Fourth Wave Concept Overview

by Bob Debold, 15 Apr 95, responding to a message on wholesys-l.

The "fourth wave" is an idea that has been written about in a book by the same name (Maynard & Mehrtens 1993). It is a logical yet derivative concept of Alvin Toffler's historical wave theory originally propounded in "The Third Wave" (circa 1980). These "waves" are described categorically by Toffler as 1) Agricultural, 2) Industrial and 3) Knowledge or information. Toffler says the waves are not as simplistic as the generic titles evoke. The designations only portray in a conceptual sense the patterns and forces that shape business, economies, politics, religions, global affairs and social power interrelationships. Toffler's generic designations required three books (Future Shock, Third Wave, & Powershift) to best portray how these events have effected today and might shape tomorrow.

Toffler is Newt Gingrich's "guru" and obviously has had a profound effect on the new Speaker of the House. This subject is interesting and should be dealt with as a seperate issue though.

Back to the Fourth Wave. Before Maynard and Mehrtens came along, one only had to extrapolate one's imagination about social evolution to come up with the fact that if Toffler's wave theory is truly accurate (read Powershift and you begin to get a sense that Toffler has some keen insight here) and if each wave is behaving as a tighter and shorter bell curve relative to time, then the third wave might very well be cresting NOW. And one would logivcally ask, just what might be taking its place in the same fashion that the industrial age has given way to the knowledge wave?

Contemporary writers such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Jeremy Rifkin, Robert Heilbroner and Peter Drucker to mention a few, use terms such as "post-market era", "post-capitalist society" or "new world order" to describe the way they see society functioning today; they all speak to major changes in the global village based upon some of the very same rationale Toffler uses. They all speak essentially to many of the same concepts that Maynard and Mehrtens portray will be shaped in the fourth wave as it emerges. These include:

  1. A respiritualization of society
  2. consuming will be replaced by increasing aspects of GAIA
  3. Materialism and scientism will continue to decline
  4. Institutions will move toward a real rsponsiveness of global stewardship
  5. Wealth will be redefined, especially as measured in accounting systems
  6. Seamless boundaries will emerge between corporate and personal life.
  7. Self-forgetful service will become not only a theological watchword, but an emerging paradigm for the common man.
  8. Religions will "catch up" with science

Flemming responded to the term "light" that Moshe Dror proposed as "phototronic" (vs electronic) and positioned it much the same way as the above authors... as a spiritual consciousness. This is very much in line with contemporary authors and their extrapolation of underlying patterns coming out of the next wave. My perspective is that Moshe and Flemming are correct in their assesment of unfolding events, with Flemming taking a more expansive inclusion of the word "light". I especially agree with Flemming's idea that people will see the need to get in touch with their inner selves. this is being abundantly seen in the desire to improve the quality of life not in the collection or acquiring of assets, but in the need to have more TIME to spend with families, in self-improvement and enjoyment of the arts.

The overabundant problems we see in society today might be the "chaos" period as waves overlap and create undulating eddys almost appearing as randomness. In the third world countries, the second wave is alive and kicking while the third wave is barely being understood (US, Canada, Europe, Japan etc. ) in the nations that ought to be the home(s) of the third wave. Our accounting systems are sadly second wave based and take in account only hard "smoke stack" assets on the balance sheets. It has been 500 years since Pacioli published his seminal work on accounting and we have seen virtually no innovation in the practice of enterprise accounting- just more rules- none of which has changed the framework for measuring the information (third wave) society. Old paradigms die hard, even as the new wave is firmly cresting over our heads.

By taking into account how Toffler describes and generically defines the three major waves (he dismisses the hunter-gatherer wave), one gets a sense that human evolution can be viewed as having a leading influencer from which, and the degree to which, all other human events precipitated with-- not from. I believe the eventuation of the industrial second wave, is not a necessary but a sufficient condition by which derivative events such as the Marxist form of economics (as opposed to Adam Smith's) or the development of management as a discipline to produce results out of organizations or the systematic development of "crafts", now known as disciplines which led to the development of organized labor called unions, evolved.

So what "leading influencer" is acting on our systems today that will get the distinction of being called a wave?

