Five Questions With … Alvin Toffler

Alvin Toffler is a futurist and best-selling author of Future Shock, The Third Wave and more recently Revolutionary Wealth. Management alvin_toffler_loconsultancy firm Accenture dubbed him the third-most influential voice among business leaders, just after Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and the late Peter Drucker. Toffler talked with us about technology, innovation and the U.S. education system. True to form, he pulled no punches.

ID: Years ago you foretold a paperless society. That hasn’t occurred – yet. What are your thoughts on Amazon’s Kindle e-book and paperless technologies?

AT: I’m guilty of having said we’ll have a paperless office. I still think we’ll see electronic paper, where you can fold it and roll it and get everything online in this very manipulative format. The problem with the Kindle is it’s bulky and not like a book. I recall a conversation I had with a guy at IBM probably 30 years ago. He said the book is a perfect piece of technology – it’s highly portable, works in all environments and you can recycle it when you’re done.

But most of us grew up to read from a tangible newspaper. I spend hours every morning just reading newspapers … the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times plus whatever else I can lay my hands on. I’ll keep reading them. I have to say, I’m an old codger.

ID: Where do you find some of the more interesting areas of innovation?

AT: Biotechnology is among the more obvious things. There are thriving spots for this popping up around the world. I also see tremendous changes in agriculture. That takes me to a whole other issue of poverty around the world. It’s most severe where peasants are still working the land. The drive to solve poverty and hunger is imperative. Agriculture may be an industry where we see some of the most advanced technologies emerge. You wouldn’t think of agriculture as being on the technological frontier. It’s funny the way we sometimes go back in time.

ID: How would you recommend we foster innovation?

AT: Don’t just study your own field. Get intellectually outside of your specialty. Look for ideas that come from remote places. Don’t just read your own journal, your own stuff. I believe you can get better ideas outside your own field.

ID: What are your thoughts on the idea of crowd-sourcing, using the collective wisdom of disparate people to solve problems?

AT: I don’t buy the idea that crowds are smart. A crowd elected Hitler.

ID: What are your thoughts on today’s U.S. education system?

AT: I see it failing everywhere and no areas where it’s excelling. It took (Bill) Gates too many decades to say this. We can’t save it. We have to rebuild it. Back in the 1800s there was this big battle between rich and poor over free education. The poor were against it. Businesses wanted free public education. It had a large number of rural kids coming to work in factories and showing up late on the assembly lines. Companies needed the education system to inculcate industrial behavior. The schools we have today are simulated factories. I don’t hate teachers, but the system we have is preparing children for yesterday’s economy.

Kids ought to be given a course on advertising. There ought to be courses in sports – not just playing sports, but the business of sports. There are all kinds of things kids encounter that are totally ignored in the education system, which is still trying to turn out factory workers and not professionals.