By Tom Siegfried 
The Dallas Morning News

06:41 PM CDT on Sunday, May 23, 2004

QUINCY, Mass. – While science fiction imagines far-off futures, Alvin Toffler forecasts a factual future that's much more near.

In collaboration with his wife, Heidi, the acclaimed futurologist has assessed society's prognosis in several best-selling books, all essentially announcing to the world that the future is now. The industrial era is over and is about to take its place in the history books alongside the agricultural era that preceded it.

Now the world is in the midst of the information-technology revolution. And it's not just providing a new form of making a living. It's a profound reweaving of the entire social fabric.

"At every level, economic, social organization, culture, politics, we're in the process of inventing a new civilization," Mr. Toffler declares.

The demise of a social era merely reflects the historical truth that everything is transient, Mr. Toffler says. "That means that families, corporations, governments, universities, organizations, religions, communities, and nations – including our own – are all temporary."

The trouble is, most human institutions haven't caught on. Governments, schools, corporations, even the media, are all in denial, operating as they did in the heyday of the social-economic system born almost three centuries ago in the Industrial Revolution.

"A kid comes out of school and is confronted by a range of built-in industrial age institutions, each of which today is failing," Mr. Toffler said last week at a conference in suburban Boston. "It is not just a crisis in the health system or a crisis in the education system. There is a systemic institutional crisis in the United States."

Major social institutions are all in trouble now, Mr. Toffler says, because they are the remnants of an earlier era.

"These institutions were designed to service a mass industrial society, a society based on smokestacks, assembly lines and mass production," he said. "They are now increasingly obsolete. And they malfunction."

Three main features define the difference between the old industrial era and the emerging information age. Most obvious is what Mr. Toffler calls "demassification." The Industrial Revolution created a mass society, a society encouraging sameness, one size fits all. Mass production, mass consumption, mass media, mass education all emerged in response to industrialization.

"Many of these mass structures are in fact breaking down and taking on more complex forms," Mr. Toffler said. "Today we're moving beyond the relative simplicity of the industrial era."

A second major force is the accelerated rate of change in society today. Geopolitically, sociologically and economically, the world changes much faster than it used to. Within a generation, nations rise and fall and products come and go. Parents born before VCRs existed now have kids who wonder what VHS means.

Third, competing to survive in an era of accelerating change requires more and better information to make sound judgments. And acquiring information demands a more connected society, a recipe for complexity. It's a complexity that many institutions rooted in the past can't cope with.

"We are in fact going through systemic changes, profound changes, at the other side of which we believe will come a different kind of society, a qualitatively different social and economic structure," Mr. Toffler concluded.

Education, for instance, must change radically. Rote but thoughtless routine learning, OK for preparing people to work in factories, won't wash in an era demanding complex information assessment skills. Governments must face their archaic foundations, reconstrue their missions and rewrite their constitutions.

"You have at the same time an obsolete overrepresentation of rural populations in the Congress," Mr. Toffler pointed out. "And why do we elect representatives from geographic locations? The answer is, the system was designed when land was the central asset of society, when land was everything. ... But the fact is that if you were designing a constitution today, you would have to ask the question: Should representation be based on land? Maybe it should be based partly on land and partly on something else. The system is obsolete."

Shepherding society to this new future successfully will require the help of the sorts of people in the audience Mr. Toffler was addressing: hundreds of scientists who study complexity, who were attending the International Conference on Complex Systems.

During the conference, hosted by the New England Complex Systems Institute, scientists explored complexity in every conceivable manifestation, from the origin of life to the emergence of the whole universe. Topics included the use of complexity-based science to understand terrorism networks, communication problems in corporations, how to save endangered species and how to build robots.

Complexity is not yet a well-formed scientific field. Its methods are still emerging, and new insights will be needed to clarify what math works best for different sorts of complex problems. But just as the old agricultural and industrial world orders are giving way to the complexity society, science must evolve to face new social realities, and complexity scientists are the one species most fit to survive the change.

While visionaries like the Tofflers can see a more complex future coming, it will take scientists who can explain and exploit complexity to usher that future more smoothly into existence.

© 2004 The Dallas Morning News Co.