Skip to main content

Waves of civilization

The futurist Alvin Toffler, in his 1980 book "The Third Wave" proposed a view of human history as a succession of overlapping waves of civilization, each characterized by a dominant form of labor and its intended products for consumption.  Such waves do not have crisp temporal or spatial boundaries, and each one is much shorter than the last.

In this scheme, pre-civilization is characterized by hunter-gatherer societies whose principal aim was to protect against immanent threats to survival.  Such societies tended to form small nomadic groups with animist world views.  Their principal labor was finding food, although they also invested significant effort in avoiding harm from the elements, predators, and competing humans.

After the last Ice Age, groups of people settled to cultivate land using intensive agriculture techniques, leading to the first urban societies.  Most labor was invested in the production of food surpluses, which accelerated population growth.  Hierarchical organization of labor and resources emerged, along with codes of law, writing, metallurgy, currency, masonry, feudal monarchies, organized religions, and 'crowd diseases'.

Following the Renaissance and the plague in Europe, agriculture became efficient enough for more people to engage in the production of material goods.  Industrial civilization brought about powered machinery, mechanized warfare, dramatic increases in trade and travel, pandemic disease, representative government, basic education, expansion of the middle class, market economies, the portable nuclear family, and the idea of human rights.  Labor moved in large numbers from the farm to the factory.

During the 20th Century, especially following World War II, the emergence of information technology moved labor from the factory to offices, laboratories, and studios.  Useful knowledge is a principal product of our current information civilization, whose hallmarks include telecommunications, computing devices, advanced education, multidisciplinary careers, matrixed job markets, dynamic work roles, globalization, top-heavy upward economic mobility, social tolerance, flexible family models, and lowered importance of tribal affiliations.

So what is the next wave for human civilization? The next post has some ideas about where the information age will lead us.

The author's affiliation with The MITRE Corporation is provided for identification purposes only, and is not intended to convey or imply MITRE's concurrence with, or support for, the positions, opinions, or viewpoints expressed by the author.