sitemapThe Tofflers and the Third Wave (RMA)

The Tofflers and the Third Wave (RMA)

The Tofflers:
The Third Wave and its Associated War Form

Randall Whitaker
November 1995

NOTE: All literature citations refer to materials listed in the
Information Warfare Bibliography at this site


During the last three decades, Alvin and Heidi Toffler have authored several popular accounts of societal transformation (1970; 1980; 1990). The Tofflers are typically categorized as 'futurists' -- writers who speculate about prospective events and trends. Because they analyze history via simple schemata drawn with broad strokes, their work is better described as journalism from a visionary perspective rather than detailed socio-historical scholarship. Nonetheless, the accessibility of the Tofflers' books has resulted in their being widely read, which in turn has made them perhaps the most common point of reference in analytical future studies outside academe. Of primary relevance to the current RMA / MTR debate is the Tofflers' categorization of civilizations to date into three major 'waves' (1: agrarian; 2: industrial; 3: informational), distinguished by the emergence and evolution of a particular economic form (1980; 1990). Their most recent thesis is that each wave has in turn generated one or more corresponding 'war forms' in which military ends and means have evolved in conformance with the dominant economic form (Toffler & Toffler, 1991)

The Tofflers claim we are in the midst of a transition between the second and third waves. According to them, the last three centuries have marked the period of second-wave economies and associated war forms. This second wave began in the wake of the Renaissance, swelled through the Enlightenment and reached its concrete fruition with the Industrial Revolution. Although the Industrial Revolution is usually ascribed to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Tofflers date the beginning of the second wave to the late 17th century (cf. Toffler & Toffler, 1991, p. 18). The seminal event was the rise of Newtonian science and the subsequent proliferation of several key ideas:

(Toffler & Toffler, 1991, p. 20, spacing added for readability)

Second-wave warfare has emphasized warfighters drawn from a general pool of citizens, a professional officer class, authority concentrated in hierarchies, forces gauged by their mass (e.g., manpower, firepower), and strategies geared to mass action in pursuit of focused decisive outcomes. Clausewitz is the canonical theorist of second-wave warfare, and World Wars I and II are canonical examples of second-wave war.

In the Tofflers' vision of the emerging third-wave economy, the dominant productive work form is 'knowledge work', usually in support of service provision. Such activity is aimed at ever more finely delineated niches, conducted by constantly-shifting alliances among players, and supported by increasingly sophisticated information networks (Toffler & Toffler, 1990). The existence of a flexible and ubiquitous medium for communication and commerce (e.g., the 'Net') is presumed to necessarily facilitate activities which:

Prospective third-wave economies and war forms are predicted to entail unending novelties and complexities in the number and character of players, distributed authority, forces gauged by their precise effects, and strategies geared to fine-grained actions in pursuit of general outcomes contributing to ongoing developments.

This is not to say that the Tofflers' historical analysis and vision is perfect, being as it is a simplified account tailored for popular consumption. DiNardo and Hughes (1995) criticize the Tofflerian allusions in RMA / IW discussions, deriding without elaboration the Tofflers' approach as simplistic and rife with errors of detail. Their critique is constructive to the extent it highlights the fact that relevant historical transformations are considerably more complex than the Tofflers' simple '1-2-3' formulation. This is of crucial importance to professional historians (such as DiNardo and Hughes), but such quibbles do not invalidate the utility of the Tofflers' analysis for its intended 'popular' (i.e., non-academic) audience -- of which military professionals are members.

Perhaps more relevant is that Dinardo and Hughes' challenge to the Tofflers has no apparent bearing on the current issue of concern -- the IT-driven RMA. The focus of their criticism is the transition from 'first wave' to 'second wave', which they understandably but erroneously address exclusively in terms of the Industrial Revolution from ca. 1800 onward (cf. the explanation of 'second wave' above). Because they do not address the transition of immediate interest -- 'second wave' to 'third wave' -- their critique of the Tofflers is essentially tangential to RMA / IW considerations.

This does not mean that the Tofflers' work is above criticism. Indeed, their analysis should not be considered either comprehensive or the final word. Their 'wave' categorization begins with agrarian societies, and a Tofflerian analysis of warforms extends backward no farther than this. The activities we call warfare are evident in pre-agrarian societies, albeit heavily laden with ritualistic overtones (cf. John Keegan's 1993 A History of Warfare ). As such, the Tofflers' schema must be qualified with respect to a particular definition of 'civilization'. Furthermore, the Tofflers' writings are reasonably characterized as feature journalism punctuated with occasional factoids primarily drawn from the popular press. None of their books should be considered specimens of deep scholarship. In particular, the Tofflers' analyses build upon the referential foundation of an economic / technological 'evolutionary timeline'. As such, their results can be criticized for recapitulating second-wave approaches to societal analysis (e.g., Dinardo and Hughes' labelling the Tofflers 'neo-marxist').

Finally, the Tofflers are not the first to envision revolutionary impacts of information technology. The notion of transformations in work corresponding to the rise of information technologies has been a longstanding theme, as exemplified by the visions of Vannevar Bush (1945) and Douglas Engelbart (1988a; 1988b). As these earlier visions evolved through specialized prototypes into the marketable commodity of the Internet, analyses and projections of impacts have broadened from the workplace to society at large. The Tofflers were not the first to note these impacts, but they were (to their credit) the primary writers successful in disseminating these ideas to the general public. The Tofflers (1991; 1993) imply it was their vision that inspired the last decade's reconsideration of American military doctrine in the light of the 'information revolution'. Regardless of their true impact, it must be acknowledged that their work has provided the most public entry point to the ideas now associated with the RMA / MTR.

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Draft Date = 15 November 1995