Review: Abundance by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler (2012)
Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, authored by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, is an excellent work for informing the public on when and how to expect good results from some of the world-altering technologies of this vital phase in human history. Appreciating that the authors have dedicated their work to encourage developments built on current political and economic hegemonies, it must be forgiven that they show a narrow political vision and do not fully or usefully predict how emerging technologies can threaten hegemony.
The premise of Abundance is that humans have an evolved habit of seeking out nasty scenarios and working to prevent them, rather than allowing themselves to be optimistic. This “shuts off our ability to take in good news”, even though there is adequate reason to be optimistic, as “a quick look at our history shows that progress continues through the good times and the bad” (p. ix, x, 27, 37).
Technology is a “resource-liberating mechanism” (p. 4) that makes it possible to support larger numbers of people. With the current level of resource depletion, the only way to avoid a “barbaric” program that violates human rights in order to reduce the population is to “stretch the resources” available (p. 8). The internet can already be seen making the route to abundance, with it causing “information and communication abundance”. If the trend in cyberspace invades the real world through 3-D printing and other emerging manufacturing technologies, we certainly have the chance of abundance (p. 10, 68-70, 149, 174-179). Through greater information sharing as a result of the internet, and the ease of communication linking disparate ideas, progress towards solutions is cumulative (p. 44-46). These “tools of cooperation” have the political ability to be counter-hegemonic by shifting creative power away from “wealthier, dominant powers”, thus taking us away from the current division of labor and its inequalities (p. 83-84).
Moore’s Law correctly anticipates the increase in computing power (p. 53-54). Singularitarians see this producing ever more advanced AI that can eventually upgrade human cognition itself (54-56). The possibility of such technology is worthy of celebration, but not now and not from Google. It should be noted that Google (the ones promising this technology) gave the NSA back door access to spy on users. This means it might be premature to give Google access to your brain, as Google is not immune to state pressure. The state can always easily force Google’s technological strides, or the strides of any other corporation, back towards protecting archaic state power rather than endorsing real human progress. Unless Google can free itself from state power, connecting brains to Google would be tantamount to connecting them to Guantanamo Bay. Imagine the mental equivalent of lifelong imprisonment and humiliation by the state.
The authors give a strong response to the GMO controversy. GMOs are already an inevitable part of agriculture, and all agriculture is unnatural, so appealing to nature to fight for traditional farming is absurd (p. 102-105). Furthermore, some companies like Monsanto may give GMOs a bad name by aggressively defending their intellectual property, but GMOs in their own right are highly democratic because the seeds themselves contain all the potential. There is no need for additional maintenance and farming skills (p.102-105), so GMOs in the long term present a true gift for poor countries against dependency. The action needed for GMOs is an open source movement, followed by the full democratization of the technology to build GMOs in poor countries – not a ban. There is nothing environmentally friendly or natural about more traditional farming, which in its current iteration means burning 10 calories of fuel to supply each calorie of food to a human (p. 100-101).
One interesting discussion in the book is a history lesson that addresses the origins of DIY and hacking culture, for those who are unaware of these. The piece credited as the source of the “DIY work ethic” is Ralf Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay “Self-Reliance” (p. 119). Modern personal computing and internet culture are traceable back to Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalogue” which envisaged a highly libertarian vision of “personal technology” and promoted the “hacker ethic”. This includes the modern transparency advocate’s axiom that “information wants to be free” (p. 120-121). Today, this idea could be called the sole belief of WikiLeaks and the internet’s global Anonymous collective.
Perhaps disturbingly, the book includes the astonishing fact that Apple’s founders were part of the “Homebrew Club”, a left wing group promoting open source technology and rejecting intellectual property and trade secrets in particular (p. 121-122). With Apple’s later history of aggressively defending questionable claims to intellectual property and creating systems that are not the first choice among hackers, there are two possible explanations for what went wrong. Jobs, Wozniak and the others either walked out on their previous ideals, or they were unable to express these ideals under the pressures of competition. Either way, it should be an interesting subject of speculation.
On the subject of DIY, perhaps the most promising discussed in the book is DIY bio. J. Craig Venter’s work to produce new renewable fuels by tinkering with the building blocks of life meets the hacker ethic, and a truly daring idea for energy abundance comes forward. Biology, viewed as a technology, can be “hacked” and programmed to meet human resource shortages. Already mentioned is the idea of the democratic potential of GMOs. Add in the democratic potential of self-sustaining organisms used as factories, eliminating the need for hegemonic powers administering all the help. As the book sums up, “the era of homebrew genetics has arrived” (p. 59-61, 127-129, 161-164). Giving people the means to discover their own technologies and their uses opens up doors to the “adjacent possible”, as great technological changes are seldom seen until the technologies are popularized and given to people to express themselves, even at great cost (227-237).
The book’s political vision is somewhat lacking in significance, although some political comments are worthy of the same praise as the book’s technological predictions. For example, the book sees technology improving “freedom”, and defines this in such terms that include “transparency, the free flow of information, freedom of speech, and empowerment of the individual” in addition to the usual criteria of “economic freedom, human rights and political liberty” (p. 205) defined using the same misleading charts displayed by neoconservatives to make the US look like the global policeman. The book praises WikiLeaks as an “example of how information and communication technology promote political liberty and greater transparency”. Despite this, Julian Assange’s book Cypherpunks is quite possibly the polar opposite of Abundance because it reluctantly predicts a dystopian surveillance scenario.
Some other claims in the book are questionable, such as saying “the free flow of information enabled by cell phones replaces the need for a free press” (p. 147). With the assumption that solar panel manufacturers are spreading a technology that is “ubiquitous and democratic”, the authors seem to put far too much confidence in the democratic credentials of big technology providers (p. 151, 172) and seem ready to entrust them with global governance although they are not run in any democratic way. This problem is coupled with the book’s confidence in billionaire philanthropists as revolutionaries for creating a more level society (p. 138-144, 217-226).
The book has excellent predictions and a fresh optimistic view, but it is not presenting the “contrarian view of the future” (p. 242) that it claims. While the authors recognize the idea of global responsibility exceeding borders (p. x), they do not see the mortal wounds of the archaic nation-state model as being worthy of mention. From my perspective, this is strange because nation-states are founded on conflict, scarcity, exclusion, secrecy and difference and cannot really be imagined to have any place in a world of abundance and total freedom. The idea of strong nation-states and giant hegemonic technology providers being relied upon for “abundance” is not pretty. Unless abundance can exist via decentralized technologies and be decoupled from current cores of authority and economic advantage, it will be the next excuse for hegemony in a still primitive social system.