In his 1980 book The Third Wave, American futurologist Alvin Toffler proposed that there are periodic bursts of intense radical change when each new emerging society supplants its predecessor. Toffler argued that the technological revolution that was taking place as he wrote had eroded the previous structures created by the agricultural and industrial "waves". Arguably, some three decades later, we remain within the third wave, but technological change has now pervaded every aspect of culture and society, at a furious pace few could have predicted. Cloud computing, social networking and broadband communication networks have made it increasingly easy to connect across distance and galvanise social movement. The recent street riots in England, the Arab Spring and text-organised flash mobs (remember the T-Mobile dance?) were all coordinated through social media and mobile technology. But is technology now sufficiently advanced and pervasive to take us beyond the initial technological wave and into new territories? Can we claim that we are on the crest of another wave of change?
Darrell West seems to think we can, as here he assumes Toffler's mantle and champions technology as a key catalyst for change in many areas of society. In truth, so many areas of public life receive attention in The Next Wave that one would imagine it would be difficult for him to cover all bases in the space available. And yet, with the notable exception of education, where his commentary is thin, West is successful. He offers readers a panoramic view of the radical changes taking place in political and social life, healthcare, the military, commerce, publishing and the media.
In his chapter on the transformation of healthcare, he describes a number of innovations that benefit patients, including wirelessly monitored heart pacemakers, remote monitoring of medicine taking and the delivery of medical test results direct to the mobile phones of itinerant doctors. Where business is concerned, West argues that social media provide latitude for dialogue between producer and consumer, enabling companies to debunk myths and rumours about their products quickly and effectively. This may also be true in the political world, where social media offer more opportunity than ever before for the electorate to petition and lobby elected representatives, more or less directly. He shows that there has also been radical change as a result of the use of technology in news reporting. Professional news teams cannot be everywhere, so during breaking news, citizen journalists with mobile phones are likely to provide the first accounts. Such reportage not only creates more interaction between press and the public, it also has a democratising effect on mass media.
In places, West the "techno-romantic" extols the power of technology to transform public services. Elsewhere, he is more cautious, highlighting public fears about the impact of technology and the privacy and security dangers posed by greater access to the open World Wide Web or the onward march of technology. But perhaps he could be more critical. He passionately wishes to see public organisations become "faster, smarter, and more efficient". Via well-crafted rhetoric, he tries to convince us that consumers can use new digital technology not only to improve healthcare but also to gain better access to education, interact with and learn from the news media channels, and monitor public sector performance. To a degree, he is right. All of the above is possible if everyone has equal access to social media and the digital tools to gain a purchase on these services. Unfortunately, many do not, and the digital divide persists - which is an issue he tends to avoid through most of the book. For West, all is well in the world of the digital and, as we ride the crest of this new wave, we move inexorably towards a time when innovation and entrepreneurialism are aligned with technology drivers to promote desirable change across all sectors of society.
This revolution, West's next wave, may or may not crash upon our shores. As is the case with all futurology, we must wait and see. Whatever the future holds, this book offers a fascinating window on our possible digital future.
The Next Wave: Using Digital Technology to Further Social and Political Innovation
By Darrell M. West. Brookings Institute Press 238pp, £18.99. ISBN 9780815721888. Published 26 October 2011