I jumped at the chance to review Peter Diamindis and Steve Kolter's forthcoming book, Abundance
. I'm a believer in the power of shifts created by everpresent data, ever-expanding processing power, creativity, and human connectedness. I read a lot of future oriented stuff - both pro and con - and I knew these authors would have the inside track on a lot of it. I'm a Singularity University
wanna-be and a Fellow at a place called the Hybrid Reality Institute
. I knew the book would talk about DIY, prizes, and philanthropy because of Diamindis' work with the X Prize
. I've heard him speak, read some of his other writing, and knew I'd learn something new.
I also think the mind-shift that Abundance
represents is one we should all consider. This is especially true for philanthropy, which is created from abundance but operates in a model defined by scarcity. How does our work change, what might we do differently when we examine those absolutely root assumptions? Even if only as a thought exercise, what can philanthropy look like if solutions are possible and resources are available?
It also seemed like it it would be fun to offer you, a reader who comments on this blog, a free book. Which I'm doing. Just comment below, include your email, and I'll pick somebody. (The book will come from the publisher.) Or how about a chance to win a zero-gravity flight for participating in the publicist's Change The Conversation
contest (click here
It all seemed great. Here are my thoughts, read it, and decide for yourself.
There are certain debates that seem defined as much by their
polarization as by their substance. The pro-choice, pro-life divide comes to
mind. Technology as utopia/dystopia is another. These kinds of arguments have a
special component to them – the tactic of disarming your opponent first, then
making your own point.
Peter Diamindis and
Steve Kolter’s forthcoming Abundance:
Why the Future will be Much Better Than You Think is a masterwork of this
approach. The first four chapters are equally split between outlining their
argument and making the case for all the neuro-scientific and cultural reasons
why you, the reader, are going to want to disagree with it. They explain how we
as humans are pre-programmed to be pessimistic. Add in all the bad news that the
media feed us and the way our amygdala (part of the brain) processes fear much faster than other
parts of our brain can compute “not as bad as you think.” Our cognitive and
behavioral biases are all set to “things are bad and getting worse.”
The authors have to prove to us how badly
we want things to be bad before they can begin telling us how they’re actually
looking pretty good. As they see it, the current nature of our networks and our
technologies means “…for the first time in history, our capabilities have begun
to catch up to our ambitions.” They do make it clear how today’s technologies
are so different. In several clear, convincing chapters they explain the nature
of exponential and combinatorial technologies and the ways in which they can
spread and change. It is not just the presence of our current technologies, but
the ways in which they lay the groundwork for future technologies, that makes
this moment so important.
It’s hard for us to see this, argue the authors, because, we
humans are wired, after several millennia, to think and act in terms of
scarcity. But if we focus on the nature of the technologies and the ways we can
use them, Diamindis and Kolter assure us we can actually provide food, shelter
and health for everyone on the planet. We can turn Maslow’s pyramid into an
abundance pyramid. And we can move all the world’s people into that favored
place on every chart – the upper right hand corner of health and wealth. Or, at least give everyone that possibility.
It’s an exciting vision. And the stories that Diamindis and
Kolter share are each, in their own right, encouraging. To some degree the book
reads like a “greatest hits album” of TED talks, Singularity University seminars,
and X Prize competitions. As a source of exciting technology stories that is a
darn good pool from which to draw. Of course, as a representative sample of the
human race it’s a fairly limited pool of well educated, fairly affluent,
It’s inconsistent with the authors own argument that so many of the world's solutions would
be limited to such a small circle of solvers.
To their credit, the authors do more than list the
accomplishments and visions of robotics pioneers, clean water innovators, and
genomic entrepreneurs. The real power of these advances, they convincingly
argue, is their exponential power and the possibility of them in combination.
It’s not that artificial intelligence or robots or cloud computing will save us
– it’s the possibility that artificial intelligence plus robots plus cloud
computing will fundamentally shift access to basic health care. This, in turn,
will improve the economic and educational potential of the very poor, who will
harness their own creativity and collective power. This is what will save us.
