Grasping the Future

The conflict between Second Wave and Third Wave groupings is the central
political tension cutting through our society today. The more basic
political question is not who controls the last days of industrial society,
but who shapes the new civilization rapidly rising to replace it. Who, in
other words, will shape the nature of cyberspace and its impact on our
lives and institutions?

Living on the edge of the Third Wave, we are witnessing a battle not so
much over the nature of the future–for the Third Wave will arrive–but
over the nature of the transition. On one side of this battle are the
partisans of the industrial past. On the other are growing millions who
recognize that the world’s most urgent problems can no longer be resolved
within the massified frameworks we have inherited.

The Third Wave sector includes not only high-flying computer and
electronics firms and biotech start-ups. It embraces advanced,
information-driven manufacturing in every industry. It includes the
increasingly data-drenched services–finance, software, entertainment, the
media, advanced communications, medical services, consulting, training and
learning. The people in this sector will soon be the dominant constituency
in American politics.

And all of those confront a set of constituencies made frightened and
defensive by their mainly Second Wave habits and locales:
Command-and-control regulators, elected officials, political
opinion-molders, philosophers mired in materialism, traditional interest
groups, some broadcasters and newspapers–and every major institution
(including corporations) that believes its future is best served by
preserving the past.

For the time being, the entrenched powers of the Second Wave dominate
Washington and the statehouses–a fact nowhere more apparent than in the
1993 infrastructure bill: Over $100 billion for steel and cement, versus
one lone billion for electronic infrastructure. Putting aside the question
of whether the government should be building electronic infrastructure in
the first place, the allocation of funding in that bill shows the Second
Wave swamping the Third.

Only one political struggle so far contradicts the landscape offered in
this document, but it is a big one: Passage of the North American Free
Trade Agreement last November. This contest carried both sides beyond
partisanship, beyond regionalism, and–after one climactic debate on
CNN–beyond personality. The pro-NAFTA coalition opted to serve the
opportunity instead of the problem, and the future as opposed to the past.
That’s why it constitutes a standout model for the likely development of a
Third Wave political dialectic.

But a “mass movement” for cyberspace is still hard to see. Unlike the
“masses” during the industrial age, this rising Third Wave constituency is
highly diverse. Like the economic sectors it serves, it is
demassified–composed of individuals who prize their differences. This very
heterogeneity contributes to its lack of political awareness. It is far
harder to unify than the masses of the past.

Yet there are key themes on which this constituency-to-come can agree. To
start with, liberation–from Second Wave rules, regulations, taxes and laws
laid in place to serve the smokestack barons and bureaucrats of the past.
Next, of course, must come the creation–creation of a new civilization,
founded in the eternal truths of the American Idea.

It is time to embrace these challenges, to grasp the future and pull
ourselves forward. If we do so, we will indeed renew the American Dream and
enhance the promise of American life.