A while ago I started reading Abundance: Why the Future is Better than You Think, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, only to put it down part way through. It’s very readable but has a rather breathless tone which put me off. It also covers the same kind of territory of techno-optimism as the excellent An Optimist’s Tour of the Future by Mark Stevenson and The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley – even some of the examples overlap. And it has some of the environmental optimist flavour of Mark Lynas’s The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans. Having said this, I finished Abundance yesterday and did enjoy it.
It is important to point out that for all the well-founded economic and environmental and political gloom in so many countries at present, there has been huge progress over our lifetimes in things that matter to us, from improved longevity and health to smartphones and low-energy lightbulbs. And that there is at present an amazing array of technological discoveries close to commercial potential – all of the innovations covered in these titles in what could be described as the techno-optimism genre.
It’s all the more important as there’s a countervailing techno-pessimism genre, including Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s Race Against the Machine arguing that innovation is making people redundant, a theme picked up by Paul Krugman in his column Rise of the Robots this week, with as a side-branch Robert Gordon asserting that innovation-driven growth is over anyway.
Why is it important to be optimistic? Because expectations about the future shape today’s decisions. Paul Krugman himself demonstrated this in a marvellous but little known 1991 QJE paper on endogenous growth theory, History Versus Expectations (pdf), showing that growth outcomes depend on expectations of a promising future outweighing the disappointments of the past.
History casts a long shadow unless the future shines a bright light. Progress only occurs when people believe in the idea of progress.
Having said that, the techno-optimists can lack important nuance. Abundance is a good example of that shortcoming. The authors allow no room for doubt, and give no space to questions such as how the investment required for the innovations they describe will be financed, how innovators will succeed when incumbents have so many relevant markets sown up, where the complementary infrastructure will come from, and how politics will navigate the sharing of costs and benefits. So I prefer (not surprisingly) my own (2001) formulation of the ‘Paradoxes of Prosperity‘.
I don’t want to sound too down on Abundance just because I happen to have read some other similar books. It has loads of good nuggets of information and soundbites. For example:
“When seen through the lens of technology, few resources are truly scarce; they’s mainly inaccessible.”
“Human beings are designed to be local optimists and global pessimists.” (We are more optimistic about thing we think we can control, think we’re all more intelligent and better drivers than average etc. – although global pessimism is what helps impending disasters become self-averting. Was there a genuine Y2K problem or not?)
I was interested to learn that India has switched from being a major importer to a major exporter of cotton thanks to GM varieties.
I also really liked, for personal reasons, Bill Joy being quoted on the ‘dematerialisation’ being brought about by modern technologies. In 1996 I published The Weightless World (pdf), which used the fact that the economy of 1990 literally had no greater physical mass than the economy of 1980, thanks to minaturisation and the use of new materials and the switch towards services. Bill Joy has updated this by pointing out that one smartphone is now a phone, camera, TV screen, radio, web browser, tape recorder, range of books etc.
So, if you know someone who’s feeling – not surprisingly – pessimistic about the state of the world, you should give them one of the techno-optimism books as a seasonal gift. Cheering up the population one person at a time until we collectively believe in the possibility of progress again is an important civic duty.