wealth is not integrated. An advantage of focusing now on time, now on wealth, now on politics, etc. is it allows one to focus; a disadvantage is that in the real world, all of this slams into one another, and the Tofflers really needed to discuss more explicitly how the myriad factors interact. Third, the optimism is refreshing, but at times it seems to come at the expense of really grappling with, to echo another book’s title, limits to growth. The Tofflers acknowledge dangers like pollution and the energy crisis, but their overwhelming faith in advancing scientific knowledge make these into simple challenges to be met rather than crises that might end the race.

That said, Revolutionary Wealth is a fun ride. It takes the reader into corners of economics that most haven’t visited, and it throws out new and/or useful ideas every few pages.

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