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Powershift: Alvin Toffler on the Age of Post-Fact Knowledge and the Super-Symbolic Economy (1990)

“We are interrelating data in more ways, giving them context, and thus forming them into information; and we are assembling chunks of information into larger and larger models and architectures of knowledge.”

More than twenty years ago, in 1990, writer and futurist Alvin Toffler, whom you might recall as the author of the Future Shock, penned Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century (public library) — a visionary lens on how social, political, and economic power structures are changing at the dawn of the information age, presaging many of today’s cultural paradigms and touching on other timely topics like networked knowledge, the role of intuition, and the value of adding context.

In Chapter 2, titled “Muscle, Money, and Mind,” Toffler lays the foundation of his core argument — the idea that knowledge is becoming the key currency of a new super-symbolic economy, leaving behind the materiality of the industrial age:

Knowledge itself … turns out to be not only the source of the highest-quality power, but also the most important ingredient of force and wealth. Put differently, knowledge has gone from being an adjunct of money power and muscle power, to being their very essence. It is, in fact, the ultimate amplifier. This is the key to the powershift that lies ahead, and it explains why the battle for control of knowledge and the means of communication is heating up all over the world.

But it isn’t until Chapter 8, titled “The Ultimate Substitute,” that Toffler’s vision truly shines as he offers an elegant definition of the knowledge economy and the dramatic shifts in social currency that we’re only just beginning to see reach a tipping point today:

All economic systems sit upon a ‘knowledge base.’

[…]

At rare moments in history the advance of knowledge has smashed through old barriers. The most important of these breakthroughs has been the invention of new tools for thinking and communication, like the ideogram… the alphabet… the zero… and in our century, the computer.

[…]

Today we are living through one of those exclamation points in history when the entire structure of human knowledge is once again trembling with change as old barriers fall. We are not just accumulating more ‘facts’ — whatever they may be. Just as we are now restructuring companies and whole economies, we are totally reorganizing the production and distribution of knowledge and the symbols used to communicate it.

What does this mean?

It means that we are creating new networks of knowledge … linking concepts to one another in startling ways … building up amazing hierarchies of inference … spawning new theories, hypotheses, and images, based on novel assumptions, new languages, codes, and logics. Businesses, governments, and individuals are collecting and storing more sheer data than any previous generation in history (creating a massive, confusing gold mine for tomorrow’s historians.)

But more important, we are interrelating data in more ways, giving them context, and thus forming them into information; and we are assembling chunks of information into larger and larger models and architectures of knowledge.

Not all this new knowledge is factual or even explicit. Much knowledge, as the term is used here, is unspoken, consisting of assumptions piled atop assumptions, of fragmentary models, of unnoticed analogies, and it includes not simply logical and seemingly unemotional information data, but values, the products of passion and emotion, not to mention imagination and intuition.

It is today’s gigantic upheaval in the knowledge base of society — not computer hype or mere financial manipulation — that explains the rise of a super-symbolic economy.

Powershift follows Future Shock (1970) and The Third Wave (1980).

Image HT It’s Okay To Be Smart

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Alice in Wonderland Pop-Up Book

“Oh, I’ve had such a curious dream!”

As a lover of all things Alice in Wonderland and of extraordinary pop-up books (and neo-pop-up books), imagine my delight in stumbling upon Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: A Pop-up Adaptation (public library) — a kind of “Victorian peep show” version of the Lewis Carroll classic by pop-up book artist and paper engineer Robert Sabuda, and a beautiful testament to the whimsy of paper books.

Then the Queen, quite out of breath, said to Alice, ‘Have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?’

‘No,’ said Alice. ‘I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.’

‘It’s the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from,’ said the Queen.

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7 Lessons on the Creative Life from the U.S. Forest Service

Simple rules to follow when you’re lost in the woods, literally and creatively.

“A clear head will find itself,” begins the 1946 U.S. Forest Service safety flyer “What To Do When Lost In The Woods,” a manual made for hikers and campers whose suggestions might also be heeded by creative types who have lost their way.

The practical advice in this pamphlet was found in a Colorado cabin by Jen Christiansen, art director of information graphics at Scientific American, who tweeted about it. Soon, artist Austin Kleon ( ) noticed that many of the suggestions of the Forest Service might also serve as good lessons for creators, so he tracked down the full PDF of the pamphlet at the Oregon State Library.

A 1946 flyer from U.S. Forest Service, ‘What To Do When Lost In The Woods.’

After previously pondered wisdom on originality, the role of intuition, the science of creativity, the origin of good ideas, and the power of purpose, the U.S. Forest Service shows us that the art of saving your life — much like the art of being lost and found — can begin in the woods or in the heart, wherever you are.

Its lessons, distilled:

  1. Finding oneself is the test of man.
  2. Merely being out of sight of others in a strange forest gives a man the creeps — a natural feeling but a dangerous one. Never yield to it.
  3. Stop, sit down, and try to figure out where you are. Use your head, not your legs.
  4. Build a fire in a safe place.
  5. Don’t wander about.
  6. Don’t yell, don’t run, don’t worry, and above all, don’t quit.
  7. A thinking man is never lost for long. He knows that…he must remain where he is or push on to some definite objective, but not to the point of exhaustion…that someone will be looking for him, and strength in that knowledge makes hardships easier.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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