Alvin Toffler, The Man Who Brought Us The Future

To Alvin Toffler we owe this prediction: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Hardly any other phrase can sum up, so succinctly and with such conceptual clarity, the trials and tribulations of a large part of mankind, including the journalist that writes these lines. And Toffler, a former factory worker who dabbled in journalism, predicted other things that describe how Verb.Company conducts its business every day: emails, teleconferences, chat rooms (“electronic mail systems to replace the postman and his burdensome bags”). He also foresaw the ugly underbelly of modernity: higher divorce rates, the crisis of the family and the workplace, national and religious identities called into question. Even after his youthful Marxist convictions began to wane, he still questioned the workings of the system. His Future Shock and The Third Wave were written in spellbinding style, and he rendered into layman’s language concepts that would otherwise be too hard to grasp. Among his countless admirers that turned his books into bestsellers he counted AOL founder Steve Case and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In a way, he had predicted their rise. Even at the time of the sharp polarization of the Cold War, he saw past the ideological differences to see commonalities between the United States and the Soviet Union: they were both industrial powers, and the economic differences that seemed huge for contemporaries would probably deserve a little more than a few passages in history books a few centuries later. When the author of these lines was still a young correspondent, he had the opportunity to interview Alvin Toffler. An intellectual giant, he took his seat around a little table at a café in Buenos Aires with two young journalists, and not only was he responding their questions, but also asking questions himself, with a youthful curiosity that had not abandoned him at the age of 70. But not only curiosity drove him, but humility. He was asking these two young journalists why they believed this thing or the other, and he listened with attention. In other words, not only was he a great man. He was, first and foremost, a good man. He also proved true the Fallaci principle: The incisive Italian reporter Oriana Fallaci, who owed her fame to her daring interviews with world leaders, had said that the good interviews were hardly the work of the interviewer, because an intelligent interviewee would always provide good answers even when asked stupid questions. Some of Toffler’s predictions did not come to fruition, yet: submarine cities or space colonies. Yet life still goes on. And he can certainly be forgiven. Albert Einstein got some theories wrong, too. There is a bigger connection with Einstein, which goes beyond the intellectual achievements of each. Alvin Toffler was born to Jewish Polish immigrants in New York in 1928. His parents’ timely decision spared them the horrors that befell the rest of the Jews in Poland and in Europe a mere decade later. But as importantly, they brought to the New World the set of values and culture that made the U.S. thrive and that the Europe of the time was becoming too narrow to allow. We all know what came thereafter. We would just name Einstein and Toffler as the best arguments against racism and anti-immigration. Because there are some truths that once learned, should never be unlearned. Then again, we would probably be overrating the humility to understand it by those those who espouse either attitude, or both.

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