Thursday, February 09, 2012

Abundance: The Future is Much Better Than you Think

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, 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.


Brigid said...

Glad for your open assessment, particularly pointing out that the players here are primarily affluent men (I wonder about race/ethnicity as well) and don't include a government role. Still, very interested to read it, if only for the challenge to shift my mindset to a more optimistic one.

Mary T. Migliorelli said...

What if I went through this day leaving everyone in a better state of mind than I found them? What if no one gets to exempt themselves from "trying on" an abundance mindset, no matter what field they're in? I gather that abundance and scarcity show up distinctly differently in our neurophysiology, so contrast each mindset for yourself, and see how well, how differently you perform when you are acting from abundance or scarcity. On any given day, I might oscillate between them, but when I consciously choose abundance, I've noticed I'm more effective in my work in philanthropy, higher ed, and social entrepreneurship.
Regarding your observations on "exponential power" and the possibility of (exponential technologies, etc) "in combination", I'm reminded of when Isaac Asimov spoke at our high school in '70's, and the great sense of curiosity & possibility he sparked which I carry to this day. Within a few years of that speech, my brother Paul,who was born blind, was using a Kurzweil reading machine that opened up the world. After he lost his hearing, he eventually received 2 cochlear implants, and now works in a new position at the international tech company that makes them. With his gifts of perfect pitch,fluent language and an engineering mind, he is probaly one of only a few people in the world who can accurately describe to the engineering team how the dual implants sound inside the brain, leading to numerous software innovations for future cochlear clients. I look forward to reading Abundance, and exploring what's possible across the fields we work in, in service to a sustainable future.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I'd love to win a copy of Abundance.

Lucy Bernholz said...

Thanks Mary and Brigid for your comments - FYI if you want to win the copy of the book I will need your email address. You may not want to post it here, but I'll have to be able to determine who is who in order to request your email

(in other words, posting anonymously isn't going to win you a book!)


Christine Egger said...

Strong review, Lucy. Thanks so much for the detailed coverage. Sounds like much important stuff is missing, but that the authors (imho) got the key point right: these changes create-ignite-amplify the conditions that allow people to harness ever-increasing levels of creativity and collective power.

I'd love a copy, though just as happy to see it go elsewhere, and either way will be sure to read & share the book.... Or how about broadening your generous idea, and creating a book-share in this thread? Send it to X who will pass it to Y etc. Create abundance-of-learning with this single book?

Lucy Bernholz said...


Great idea! Of the commenters above, to whom would you send it?


Christine Egger said...

Well, I know and love Brigid which likely makes me to biased to vote!

Rick Schoff said...

I can't escape the feeling that sometimes we lose sight of the planet when focusing on the forests. Especially if synergistic technologies function as the authors describe, what will increasingly be abundant are human beings. Exponential technological progress is one thing. Exponential population growth is a different order of issue altogether. It creates real scarcity, because we have finite resources. Unless one thinks that technology will always create new resources as needed, there is a hard line out there. (I'm reminded of a question I read somewhere: what was the person thinking when (s)he cut down the last tree on Easter Island?)

You quote the authors as saying, “…for the first time in history, our capabilities have begun to catch up to our ambitions.” The tacit assumption of "philanthropy" would seem to be keep alive and healthy every human being born on the planet. Scarcity is relative. You conclude by raising the political aspects of a world of abundance, and how those issues are not addressed in the book (among other things). So, we are back to staring at the amygdala, wondering what it has in store for us all as a species. As I am going to become infamous for quoting repeatedly, in 1969 Charles Fair wrote, "The problem is no longer simply the philosophic one of understanding history, but the practical one of controlling it.... By sheer numbers the world is ripe for famine and degradation on an undreamt-of scale.... That being so, we must bootstrap ourselves out of our animality in new ways, and quickly, or face better than even odds of becoming an evolutionary casualty - victims of biological 'virtues' indispensable in neolithic times but suicidal now."

Christine Egger said...

Can I change my answer? I'd send it to:

#1 whoever floats your boat (this is your gig)


#2 whoever pledges to pass it along, always to someone who understands it'll keep traveling, drawing from this comment thread first

If you go with #2 I can get that started or participate anywhere along the line

Anonymous said...

Thank you for reviewing this, Lucy! I am glad to know there is a biological basis for my attraction to "Dark Futures." You do make it sound like a bit of a libertarian rant, but I would like to look at it for myself. Put me down for the drawing?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. Sounds like the conclusion is much the same as other philanthropy discussions these days, at the risk of more buzzwords: a collective vision is necessary to get over the tipping point. Whether you've got the market or the government on your side, there needs to be enough support to push new innovations to scale.

Nabeel said...

Interesting about the approach adopted by Diamindis and Kolter - I read somewhere recently that the best way to prove yourself right is to take the most valid criticism you get, and show that you are correct even WITH the criticism. Another way, similar but not identical, is to take your opponent's best argument, and then prove it wrong.

I'm disappointed to read that the authors are dismissive of opposing arguments - as a rule I think that's a bad way to go.

Glad that you mentioned government - it's everyone's favourite punching bag, but one of the most critical pieces.

Ultimately I'm more interested in this book as an opportunity for me to change the way I perceive developments, for me to think differently (sorry for the cliche, but maybe we should blame AAPL) about certain things. That's what really seems interesting to me - the fact that you keep referring to your amygdalic negativity bias in the review and that you seem very aware of it precisely because of reading this book.

