Review of Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler's Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think. (ISI, February 2012) ISBN: 978- 1451614213. Hardcover, 400 pages; $26.99.
Technological innovation can grow the pie, but it can't love you
We have come through the Occupy Wall Street movement's long winter of discontent, its iconic protestor clutching an iPhone in one hand, an "Eat the Rich" sign in the other, and not a single one of his comrades willing to pose the simple question: Who would create the next good thing if the Steve Jobses of the world have all been gobbled up? So it was refreshing to see an unapologetic exercise in grow-the-pie optimism blossoming onto the New York Times bestseller list this year—Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think.
In the book, Peter Diamandis, a high tech innovator, and his co-author Steven Kotler limn a vision of creative civilizational ferment that could extend America's standard of living to a planet of 9 billion people.
Building on Diamandis' trailblazing work with the Ray Kurzweil-inspired Singularity University, the book explores a host of reasons to be optimistic about everything from clean water and food supplies to energy, education, and healthcare, provided we encourage rather than suffocate the creative capacity of our bottom-of-thepyramid entrepreneurial leaders.
The book either accepts, or strategically chooses not to counter, the view that human-induced global warming is a grave danger. What's refreshing here is the authors' emphasis on for-profit, market- driven innovators for supplying affordable alternative energy in the future.
As little as four months ago, I was inclined to view solar energy as a permanently niche market held up, at least in the United States and Europe, almost purely by petroleum haters and government subsidies. After visiting an indigenous solar energy company in Haiti in January, I came to realize what now seems obvious: In sunny regions that lack an established power grid, solar power is already quite competitive. After reading Abundance and learning about the impressive efficiency gains in solar energy technology over the past several years, I am even more optimistic about its future.
I now suspect that these developing regions are where solar power will go to mature into an energy source that will successfully go head-to-head in the developed world with oil, coal, and nuclear power, not replacing them but expanding into a much larger segment of the global energy market—provided solar entrepreneurs are able to compete unhindered from either suffocating regulation or infantilizing government funding.
At the heart of Abundance is a faith in for-profit entrepreneurs to go boldly where no government program has gone before so cheaply, cleverly, or effectively. For Diamandis, this isn't just a pretty theory. As he describes in an engrossing chapter on DIY innovation, he lived it through his now famous Ansari X Prize contest, which succeeded in fast-forwarding Western civilization to the threshold of private-enterprise space flight.
With a success like that, it isn't surprising that Diamandis is similarly upbeat about the prospects of solving a variety of developing- world resource problems through the wealth-generating power of private enterprise. Perhaps the book's infectious optimism and non-partisan tone can penetrate and cure the virus of fixed-pie economic thinking that has crippled the thinking of so many on the left.
The book, however, will not heal another illness of our age, for the book is itself infected with it. Rather than label the malady at the outset, allow me to illustrate it from a short passage in the book's chapter on health care. The authors are looking at the problem of an aging population and exploring how emerging technologies could help older people extend their period of independent living. So far, so good. But in the next moment, we move from a utopian vision to something out of Aldous Huxley, and what's most disturbing is that the authors don't even seem to register the shift.
One minute they're talking about specialized devices to make cataract removal more affordable; the next they're quoting with approval Dr. Dan Barry's comments about a brave new world of mechanical in-home nurses:
"These robots will extend the time they [seniors] are able to live independently by providing emotional support, social interaction, and assisting them with the basic functional tasks like answering the door, helping them if they fall, or assisting them in the bathroom. They will be willing to listen to the same story 25 times and respond appropriately every time. And for some with sexual dysfunction or need, the robots will also play a huge role."
The technology for all of this will arrive only gradually, Barry notes, but within 25 years "we'll be delivering robotic companions that will have real, nuanced conversations, making them able to serve as your friend, your nurse, perhaps even your psychologist." Diamandis and Kotler conclude by arguing that as prices for the requisite technology drop, the economics of it will grow irresistible: "we can either spend (at today's costs) trillions of dollars on nursing homes or we can, as Barry suggests, let robots do the work."
Wow, this gives a whole new meaning to the name "Nurse Ratched." In Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Nurse Ratched is a human who seems to have the emotional range of a sadistic robot. What Abundance celebrates, instead, is the possibility of a robotic Nurse Ratched with the seeming emotional range of a Mary Poppins.
In all fairness to Diamandis and Kotler, the flesh-and-blood healthcare option for many old people in the future is likely to be pretty grim and loveless—a warehouse full of enfeebled octogenarians tended by a skeleton crew of orderlies stretched too thin to serve as anything more than a harried life-support system. The authors are suggesting a possible alternative to that grim possibility.
At the same time, Diamandis and Kotler didn't write a book called Faking Abundance: How a Billion Old People Can Spend their Last Years Pretending Another Person Really Gives a Rip. They wrote a book called Abundance. And I plead with any techno-utopian who will listen: The flatland of philosophical materialism is not the whole of reality any more than running out the clock while being cared for by a soulless droid is human flourishing.
This is a realization for today as much as it is for tomorrow, because this process of substituting the synthetic relationship for authentic human relationship is already well under way. According to a Nielsen study, the average American watches five hours of television a day, with more and more of them consuming their favorite niche TV shows and video games alone. The son is in one room, the daughter in another, the grandparent in still another, and the latter probably many miles away. This is not abundance. If it were, recent headlines would not be warning, "High Internet Use Linked to Depression."
For the old as well as the young, for the present as well as the future, abundance means more than the glow and hum of the latest technological marvel or the bountiful flow of information along a fiber optic river. Abundance also means stepping out of the cave, finding the beautiful faces of kith and kin new and old, all of them made in the image of God, and being able to say without irony or cynicism, "O brave new world, that has such people in it!"