Steve Case said Alvin Toffler’s ‘Third Wave’ inspired founding of AOL
Case is the billionaire founding CEO of AOL and the
head of Washington, DC-based venture-capital firm Revolution.
- Case said that the 1980 book “The Third Wave” convinced him
the world was on the verge of a digital revolution.
- He said this is what fueled him in the early days of AOL, and
influenced his current work through his investment firm
Revolution’s “Rise of the Rest” initiative.
Not long before his graduation from Williams College in 1980,
Steve Case picked up a copy of Alvin Toffler’s book “The
Toffler was a journalist and activist who took on the role of
futurist with his bestseller “Future
Shock” in 1970, and his new book made a bold proclamation:
Humanity had gone through an agricultural wave and an industrial
wave, but was on the brink of what could only be described as
“The Third Wave.” It would see “the death of industrialization
and the rise of a new civilization.”
Over nearly 500 pages, Toffler explained his thesis for what this
civilization would look like, but the most exciting elements for
Case concerned the rise of communities through computers. It was
easy to dismiss the book as not much more than an interesting,
“But I read that and I knew he was right,” Case said in an
episode of Business Insider’s podcast “This
Is Success.” “I knew it was going to happen. I just knew it.”
Case decided he was going to help make it happen. And he did,
as the founding CEO of AOL, the first public internet
Ushering in the Third Wave
Toffler’s prediction of achieving the “first truly humane
civilization in recorded history” seems quaint, and some of his
theories on how families and nations will change can get a bit
wild, but past that and some fanciful language, his predictions
about communication were quite prescient.
He wrote that “cheap mini-computers are about to invade the
American home” and that a home would become an “electronic
cottage.” Offices would run on computer communication, he
predicted, and that means computers linked through
telecommunications would allow people to work from home. And
aside from work, this new label of connectivity would lead to the
formation of new communities that can be dispersed around the
“As advanced communications proliferate and we begin to shift
work back into the electronic cottage, we will encourage this new
dual focus, breeding large numbers of people who remain
reasonably close to home, who migrate less often, who travel more
perhaps for pleasure but far less often for business — while
their minds and messages range across the entire planet and into
outer space as well.”
He did not try to predict the specifics of what this technology
would look like, but that’s where creative entrepreneurs like
Case could come in.
Case told Business Insider that when he was applying to jobs
after college, he would parrot Toffler in his cover letters,
saying the world was on the brink of a digital age. Making it
stranger to potential employers was the fact it was coming from a
political science major. “They’re, like, what is he talking
about? So most of those letters went unanswered,” he said.
“But it was something that was intriguing to me. And I just
thought it would be important, and I wanted to be part of it, and
wanted to figure out ways to popularize it.”
Case worked for Procter & Gamble and then Pizza Hut for a few
years before landing his first tech job, and then in 1985 he, Jim
Kimsey, Marc Seriff, and Bill von Meister launched Quantum
Computer Services, which would become America Online in 1991.
Case, who left AOL in 2005, has been spending the last five years
the “Rise of the Rest” initiative, which is based on his own
vision of the future. He had the chance to thank Toffler before
Toffler died in 2016, and he named his own book “The Third Wave”
(published a couple months before Toffler’s death) in tribute.
To Case, AOL marked the first wave of the internet, the rise of
social marked the second wave, and now we’re at the forefront of
the third wave. Case predicts that Silicon Valley will lose some
of its central importance in this next wave of internet
companies, where the “internet of things” essentially becomes the
internet of everything, and revolutionizes industries like
agriculture and transportation. It’s why he and his team have
been investing millions of dollars across 38 American cities
whose startup scenes have typically been overlooked.
He said his work now reminds him of the early years of AOL.
“I recognize a lot of people are skeptical, but we hope to prove
them wrong, and we believe we will prove them wrong, and maybe
there’s some part of my personality that’s sort of, when people
say it can’t be done, that’s sort of the challenge, and say, ‘OK,
well, we’ll see about that,'” he said.
Listen to the full episode and subscribe to “This Is
Success” on Apple
Podcasts or your favorite podcast app.