Demassification of Media and Society: Re-Envisioning Toffler

Well known journalist and author, Thomas Friedman may have popularised the phrase “flat world” in his award winning book “The World is Flat” to advocate the idea of globalisation but two decades earlier, Alvin Toffler had already conceptualised and prophesied the revolutionary changes in the 21st century – a global society that is being shaped and fuelled by communication technology. It should be obvious that Toffler is not the only futurist around. There are dozens of other scholars and authors who have produced similar kind of works. But none has captured the public’s imagination as powerful as Toffler’s.

It has been 33 years since the publication of Alvin Toffler’s most celebrated futurist book, “The Third Wave” (first published in 1980), widely considered as the most important publication in Toffler’s trilogy, which included “Future Shock” (1970) and “Power Shift” (1990). It is timely that we re-look and re-evaluate some of its major themes, especially in the context of new media technologies and its impact on society today. What were the coincidental-quote-unquote conjectures? What does Toffler say about the present information society? How well does it resonate with modern technologies today?

For a starter, Alvin Toffler is an 84-year-old American futurist and writer, famed for his works on technological, communication revolution and future trends. He is also famous for popularising new terms such as “future shock”, “information overload”, “information age” and “prosumer”. Some of these ideas may appear bland in the early 1980s, but one could easily draw striking similarities between them and the realities of society today. For clarity sake, it is important to emphasise that Toffler did not forecast the direction of change, but rather, they were about the “processes of change”.

It is apparent that the latest technological inventions today like smart phones and social media were not discoveries that came out of Toffler’s books but nevertheless it is significant in the sense that they were all part of the larger Third Wave phenomenon. In “The Third Wave”, Toffler divided the phases of human civilisation into three main categories of wave, where each were differentiated according to its use of technology, social patterns, information patterns and power patterns.

The Civilisational Waves
The First Wave of change represents the agricultural revolution that spanned across thousands of years. It was an era where land formed the basis of economy, life, culture, family structure, and politics. In terms of communication, they depended on face to face communication. However, there were also other forms of communication systems such as the use of communication towers in ancient Persia, messenger service during the Roman Empire and pony express service in 19th century Europe. 

The Second Wave refers to the industrial revolution that took place from the late 18th century to the early 20th century. Among the major changes in the Second Wave era was the split of human life into production and consumption. Secondly, it saw the rise of “massification” and “centralisation” of almost every aspect of human life; for instance in education, business, communication, media and politics. It was an era where images of reality were mass-produced into various mass media channels such as television, radio, film and magazines, and injected into the “mass mind”. 

The massification of media and society increased with the exponential growth in radio and television consumption in the early 20th century. This was the era where the mass media grew more and more powerful and had a very strong impact on the society. Orson Welles’s “War of the World” radio broadcast in the 1930s was a classic example of how influential and impactful a mass media channel could be, though it caused a nationwide mass panic as millions of Americans then actually believed the aliens have landed on earth.
“The First Wave of change took thousands of years to play itself out. The Second Wave took a mere three hundred years. Today history is even more accelerative, and it is likely that The Third Wave will sweep across history and complete itself in a few decades”. – Alvin Toffler, 1980.
He noted that the Third Wave – also referred to as the post-industrial age – will transform society in a few decades. Toffler had imagined the kind of future society in an expression that is astonishingly quite parallel to the present social media society.  He called it the “electronic social network”. But observing from what is happening today, things may have accelerated beyond what Toffler could have imagined. To illustrate this, in the Second Wave era it took the radio 38 years and the television 13 years to reach 50 million audiences. In the present Third Wave era, the internet needed only 4 years to reach 50 million users, while Facebook radically built up 200 million users in less than a year! And this is just the beginning.

In essence, standardisation, centralisation and massification formed the major principles in a Second Wave society. The Third Wave, on the other hand, strikes and challenges all the fundamental structures of the Second Wave society. It decentralises, democratises and demassifies the economy, the media, political system, cultural values and other forms of social structures. 

Demassification of Media and Society
Structurally, the idea of demassification refers to a state where a social system or a society that is becoming less uniform or centralised. Prominent communication scholar Jan Van Dijk has presented and structuralised a new framework in understanding society today, one that is based on a network approach, where social relations are formed within a mediated communication technologies. He argued that the nature of society today has shifted from “mass society” to “network society” of which he distinctly outlined the characteristics and differences between the two societies. On the other hand, Toffler, in 1980 had predicted the exact kind of evolution in society. While the shift in society is termed as a “network society” by Van Dijk, Toffler described it as a “demassified society”.

Long before the days when the absence of internet service is regarded as a violation against human rights in countries like Canada and Finland, Toffler had prophesied that “instead of masses of people all receiving the same messages, smaller demassified groups received and send large amounts of their own imagery to one another. As the entire society shifts toward Third Wave diversity, the new media reflect and accelerate the process”. This is a revolutionary thinking if we were to contextualise it in today’s world. All of a sudden, the traditional media is forced to accept and face with a new kind of revolutionary challenges and competitors.

They have lost their control and monopoly over information and communication, as more and more new players enters the market. What is happening today is not just the demassification of the mass media, but it has accelerated beyond demassification and into a second level demassification – a demassification process within an already demassified organisational system or social structure. This inevitably leads to another Third Wave phenomenon, the convergence or integration of media and technology.

The invention of the internet and the World Wide Web is a perfect example, where the internet has succeeded in demassifying the mass media and the mass minds by democratising access to information and communication channels. It allows a wide range of multimedia elements; from video, audio, images and print to become available to almost everyone anywhere. Web 2.0 and the social media, on the other hand, have demassified and democratised it further by converging the multimedia elements with user-generated content technologies such as blog, vlog, picture-sharing, video-sharing, instant messaging, web forum, virtual game, wall-postings and crowd-sourcing, to name a few – all in a single website.

The other Tofflerian idea of convergence is between producer and consumer. Toffler foresaw that in the Third Wave era, the rapid growth of communication technology would blur and break down the lines between producer and consumer. This leads to the notion of “prosumer”, a term coined by combining the word producer and consumer, to give an idea of a technological and social convergence. There are a few definitions of prosumer. A brief explanation is that it basically means a “producing consumer”. Secondly, it reflects today’s society where consumers play more and more active role in determining the outcome of products and services in the marketplace.

In the context of the mass media, the Internet is obviously the greatest platform for prosumers – where it opened up a plethora of opportunities for consumers to self-produce and self-publish. With the internet and mobile technologies, consumers would be able to write, and produce news, videos or musical content by just posting them on the Internet. In the same way that communication technology has revolutionised and demassified the society, technology today has brought us far and beyond convergence and beyond Toffler’s scope of imagination on the 21st century prosumer. The latest trend clearly points toward a consumer-centric production, audience-centric media, data-centric economy and people-centric governance.

This article is an excerpt of my essay entitled "Re-Envisioning Toffler and the Evolution of Media, Intelligence and Society" published in the CMIWS Review #4 (2013).