The POV Dispatch is our internal newsletter where we discuss big ideas that are important to Autodesk employees and Autodesk customers. In addition to guest authors like Lynelle Cameron or Gonzalo Martinez, the newsletter features contributions from the Corporate Strategy & Engagement team such as VP Jon Pittman and Corporate Strategist Bill O'Connor. A recent issue included a review of Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler's book, Abundance.
Abundance: the Future is Better Than You Think is a book by Dr. Peter Diamandis - (Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation and Co-Founder/Chairman of Singularity University) and Steven Kotler, a bestselling author and science journalist.
The book could just as well have been called All of the Cool and Amazing Stuff Happening in the World That Will Make You Feel That the Future is Going to Be Great and A Lot of Fun to Boot Despite What Those Idiots Reading the News Are Trying to Scare You Into Believing.
That's what James Joyce might have named it, I guess. But okay, Abundance works, too.
This reviewer prefers the alternative title because if you don't feel better during and after reading this book I really don't know what to do for you. It's like a fresh green salad for the mind, or a week camping in the mountains for the spirit.
The authors' basic premise around the central idea of "abundance" is two-chambered...
First, we humans are hard-wired to pay attention to scary or threatening information (evolution!), which is why the news is so scary and threatening (ratings!), and therefore, why our visceral outlook on the world and the future is often so gloomy (yikes!).
The second part of their premise is that this yikes! perception of the world and the future is not at all accurate, and that, in fact, it's grossly skewed towards the negative.
In short, we think that the world is worse off than it is (scarcity/pessimism), when in reality, we're entering a future where many aspects of our lives will be improving at exponential rates (abundance/optimism).
It's not very hard to prove that first idea, and the authors do that with requisite force and brevity.
The rest of the book is dedicated to the second idea--that a group of wildly optimistic innovators, scientists, researchers, and activists are already doing amazing things to usher in this age of abundance.
Once we get into this main part of the story, the authors describe four emerging forces that are coming together to help us address our biggest global challenges, and spread the abundance that is currently commonplace in the West to the rest of the world:
Exponential Technology: Technologies that are growing at a rapid pace, such as artificial intelligence, robotics, nanomaterials, 3D printing, synthetic biology, infinite computing, digital manufacturing, and numerous other exponentially growing technologies.
The DIY Innovator: The inspired, and often visionary, individuals, startups, and small organizations that now have access to tools once available only to large companies and governments.
The Technophilanthropists: People are getting wealthier younger, creating a new breed of philanthropist, and these idealistic people, rather than erecting monuments to themselves, are committed to using their wealth to make the world better.
The Rising Billions: In 2010 there were 2 billion people on the Internet; in 2020 there will be 5 billion. That's 3 billion more new minds to help us solve our seemingly insurmountable problems.
In stark contrast to some of the more negative prognosticators striding across the thoughtscape, the authors contend that these forces are giving us the ability to meet and even exceed the basic needs of every man, woman, and child on the planet.
Not bad, eh?
Even though this is a bold claim, the authors for the most part build a compelling, convincing, and often entertaining case for their optimism, presenting many stories of exciting progress in the fields of water, food, energy, healthcare, education, and freedom.
The specific stories are good overall, and some are downright amazing...
We have Dean Kamen's "Slingshot": a technology that can transform polluted water, salt water, or even raw sewage into high-quality drinking water for less than one cent a liter...
We've got the Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE, which promises a low-cost, handheld medical device that allows people to diagnose themselves better than a board certified doctor...
There's Dickson Despommier's "vertical farms," which replace traditional agriculture with a system that uses 80 percent less land, 90 percent less water, 100 percent fewer pesticides, and zero transportation costs.
And there's also Kazi, a Kenyan mobile employment service; smart toilets and brilliant biofuels; Winston Churchill predicting the invention of "cultured meat" (i.e., "No cows were hurt in the creation of this strip steak..."); breakthroughs in education, like U.K. grannies using the Internet to teach kids, games beating textbooks, and Salman Khan's radical work; and even an appearance by Autodesk's CEO Carl Bass talking about the promise of digital manufacturing.
And for the stat geek in all of us, at the back of the book they include about 90 charts, graphs, and tables for us to pore over, lending even more credence to their sometimes Utopian-sounding stories.
The book isn't perfect, of course; here are two objections/critiques...
Kurzweil Déjà Vu To many readers, much of this stuff will be new and exciting, but for those who like "this kind of stuff," many of the basic ideas presented here have already been presented by authors like Ray Kurzweil in his amazing book The Singularity is Near, as well as by other thinkers. The authors do present some new ideas, especially in the areas of DIY innovation and grand challenges like health, education, and freedom, but it's likely that if you've read even that one book by Kurzweil, as you read this book you will often be nodding your head and thinking, "Yes, true, but I've heard that before." Not a big complaint, really--just a caveat emptor for readers.
Where Are the Obstacles? The book's core point-of-view centers, as it should, around exciting possibilities, but I think the obstacles to all of these good outcomes are given short-shrift. The book focuses on techno-scientific breakthroughs, but the authors could have given more attention to things like political tensions, basic human resistance to change, unintended consequences of big, world-changing ideas, and even good ol' Murphy's Law. In fact, we could say that the authors give too much emphasis to Moore's Law, and not enough to Murphy's Law. All they have to do is look back at other, previous, attempts to predict/create the future to see that such thinking rarely pans out as planned (even when it turns out well).
But despite these two criticisms, overall this is a worthy, compelling, and challenging book that tells the story of humanity at a singularly (no pun intended) interesting point in history: we now have the power to shape and reshape our world so dramatically that it's easy to hold in our minds visions of both dystopian and utopian futures simultaneously.
Authors Diamandis and Kotler have presented a vision of the latter: an abundant, positive future; and even the most critical/cynical reader will have to concede that they make a very strong case for their happy vision of the future.
Abundance is alive in the lab.