One of the highlights of the Olympics closing ceremony was Eric Idle getting the 80,000 crowd in the stadium to singalong to ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’:
This cheerful song was brought to mind by Abdundance: The Future is Better than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. Diamandis is one of the founders of the Singularity University and so clearly a techno-optimist. It struck me that there’s a whole optimism genre, and one I generally greatly enjoy. There’s Mark Stevenson’s excellent An Optimist’s Tour of the Future and Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist. Mark Lynas tried to debunk conventional eco-gloom with The God Species. In a way, my Paradoxes of Prosperity from 2001 riffs on the same theme, that technology is a powerful lever for increasing prosperity ad solving problems, and that its power often takes us completely by surprise.
Abundance has the slightly breathless eagerness of a New York Times bestseller, not entirely to my taste, but it’s a highly readable summary of several areas of important technical progress. It starts with an interesting discussion of the characteristics of how our brains evolved to make us natural pessimists, and also touches on the speed with which successful new technologies can spread (although it doesn’t acknowledge the many techno-failures that therefore spread with zero speed – there’s too much determinism in this account).
The book also looks at forces that might bring about the technological nirvana humans have the capability to create – the possibility of ‘DIY’ or entrepreneurial innovation in many fields, philanthropic activity by rich technology entrepreneurs, and the large and growing market in developing countries with great unmet needs. While these are perfectly valid, this is obviously only part of the story. I wish the book had looked more closely at the economic and social forces acting for and against the embodiment of new technologies in people’s lives. This – as Paul David has so brilliantly pointed out – is the hard, and slow, part. Invention is easy by comparison. In short, I wish Abundance had been a bit less excited and more nuanced. But I enjoyed reading it – an ideal airport purchase.