Is the Future Really "Better Than You Think"? Ask the Authors of Abundance

On an early episode of Freakonomics Radio, we interviewed Peter Diamandis, founder and CEO of the X Prize Foundation. He was a great (and inspirational) guest. Now he has written a book with journalist Steven Kotler called Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. From the flap copy:

Since the dawn of humanity, a privileged few have lived in stark contrast to the hardscrabble majority. Conventional wisdom says this gap cannot be closed. But it is closing — fast. The authors document how four forces — exponential technologies, the DIY innovator, the Technophilanthropist, and the Rising Billion — are conspiring to solve our biggest problems. Abundance establishes hard targets for change and lays out a strategic roadmap for governments, industry and entrepreneurs, giving us plenty of reason for optimism.

This argument might, at first glance, stick in the craw of some people who believe that new technologies (like the internal combustion engine) end up punishing the planet more than they help its inhabitants. The argument might also rile those who look around the world and see too much scarcity — of energy, of clean water, of freedom — because Diamandis and Kotler argue that we are well on our way toward the opposite of scarcity in nearly every dimension that matters.

Diamandis and Kotler have agreed to take questions from Freakonomics readers, so fire away in the comments section, and as usual, we’ll post their answers in short course. Here, to prime the pump, is the book’s table of contents.

PART ONE: PERSPECTIVE

Chapter One: Our Grandest Challenge

Chapter Two: Building the Pyramid

Chapter Three: Seeing the Forest Through the Trees

Chapter Four: It’s Not as Bad as You Think

PART TWO: EXPONENTIAL TECHNOLOGIES

Chapter Five: Ray Kurzweil and the Go-Fast Button

Chapter Six: The Singularity Is Nearer

PART THREE: BUILDING THE BASE OF THE PYRAMID

Chapter Seven: The Tools of Cooperation

Chapter Eight: Water

Chapter Nine: Feeding Nine Billion

PART FOUR: THE FORCES OF ABUNDANCE

Chapter Ten: The DIY Innovator

Chapter Eleven: The Technophilanthropists

Chapter Twelve: The Rising Billion

PART FIVE: PEAK OF THE PYRAMID

Chapter Thirteen: Energy

Chapter Fourteen: Education

Chapter Fifteen: Health Care

Chapter Sixteen: Freedom

PART SIX: STEERING FASTER

Chapter Seventeen: Driving Innovation and Breakthroughs

Chapter Eighteen: Risk and Failure

Chapter Nineteen: Which Way Next?

Afterword: Next Step—Join the Abundance Hub

This post is no longer accepting comments. The answers to the Q&A can be found here.


Mike B

As technology increases abundance and lowers costs, personal consumption will increasingly be limited by physical constraints like the number of hours in a day or the amount of calories one can safely consume. My question is what will large numbers of people do for employment if the needs of the world can be created by a relatively small minority. Yes the cost of basic necessities will be much less, making even the marginally employed reasonably well off by historical standards, however if Baumol's cost disease continues to play a role, there will be certain goods such as education and medical care that will be increasingly out of reach. I guess my question is if abundance induced unemployment will turn a Utopia into a Dystopia.

nobody.really

What Mike said. Even if the world becomes vastly richer in aggregate, by what mechanism does Diamandis see this wealth distributed?

I'm happy to see wealth distributed in absolute terms (increasing a person's living standards relative to the past or the status quo). But the book flap suggests we should expect a more egalitarian distribution of wealth by relative standards:

"Since the dawn of humanity, a privileged few have lived in stark contrast to the hardscrabble majority. Conventional wisdom says this gap cannot be closed. But it is closing — fast."

For this gap to close, it is not sufficient for the average hardscrabble person to grow richer. Rather, the average hardscrabble person would have to grow richer FASTER than the average privileged person was growing richer. Does Diamandis really argue this? I'm DEEPLY skeptical.

vimspot

Have you read the Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen? In it, he argues that America has entered a period of economic stagnation because it has exhausted its supply of "low hanging fruit" (i.e free land, application of automated machinery+affordable fossil fuels, educating people broadly) and that coming up with new ideas is harder than leveraging old ones. He argues that new innovations like the internet do not impact our economy significantly, even if it does make our life better.
Do you agree with that idea? Do you think the developing world is better poised to grow in the next 10-50 years?

Quin

I have little faith in Congress (a pox on both parties!) or other governments to resolve the debt crises before they cause significant, perhaps irreparable harm to our country's and the world economy. How do wider issues like debt, politics, and government play into your optimistic views?

