Thursday, May 31, 2012


Time has fascinated philosophers throughout the ages: geniuses like Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, and Immanuel Kant have written about it. But not only philosophers have studied time. From a more sociological and anthropological point of view, authors like Alvin Toffler have examined how cultures process time.

In his book The Third Wave, Toffler examines the difference between the "first wave" civilization of agriculture and the "second wave" industrial society. In the ninth chapter of his book, he contrasts their understandings of time.

He examines the mainstream of the agricultural worldview found in the “First Wave” pre-industrial societies, and contrasts it with the industrial worldview found in the “Second Wave” societies. Toffler posits that, despite the appearance of a diversity of ideologies – communist vs. capitalist, faith vs. religion, internationalists vs. isolationists – there is an underlying common conceptual framework which is shared by almost all “Second Wave” societies. He calls this a “super-ideology.”

One part of this set of omnipresent assumptions is a group of three core beliefs.

The first core belief is that “nature was an object waiting to be exploited.” Both capitalist industrializers and Marxist industrializers see mountains as places from which to mine iron and copper; they see oceans as sources of fish and salt. Rivers can be rerouted or dammed; swamps can be drained as locations for future houses or factories. Mechanization has made this possible on a large scale.

The second core belief was evolution. The political implications of Social Darwinism gave industrial societies a sense of superiority regarding agricultural societies. This rationalized both militaristic imperialism and economic imperialism, enabling industrial nations to view themselves as having a natural right to extract raw materials from regions belonging to less developed nations, and enabling them to see those nations as natural markets for exported manufactured products. The Marxists and capitalists “shared the view that industrialism was the most advanced form of society.”

A third core belief was progress, defined as “the idea that history flows irreversibly toward a better life for humanity.” Toffler sees this notion of progress as having “linked nature and evolution together.” Again, both communists and capitalists saw progress as inevitable and irresistible.

Having outlined the three core beliefs of “Second Wave” industrial society, Toffler continues, positing that these beliefs are themselves based upon a quartet of still deeper, more fundamental concepts. These are the concepts which people use to understand the world, and more specifically, these are the particular versions of those concepts which peculiar to “Second Wave” societies. These are time, space, matter, and causation.

All cultures have time, but the notion of time embrace by industrial civilizations differs from that of the “First Wave” societies. In agricultural settings, time had been measured primarily in large spans: seasons and years. Smaller cycles of time were noted, e.g., the daily milking of the cows. But there was no need to measure minutes or hours, and any reference to small units of time were imprecise. By contrast, the mechanization of processes demanded precise measurements of small amounts of time: minutes and seconds became important. In addition, there arose the need to synchronize events, so standardization of timekeeping meant that 9:30 in New York was also 9:30 in Miami. In addition to precisely measuring small units of time, and synchronizing them across ever larger distances, a third aspect of time is associated with the “Second Wave” industrial worldview: that time is linear. Many ancient societies in an agricultural, or pre-agricultural, phase conceived of time as circular. The notion of linear time allows for the possibility of significant progress.

The second concept which assumes a distinctive form during the industrial phase is space. Pre-agricultural societies – the “hunters and gathers” – understood themselves as roving through the universe’s vastness. Farming families and their neighbors, by contrast, were rooted to a specific piece of land, and in sociopolitical systems like feudalism, often spent their entire lives within a few miles of their birthplace. Industrialization returned greater degrees of mobility to people, but in a different form than the mobility of the hunters and gatherers. This new type of mobility was characterized by precision. While the ancient wanderers roamed the landscape in search of food, the industrial traveler left Chicago and knew not only that he was going to Omaha, but he knew exactly which building, and often even which room, was his goal. Railroads lent this great precision to man’s movement through space. A journey of a thousand miles was plotted accurately – one’s point of arrival could be calculated to within a couple of feet: a man knew not only that his train would arrive on track thirty-two of the Union Station, but he could even count on stepping out onto the front, the middle, or the back of the platform. In addition to precise journeys, the industrial concept of space is specialized. Architects and engineers design spaces for specific purposes. A large stone castle built during the reign of Charlemagne might have many rooms, but they were interchangeable in use. Designs of the industrial age feature rooms constructed for specific activities. Beyond the scope of a single building, towns and cities are also now organized in their use of space. A medieval town is a jumble of structures, placed in no particular pattern – houses, bakeries, carpenter’s shops, schools, churches – no clear residential zone and no clear business zone, and winding streets which grew organically without premeditated designs. Industrialization brought with itself urban planning, zoning laws, and cities whose streets from a Cartesian grid on a map. On a still larger scale, boundaries and borders between nations were now surveyed with great precision. On both the smaller level – individual rooms in buildings – and on the larger level – borders stretching hundreds of miles – the Cartesian plane’s right angles and straight lines made themselves felt. The medieval house often had walls which gently curved, and its rooms were randomly trapezoidal, quadrilateral, or merely closed figures. The modern homeowner, by contrast, expects all the angles in his house to be ninety degrees, and walls and floors to be straight lines.

The third concept used by the “Second Wave” worldview to process reality is the concept of matter. The industrial perception of nature reduced matter to interchangeable units to meet the needs of mechanization. All of matter was reduced to the known elements – approximately one hundred in number. Every atom of a particular element is chemically interchangeable with every other atom of the same element, e.g., we can substitute any carbon atom for any other carbon atom. This physical atomism quickly expanded to shape a general worldview and led to social, political, and economic atomism. Just as one atom can be substituted for another, one worker can be substituted for another, one dollar for another, one customer for another, one vote for another, and one voter for another. The interchangeability of automobile parts, computer parts, airplane parts, and steam engine parts led to the interchangeability of human beings. This detachable notion of the individual was different than the “First Wave” concept of society, in which the individual was an extension – an organic limb – of society: in the “First Wave” conception, neither society nor the individual could exist without each other, and severing the connection would destroy both. The “Second Wave” society is a complex whole, constructed of many individuals – but individuals who can be replaced and who are interchangeable. As the paradigm of atomism was transferred from chemistry to society, individuals could become more useful to the industrialization process, because they could be torn loose from their families, towns, and religions. If you needed one more accountant in your Toledo office, and had one too many accountants in your Milwaukee office, you simply relocated an accountant. Because the individual was seen as an atom, it didn’t matter whether the accountant’s cousin or grandmother lived in the Milwaukee area, or if the accountant had formed attachments to the local church or community.

The final concept needed for a “Second Wave” worldview is a notion of mechanistic causation. The laws of chemistry as formulated by Boyle, and the laws of physics as formulated by Newton, offered a paradigm which would be generalized to all of reality. Every phenomenon – every event seen or heard – could be explained in terms of, and reduced to, a series of causes and effects occurring with law-like regularity and predicability. This understanding of reality led to similarly-structured attempts – often successful – to control reality: to make things happen. While this mechanistic conceptualization of the world led to amazing achievements in science and technology, it also was dismissive of that which it could not quantify, dismissive of imagination and creativity, and attempted to reduce people to oversimplified units. It sought an engineering solution to every problem, and caused human suffering by ignoring those human needs which could not be expressed in mechanistic quantification.

The completed “Second Wave” worldview, then, has three core values – nature as something to be exploited, evolution, and progress – and understands reality through the lens of four concepts – time, space, matter, and mechanistic causation. This “super-ideology” provided a framework in which both capitalism and Marxism would produce their self-justifications. It created a society of organizations, cities, bureaucracies, and economies. According to Toffler, it is also a worldview that is now on its way out, is being disassembled, and will be replaced by a “Third Wave” worldview.