NEW YORK — TO argue that we are now living through one of the greatest ``turning points in history'' since the time of Francis Bacon back in the early 17th century may seem slightly audacious. But when the source of that observation is Alvin Toffler - one of the United States' best known social scientists and business theoreticians - it seems only reasonable to stop and listen. Mr. Toffler has a message that needs to be heard in every corporate board room: The nature of ``power'' - the ability to act, to change conditions, to direct others, to produce - is fundamentally changing in today's technological, super-computerized, global economy. In ancient societies, personal wealth and land holdings provided their owners with the means of power and influence, said Toffler in an interview here. Then, by the 19th century, stock ownership - of factories that produced tangible goods - became a key to social control.
But what is now happening, says Toffler, is that power is directly linked to knowledge - symbolized by the computer. Bacon himself, at the dawn of the industrial era, recognized that ``knowledge itself is power.'' Toffler is now sees the world moving beyond the industrial age to the information age.
A ``powershift'' is under way from ``muscle and money'' to ``mind'' as the main instrument of social control. Toffler says far too many companies, not to mention institutions, adapted their organizational structures and work practices to reflect this shift.
The implications of a profound shift in global power carry both enormous opportunity and grave danger, Toffler says. Governments will be forced into rapid change, as has been occurring in Eastern Europe and China, because of the flood of international information.
``Anyone who believes that we're just going to leap into some sort of glorious new age is very unrealistic,'' he warns. Far-reaching turmoil can be expected, as individuals and institutions either adapt to, or resist, change.
Advantage will accrue to those institutions and businesses that apply new technologies to rapidly changing conditions, as the Japanese auto industry did during the last decade, he says. Tokyo saw the future far better than Detroit.
Toffler has put his ideas into a new book, ``Powershift,'' (Bantam: $22.95), that is likely to be controversial as well as an enormous best-seller, as was true with his earlier works ``Future Shock'' and ``The Third Wave.'' Taken together, says Toffler, the three books form a trilogy.
He argues that the the industrial/smokestack economy was based on mass movements in areas such as labor, education, and politics, while the computer age promotes customization and individualization. How should we adapt to this change?
Toffler believes at least three reforms are essential:
l. ``The educational system,'' argues Toffler, is ``a top priority for revolution and transformation.'' Education needs to be refashioned to shift its focus away from ``smokestack'' concerns to prepare youngsters to be members of an information-driven, individualistic society.
2. The concept of ``infrastructure'' needs to be rethought - away from the idea of committing wealth primarily to buildings and physical things to ``the invisible electronic infrastructure'' all around us. What could most rejuvenate US society? Link up every home in America with fiber optic cable, says Toffler.
3. Corporations need to revise accounting systems away from measuring merely tangibles. Tangibles reflect the older industrial economy. But Toffler believes we need to better measure what he calls ``knowledge assets.''
Toffler also frets that political institutions in the US overly reflect the concerns of smokestack industries, while neglecting the needs of newer information industries. Finally, as Congress and the White House battle over how many immigrants to allow into the US, Toffler says immigration is important to revitalizing a nation, although he recognizes the need for some restraints.