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, mostly men.[i] 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 scarcity mindset?
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 the kind.
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 there.
[i] I recall two references to female innovators – Katie Salen of Quest2Learn and Jacqueline Novogratz of the Acumen Fund.