Accelerating to the Future

September 19, 2013, 11:33 AM UTC

In the early 1970s, when I was in junior high school, I read Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, which left a lasting impression on me. Toffler’s main point was that the world was going through wrenching change from an industrial to a postindustrial or technological society.

Decades later the book holds up well, from that central argument to myriad ancillary points, including the one that I latched on to, which is that this rate of change is accelerating. In other words, if you think the world is transforming fast now, just wait; soon it’ll be happening faster.

A word about Alvin Toffler, or the Tofflers, because Future Shock and other Toffler books were actually produced by both Alvin and his wife, Heidi, who are now in their mid-eighties and still professional futurists in Los Angeles. The Tofflers’ story and influence are rather remarkable. The couple met as students at NYU but left university life and moved to the Midwest, where they spent five years working in factories to understand industrial processes.

Alvin became a writer specializing in labor issues and in 1959 was hired by Fortune, where he recalls writing “articles on a rather wide variety of topics, including an investment scandal at Chrysler and the ‘war’ between Coke and Pepsi.” Toffler stayed only a couple of years at Fortune and went on to consult for IBM and Xerox before publishing Future Shock in 1970. (For those of you who weren’t around back then, it became a runaway international bestseller.) As for other Time Warner connections, Steve Case has said the Tofflers’ The Third Wave (published in 1980) was instrumental in his thinking while he created AOL. Ted Turner has credited the Tofflers with inspiring him to start CNN. (And I wrote a punk-rock tune, “Let’s Shock the Future,” about their book while I was in a band in college.)

There are a million other interesting facets of the Tofflers’ impact: The Orson Welles-narrated documentary of Future Shock is an absolute hoot. (See it on YouTube.) The creator of techno music says he was inspired to coin the phrase by the Tofflers’ work. Their books have been hugely influential in China, though the latest, Revolutionary Wealth, was censored there. And their work has been cited by everybody from the late Venezuelan president (and Fidel Castro admirer) Hugo Chávez to the self-proclaimed “conservative futurist” Newt Gingrich.

The Tofflers’ concept of accelerating change is most pertinent to Silicon Valley and technology, which drive so much of the transformation in our economy but are also vulnerable to the forces the Tofflers describe. I was thinking about that as I contemplated my teenage daughters’ ever-changing use of social media. How can such businesses retain customers when there are always newer, shinier competitors coming along? (Facebook’s purchase of Instagram has worked, but for how long?) Indeed, all of us face the challenges of accelerating change, but none more so than the young guns on our 40 Under 40 list. (On the one hand, I’d love to be in their shoes; on the other, I’m glad not to be.)

That there are so many techies on the list (28) and so few in government (two) speaks to another Toffler concept, desynchronization, which they described in an email to me as meaning that “businesses and family structures are transforming at a much more rapid pace than are reforms in our education, political, and legal systems.” That’s putting it mildly.

Bottom line: If you want to thrive in today’s world, you need to be comfortable with accelerating, desynchronized change. Take comfort in the fact that even 102-year-old dogs can learn the trick. IBM is moving headlong into the era of machine learning or cognitive computing. Says IBM’s director of research, John Kelly: “We’re going to learn much, much faster with these systems, and these systems are going to learn much, much faster with us.” Sounds pretty trippy today. Forty years from now, not so much.

This story is from the October 07, 2013 issue of Fortune.