In an effort to not go too much out on a limb and be summarily dismissed, I will summarize a few of the events taking place right now are playing a role:

  1. Mass technological displacement in all industries both second and third wave.
  2. The inability of all theologies to harmonize and reduce moral entropy in the face of the consequences of advanced technologies (euthanasia, abortion, DNA manipulation, cloning, etc, etc,)
  3. Ubiquitous communication
  4. The advent of virtual reality communication
  5. Ubiquitous information
  6. Philosophy re-emerging as an important discipline to be studied
  7. Emergence of Systems Thinking
  8. Emergence of the need for Organizational Learning
  9. Regionalism encroaching on the nation-state-- and redefining sovereignty
  10. Talk radio

Only joking about #10, but it did seem that artificial intelligence would follow logically...

If the speedy development of technologies at the crest of the second wave caused the mass displacement from the first wave (e.g. the mechanical cotton picker, the grain thresher etc.), then the same thing is happening at the crest of the third wave (The End of Work, J. Rifkin) and will drive society more quickly into being pulled or driven ahead by the fourth wave. These technologies cut across all industries, from electronic shopping to robotic surgery to cable TV extension universities to computerized voice activated 411 operators. We are truly on the cusp of the virtual workerless workforces in the third wave industries.

The Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich recently had an article in the New York Times that remonstrated the Republican initiatives in the Contract with America as being second wave prescriptive, among other things, not providing opportunities for those not trained in third wave skills.. He wrote: "Nowhere [in the contract] is there any proposal to help Americans struggling to swim from the second wave to the third"

As a provider of contingent third-wave labor to businesses around the Capital Beltway, I have had the opportunity to empirically measure both the demand and the supply side. (I provide temporary finance and accounting labor) If the government is concerned (or not concerned, according to Reich) about the displaced second wave labor force as well as the non-preparation for third wave skills happening in the public education system, then the rapidly displacing third wave unemployed labor is in worse shape!

If Rifkin is right, we will have to mandate a redistribution of labor hours by reducing the length of the work week. Doing this causes unit costs for product/services to be uniformly increased. This is one reason for the downsizing phenomenon-- as your competitor reduces his unit cost by using contingent labor and/or having those remaining behind working longer hours, you gain at least a labor-cost advantage. In systems thinking, this is a reinforcing loop. Reinforcing loops either increase without bound, or implode. Businesses that downsize too far either implode or get bought out.

As knowledge/information industries (third wave) advance to the extreme mechanization that the agricultural industry did (second wave), the fourth wave will be taking hold on the social fabric. This appears to be inevitable. Recall that in the second wave affairs, the dominant relationships driving social governance were market focused, and they took precedence over traditional relationships; human worth was measured in commercial terms. At the beginning of the fourth wave, the market sector and government will play a diminishing role in day-to-day affairs. If the employed have more free time due to a shortened work week, while the unemployed have idle time due to no work, there seems to be two alternatives that would result. 1) Increased social unrest and with it the problems of crime and homelessness, or 2) the evolving of the "third sector" which includes community activities, non-profit organizations, volunteerism or advocacy organizations. This is not a new concept, French social scientists have been using the term "social economy" to make the distinction between the third sector and a market-exchange economy. The social economy is measured in outputs, not salaries or revenue. A new accounting system will take shape as the social economy takes root.

So what is the fourth wave? The fourth wave appears to me to be a wave of GAIA-like service which will arise out of the third sector and have the ability to integrate social results with indirect economic gains. It will sharply reduce unemployment; it will never have the stigma of underemployment; it will allow the remaining market-based economy to improve the quality of life; it will allow the government to mandate compulsory work, much like we mandated compulsory conscription to military service (pre-1982) and still mandated compulsory education, yet it will change the way we think and care about our neighbors-- most people could begin to see the connectedness of EVERYTHING. It will demand a new vision for education and life skills training. It was George Bush in his "Points of Light" inaugural address who said the volunteer sector was the "spiritual backbone" of the democratic way. I didn't vote for George, but I liked his ideals. Clinton has done the same with his renewal of Kennedy's peace corps initiative.

Like any of the waves of social change, they didn't just come about-- each was embedded in the tissues of society and evolved and emerged as technologies, ideas and ideals shaped the thoughts, emotions and collective will of humankind. I think the fourth wave is emerging amidst the chaos of the third wave today. It will most definately prove to be interesting.

I hope I have provided some salient thoughts regarding what I find to be an intriguiging topic. Thanks for the opportunity to respond.

Bob Debold