Examples of social innovators and entrepreneurs are, of course, always necessary. As there is a greater acceptance of social innovation and creativity in the mainstream, there is also a growing backlash by those who feel that this is all just hype. Would love to separate the hype from the reality, or vice versa.

I love Christine's idea. It's a little geographically limited though; I'd consider it a bit of a waste to pass books between people who may not even be in the same state. Maybe this could work - everyone who gets the book should summarize a chapter or a section (not sure if the book is organized in that way) and post it in their blog.

It would increase connections and hopefully spark people to not just share what's in the book, but add their ideas on top of it and share those too. Ultimately all of those reviews/summaries could be linked to in a P2173 post that functions as a 'table of contents' for the collection of posts that will eventually, hopefully, emerge.

I'm wondering whether the publisher would be interested in that idea. Great way to build interest too - lots of free marketing.

Lou said...

Hi Lucy,

Your review is really interesting and raises a question - well, more than one, maybe, but one that I want to focus on.

I work in grassroots community development and am constantly amazed by what can be achieved with scarce resources. Sometimes we ponder what would happen if we had many more resources. However, I think there are different forms of abundance. We strive to have a mindset of abundance - what if all you ever have, is what you have right now? When you think in this mindset of abundance, little is wasted. This is the first form of abundance. A mindset of being rich in resources, whatever you have, and seeing value in those resources, such that you make effective use of them.

The second form of abundance is perhaps better thought of as wealth - being rich in resources. In this case, there is much more money and many more resources available, and often more is wasted - or at least, this is our perception. Where are the examples of larger organisations, institutions, or governments being nimble, agile, making the best use of resources, not being wasteful?

So your review of this book raises this question - The pioneers, innovators, entrepreneurs, are all achieving with scarce resources. If the real power of these individuals is in their combination, why is it that larger systems (including government) inevitably become less innovative, and less able to make best use of their resources without wastage? Or is it that our culture is just not interested in hearing these stories?

Lucy Bernholz said...

Rick and Emerritt

Thanks for writing in. I don't want to ascribe any political values to the authors - the focus on entrepreneurs and innovators (and not on any public sector role) may or may not be enough information to say.

Some collective action, force, commitment, structure is needed in this mix. I don't believe these are market-only-solvable problems. It's interesting to think what the mindset of abundance, and what the same forces the authors describe in the private sector, actually mean for governance (as well as governments)

Your questions leave me with an abundance of additional questions! Thank you for that


Lucy Bernholz said...

Dear Unknown:

Thank you for this. I may have to lead off the 2012 buzzword collection with it!

"a collective vision is necessary to get over the tipping point. Whether you've got the market or the government on your side, there needs to be enough support to push new innovations to scale."

Brilliant. If folks are out there playing buzzword bingo - Unknown just swept the board!!


Lucy Bernholz said...


I'm going to email publisher your idea - they had a whole bunch of interesting marketing ideas - who knows, maybe they'll go for this one.

Thanks for writing in - and for pointing out that the book made me more aware of my own negativity biases. It certainly did - and it's worth a read for that alone! (and much more, it definitely made me think differently - as you say)


greenskeptic said...

I've been feelingthis shift as part of the major transformation going on in my life this year. For me, much of 2011 was about scarcity; i made a conscious break with that as the year began and it has made all te difference in the world. Of course, it helps to hae a loving partner who also believes in abundance -- shefa -- and is willing to carry it forward in our life together. --Scott (aka @greenskeptic)

Brigid said...

I love passing books on, and think this is the reason that we'll keep physical books around after e-readers have gained widespread prominence: it is difficult to share an e-book. A physical book can be shared again and again and again.

Christine - woman, you gotta stop embarrassing me over the internets. Also, if I get the book I'll then forward it along to you, oks?

Anonymous said...

Bingo! And thanks, wasn't supposed to be Unknown, just google not being as friendly as I would have liked...

David Lynn

Jacqueline said...

Thanks for sharing such an insightful book. As someone who personally practices and promotes philanthropy both in business and my personal life I look forward to seeing what Abundance has to offer.

Lucy Bernholz said...


You are the winner of my random drawing of commenters. I'm going to pass your email on to the book publicist - they will follow up and get you the book.

Seems like there are plenty of folks here who'd love to read your copy once you are done!


Lucy Bernholz said...

Thanks to all of you for writing in. Nabeel - I passed your suggestion on to the publisher but never heard back. Couldn't choose from all the good ideas and thoughts so I put your names in a hat and pulled out....

Thank you all for reading.


Anonymous said...

Hmm, As much as I have read reviews on this book, I can't help but wonder that, even with the amazing innovations many are capable of creating, Diamandis doesn't establish WHO would be supporting these innovaitons?

No doubt, the future need not be as bad as we think, but why and how did we get to this point anyway? There are loads of innovations that would have stopped the wasted energy we are in now trying to save the world, but few of these have got off the ground. It isn't even down to profit anymore; it is more to do with people not wanting to change.

The doco Waste=Food is a good case in point. Great innovation, but even with the big guns supporting this, why aren't others following?

Politics has to allow for change. So far, the people that pay politics are not interested, and while money is owned by a few people to distribute, dreaming we are in for abundance is just another way to make money on a book that doesn't really address the issue.

Abundance for who? All of us? Or just us living in first world countries? Glorifying books like this is a waste of time. Lets get concrete and start making those changes socially, economically, and politically for the innovations to truly get off the ground, and not hope for abundance with blinkers on.