The idea of progress

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.

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4 thoughts on “The idea of progress

  1. Diane,

    Thanks for you kind words about An Optimist’s Tour of the Future. I enjoyed your Economics of Enough equally. I’d like to make a plea, that despite the title of my book that I’m not placed in the techno-optimist camp but a techno-possiblist. As I say in the final chapter:

    “What is possible? What is achievable? What is desirable? The first question seems easy to answer. As we learn to control the very atoms of matter, the mechanisms of biology and the power of computation, there is in fact very little that we can’t do in a physical (and indeed virtual) sense. Solutions to climate change? Already developed. An end to the energy crisis? No sweat, sign on the line. Increased food production? Why didn’t you ask? Holidays in space? Join our frequent flyer program. Cheaper, better manufacturing through nanotechnology? We’re working on it.

    But when we ask what is achievable, well that’s a different story. Because what we achieve will largely be determined by what we collectively decide is desirable. As George Church told me all those months ago at Harvard Medical School while we discussed personal genomics,‘The only thing that puts this kind of medicine far away is really will, right? The question is, how motivated are we?’

    A lack of will isn’t our only failing, though. Sometimes we’re too eager to accept the easy promise of technology. History is replete with techno-optimists who claimed the next revolution from science would usher in a golden age. The most bombastic of their number believe there is no problem technology cannot solve. Two years after the optical telegraph station that once stood behind me was erected, the Encyclopaedia Britannica boldly suggested the networks of which the station was part would soon settle disputes between nations in hours instead of years. Over two hundred million people have died in conflict since.

    there’s one thing technology cannot solve. A lack of imagination. How is it that we have not managed to equitably distribute the wealth we create? There are millions of people who do not feel the same dividend of increased life spans and better health care that industrial capitalism has brought to some. One in five child deaths is the result of diarrhoea. The same proportion dies of malaria. (In Africa, a child dies every forty-five seconds from the disease.) The Rwandan genocide was estimated to have killed eight hundred thousand people in just a hundred days. The predominant technologies on show there were weapons of slaughter. Those people died in the same world where someone thinks it’s a good idea to manufacture a lady’s handbag that costs a quarter of a million dollars.

    The future is going to be a rocky ride. Many new technologies will have their Three Mile Islands and be co-opted in the service of more 9/11s. People will still fight. Injustices will not disappear.”

    So, the points you make about how society uses or abuses technology – and the institutional innovation we will need if we’re to get more of the good and less of the bad is crucial – and indeed the subject of my next book. But I do firmly believe that we cannot make a better future until we can imagine it.

    Happy Christmas – and wishing you an optimistic New Year!

    Mark