Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Abundance and what it means

And now it's time for a quick look at another book. Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Thinkby Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. It is a startling look at the potential impact of new technologies, many of which I hadn't even heard of. We'll look at some of those in the next post.

They start, though, with a bold claim:
Humanity is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standards of living for every man, woman, and child on the planet. Within a generation, we will be able to provide goods and services, once reserved for the wealthy few, to any and all who need them. Or desire them. Abundance for all is actually within our grasp.
This is a remarkable claim, if true. It means that the economic problem, as Keynes put it in the essay that served as one of the starting points of this blog, will be solved within the next few years.

How can they say this? Well, they are highly experienced technologists. One is the innovator between the X-prizes for new technology, for example, and the other is a highly connected science journalist.

And from their standpoint the world is changing even faster than most people believe. Contrary to the pessimism many people habitually like to wallow in, much of the change is positive. Consider the impact that mobile phones are having in Africa:
Right now a Masai warrior with a cell phone has better mobile phone capabilities than the president of the United States did twenty-five years ago.
And if he has rudimentary access to Google on the cellphone, he has much of the world's information and knowledge, too.

This claim that the whole world is a generation or so away from solving basic needs is much more radical than anything I've claimed in this blog. Of course, I've argued that the developed countries are approaching the point where many of our problems have to do with abundance. We have satisfied most basic needs, and higher-order needs on Maslow's hierarchy aren't as easy to convert into tradable goods or services.

But I acknowledge that many poorer countries may be far off that point, and environmental or energy constraints could create addiitonal headwinds.

Diamandis and Kotler, by contrast, think that within a generation or so, all basic needs problems will more or less be solved.Technological advances will have a transformative effect on healthcare, agriculture and services. For example, electric cookstoves could reduce ecological damage, free up time spent gathering firewood and signficantly improve mulitple health problems which arise from indoor air pollution.
For example, the two-burner electric cookstove is a simple device, but it would bring magnificent change to the 3.5 billion people who now cook food and get light and heat by burning biomass: wood, dung, and crop residue.

Luxury versus possibility

That is not to say everyone will live like the inhabitants of Bel Air or South Kensington.
Abundance is not about providing everyone on this planet with a life of luxury—rather it’s about providing all with a life of possibility. To be able to live such a life requires having the basics covered and then some.
That is a definition I can easily live with, indeed strongly support. But, as we will see, the question is what to do next. And here is where the book leaves many questions unanswered. What use should we make of possibility? Will it mean mass unemployment and drift, or genuinely freeing people to flourish and live a fulfilled life?

The same applies to another very interesting idea they adopt from Matt Ridley (whose book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (P.S.)I strongly recommend). Prosperity is saved time.

This process, Ridley feels, creates a further feedback loop of positive gain: “Specialization encouraged innovation, because it encouraged the investment of time in a tool-making tool. That saved time, and prosperity is simply time saved, is proportional to the division of labor. The more human beings diversified as consumers and specialized as producers, and the more they then exchanged, the better off they have been, are and will be.”

Again, the question is time is saved for what. When you solve problems of basic abundance, then questions of purpose become much more important.

The Hype Cycle

Finally, one other basic idea before we turn to a few specifics about technology. One eternal problem in discussing technological change is a feeling that much o f it is "gee-whiz" speculation, just silly dreams of flying cars and martin colonies and Star Trek warp drive. What we actually got was more prosaic. Instead of interstellar travel, we got the iPod and Angry Birds. At least so far.

We are often not good at understanding the pace of change. We expect both too much and too little of technology. Diamandis and Kotler note that the research firm Gartner have developed a graphical representation of this.
.. we fall prey to what’s become known as the “hype cycle.” We have inflated expectations when a novel technology is first introduced, followed by short-term disappointment when it doesn’t live up to the hype. But this is the important part: we also consistently fail to recognize the post-hype, massively transformative nature of exponential technologies—meaning that we literally have a blind spot for the technological possibilities underlying our vision of abundance.
A 2011 edition of the Gartner chart is here.

Added to that, many technologies are exponential in character, as we've discussed before on this blog. Exponential change starts small, and looks linear. But the curve can suddenly break out.

And it’s this kind of explosion, from meager to massive and nearly overnight, that makes exponential growth so powerful. But with our local and linear brains, it’s also why such growth can be so shocking. 
Short-term disappointment and long-term transformation often tends to be the pattern of change. But the technological developments they discuss do look like they will be genuinely transformative. We'll discuss those in the next post.

 (edited to fix formatting, 5/4)

No comments:

Post a Comment