Quoting their published peers
from Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and
Slow) to Matt Ridley (The Rational
Optimist), the authors synthesize just enough of others’ arguments to make
you want to believe. And every time I found myself scribbling in the margins,
“but what about….?” I had to stop and ask myself, am I just reverting to my
In a book about the power of abundance, one big problem is all
that is missing. There is no mention of climate change – as a problem to be
solved or as source of innovation (although it’s assumed in the focus put on
energy as a key part of the equation). This is particularly astonishing since climate change is a great example of the exponential and combinatory forces that the authors are trying to explain. Just not in a good way. It's not so much a discussion of climate change, per se, that is missing in the book. What is missing is real engagement with and refutation of counter examples or arguments to the picture the authors draw. Having showed us, early on, why we're biased against this way of thinking they then proceed to either ignore or dismiss out of hand (e.g. anti-GMO advocates are simply "foolish") anything that doesn't fit their model. Ultimately, this approach weakens their argument.
There is no attention to the forces that push back on the
rapid adoption of these exponential technologies. A careful consideration of
these would strengthen the sense of what is possible. In his book The Wealth
Of Networks, Yochai Benkler made a far more convincing case for what these
technologies can do precisely because he considers the role of institutional
resistance and status quo preservation. In contrast, Diamindis and Kolter’s
argument suffers because it seems to have dismissed such thinking out of hand. Without
any thoughtful discussion of the actual dynamics of technology adoption we are
left with a lot of excitement but no sense of how things really work.
For all the ideas and innovation described in Abundance, I left it feeling like an
insider looking out. Regular readers of WIRED,
The Economist, or The New York Times Book Review will have
heard of everyone the book describes. Most of the people we meet in Abundance have had their TED talk go
viral, been profiled on NOVA or the BBC, or had their YouTube channel blogged
about and featured in TIME Magazine. In
a world of abundance is there really such a small circle of big thinkers? The
authors’ note, “Technology is a resource liberating mechanism. It can make the
once scarce the now abundant.” This may be true for some, but the book fails to convince that it’s going to be true for everyone.
Finally, the other missing actor in the story is government.
All of the celebrated figures – and there are many – are individuals and
entrepreneurs. Working together, with the incredible new tools of collaboration
to mix and match their exponentially powerful technologies, these do-gooding
people can change the world for the rest of us. If only it were so simple.
Governments may be part of the problems; but some force for
collective action other than good will and cell phones must also be part of the
solutions. Ironically, the moonshot of the 1960s is held up as an example of
“abundant thinking,” yet the role of nation states in making it happen is
glossed over. The book is chock full of socially minded individuals with
resources and ideas to capture the abundance and possibilities. There are (generously) five dozen such
exemplary characters in the story. Where are the incentives, the structures,
and the oversight that might be needed to encourage their largesse, their focus
on a greater good, and provide non - market incentives for them to actually
engage the “bottom billion,” not simply see them as a market for goods? The
book argues that collaboration and networks will play a big role in putting these
exponential technologies to work for good. I believe that. These tools can just
as easily be put to use for individual benefit and malevolent purposes. The
book asserts, but doesn’t adequately address, the human systems we need to over
coming known barriers to making such progress possible.
Governments may not be the answer to how to ensure access to
these tools. Neither is it convincing to assume that “good will” will be
enough. Many of the heroes of Abundance
have dedicated their creativity to developing and delivering technologies to
help the poor. What the book simply omits are the countervailing forces of
innovators working hard to do nothing of the kind. Even if you want to ignore
the role of the state and focus on the potential of market solutions, you have
to consider the full range of forces that define those markets. Just as there
are abundant reasons to distribute these tools and creativity to solve social
problems, there are plenty of incentives and institutions that do nothing of
Of course, all of my disagreements with the book may be
because of hyper-amygdalic negativity bias. But I don’t think so. There is much
to recommend in Abundance and much
from which we can be hopeful and engaged. It reaches far, and offers a
compelling vision of a better future. Alas, it comes up short on how we’ll get
I recall two
references to female innovators – Katie Salen of Quest2Learn and Jacqueline
Novogratz of the Acumen Fund.