I was deeply saddened to learn of Alvin Toffler’s passing earlier this week. He was not only a brilliant futurist, but a decent and caring human being. He and his wife and business partner Heidi Toffler essentially invented futurism, and they had a major impact on my own life and career.
I won’t attempt to write a full history of Toffler’s contributions to our world; that has already been done, and done far more eloquently than anything I could say. See this from the New York Times:
And this online note from his colleagues at Toffler Associates is also worth reading:
I still remember the first time I saw Future Shock in a bookstore (it was in 1971, though I have no idea where). If I recall correctly, it was the first mass market paperback ever published with multiple alternative covers (green, blue, and red) – a perfect demonstration of the “mass customization” of products that the Tofflers wrote about in that seminal book about global cultural change.
For me, reading Future Shock was a profound experience. I believe it was a major contributor to my decision in 1973 to quit my job at a Chicago publishing firm and drag my wife and two small children to Ithaca, New York, where I entered a graduate program in organizational and educational psychology at Cornell University – a career-shifting move that I have never regretted.
Many years later I was privileged to meet Alvin at a conference where he was the keynote speaker. And that meeting eventually led to his interviewing me for the research that led to his third major book, PowerShift. I was not only quoted in the book (on page 212, to be exact), but mentioned in the Acknowledgements as a major contributor to his thinking. Needless to say, that was one of the most flattering experiences I’ve ever had.
But wait, it gets better. Several years later I was invited to join a colleague, Tom Johnson, at a meeting in the Toffler’s Los Angeles home where the four of us (Tom, Alvin, Heidi, and me) cooked up the idea of forming Toffler Associates, now a powerful and well-respected consulting firm. At the time I was on staff at the University of California, Berkeley, so the Toffler Associates relationship was only part-time for me, but it was a powerful and educational experience, to say the least.
I don’t want to dwell on myself, so let me just end this tribute by emphasizing what a kind, caring, and goodhearted man Alvin Toffler was. He was truly humble, and he was always interested in other people’s experiences and perspectives. He began his writing career as a journalist, and I believe that remained his dominant self-identity. He saw himself as an observer and interpreter of human experience; while he was always looking for the bigger patterns, he was also deeply interested in understanding how other individual people thought and felt about their lives.
Finally, let me also note that he was devoted to his wife, Heidi, and he often described her as the more intelligent half of their partnership. She was relatively content to stay in the background, but I believe Alvin always regretted not naming her as a co-author of Future Shock, The Third Wave, and PowerShift, an oversight he corrected in most of his later publications. And he always referred to her as his co-author as well as his life partner.
He was indeed a great man, and I am honored to have known and worked with him and Heidi. His focus was always on helping to improve the human condition, and he loved nothing more than a good conversation.
Farewell, Al; you will be sorely missed by a world that has not yet found a cure for future shock.
A final note: It’s been a few years since the last time I spoke with Alvin – my bad, and shame on me. Frankly, I’m not as good at staying in touch with friends as I want to be. And discovering that someone you care about is gone forever is a rude awakening. In this age of digital networks and social media it’s all too easy to think that a Facebook post or an email keeps you connected. Not! There’s really nothing easier than picking up the phone. Talk with your friends regularly and make them part of your life. And do it today. Never forget that the future is not a sure thing.