James

While I've not yet read your book, it seems from the reviews & comments I've seen (and the basic thesis of similar articles) that you arrive at your conclusion of "abundance" by arbitrarily placing a high value on those things that might be expected to be produced in your techno-future, and greatly devaluing those things - open space, privacy, peace & quiet - that it is destroying. I dare say cattle in a feedlot might think that they live in abundance: add electronic entertainment, and there's the human version.

Care to comment?

frankenduf

what's with the flap copy claim "since the dawn of humanity, a priveleged few have lived in stark contrast to the hardscrabble majority"?- isn't the exact opposite true, namely that agrarian societies were more socialist as far as resource distribution, and that stratification has increased over time, not been some sort of static 'state of nature'?

James

We could even go back prior to settled agrarian societies, and look at the hunter-gatherers and nomads. If you think about it, though, it seems as though settled agriculture produces storable surpluses, those surpluses enable the support of a non-productive warrior class, which is required to protect the stored surplus from those who would like to take it. Then the leaders of the warrior class devote a fraction of the surplus to their own comfort, and to supporting a non-productive priestly class which convinces the populace that this social order is the will of the gods...

Eric M. Jones.

"...and then we discovered that creating more meaningless work, wage slavery, was not the cure to our problems...UNEMPLOYMENT was the answer.... We encourage people to design machines to replace themselves..."

Monet, the Solar Sailing Aurorean//ZBS Ruby the Galactic Gumshoe.

O.A.Wehmanen

The earth is well past the irreversable point for CO2. and population, Natural systems are breaking in unpredicted ways. I do not believe that we will be able to feed our current 7 billion population.
1) Global warming will destroy current crop yields. Crop research will require decades to respond.
2) Ocean acidification will change the ocean ecology too fast for natural adaptation.
3) Dust-Bowl-ification will change the agricultural land use patterns beyond recognition.
4) Political chaos will make technical solutions impossible.
5) Bio diversity, necessary for a natural response, will be greatly reduced.

Abundance requires a stable political and physical environment, both of which are disappearing!

Statspotting

the definition of resources in the future will be different. It would probably be just about energy to power devices. It would be an interesting scenario.

http://statspotting.com/2012/03/more-than-half-of-nigerias-internet-traffic-is-from-mobile/

http://statspotting.com/2011/09/solomo-statistics-every-fourth-american-adult-uses-mobile-social-local-services/

Dave

I would like to know why Peter Diamantis thinks technology is the answer, when history shows that every technological solution to a problem creates a new problem that needs to be solved. Diamantis has a fairly typical western mind. He likes to throw money and technology at problems, when they are spiritual and ethical in nature. He can't predict the future, and neither can I.

I also would like to know what he thinks of Murray Bookchin and Libertarian Municipalism. Bookchin sort of invented the idea that scarcity no longer exists 40 years ago.

So if we live in a time of abundance, why do we have unemployment, and why are we still using money?

Jason

Sounds like the exact opposite prediction of:

http://arstechnica.com/science/news/2012/03/hot-crowded-and-running-out-of-fuel-earth-of-2050-a-scary-place.ars

nobody.really

How did you come up with the book's cover art? It's very eye-catching -- but not obviously related to the subject matter.

Laura

I'm curious... what of the governments, special interest groups, and corporations that seem to be blocking the very innovations that our planet needs, many of which you speak of in this book? For example, we've known about solar power for decades, but the amount of money, time, and power that is invested in this technology in the USA is paltry when compared to the money that is invested in the oil industry. Also, we've known how to make cars with much greater fuel efficiency for a long time, but that technology seems to be quelled as well. Those are just a few examples as well. In some developing countries, those in charge of steering their countries economies are far more corrupted than in the USA. If all the money for development were in the 'right' hands, then maybe the technologies that you touch on would be able to 'save' the planet and produce abundance. But, corrupt governments, and powerful people who are more interested in their own bank accounts, are the ones who are making many of the decisions in regards to how much impact these 'new' technologies can have. If a resource can become cheap through abundance, or easily accessible, or easily shared, then all the money that was made from it before is greatly reduced, and it seems there are many who do everything in their power to make sure that doesn't happen.

Read more...

Tom

I am curious if you have ever researched this question - does extending deadlines for "early bird registration" increase sign ups?

I sit on a non-profit board and recently had this discussion with fellow board members. My guess is that it does NOT increase sign ups. Would love to hear your thoughts.