That’s the subtitle of Abundance, a new book by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. These are two bona fide seriously smart guys who know what they’re talking about and who have a remarkably upbeat message. You don’t see much of that nowadays. Diamandis is an international leader in the commercial space arena, having founded and run many of the leading entrepreneurial companies in this sector. He is also CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, which leads the world in designing and launching large incentive prizes to drive radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity (e.g. the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for private spaceflight and the $10 million Progressive Automotive X PRIZE for 100 mile-per-gallon equivalent cars). Kotler is a best-selling author, award-winning journalist, whose articles have appeared in over 50 publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ, Outside, Popular Science, Men’s Journal, and Discover.
The message of Abundance is that, in spite of all of the media hype of doom and gloom, things are better now than ever and they are getting better at an increasing rate. Yes, we may have the worst political class ever (although that’s debatable – in the past they were probably doing equally poorly but communications weren’t as ubiquitous and instantaneous). And, yes, just about all we hear in the media is negative (bad news gets attention, good news gets ignored). And, yes, we’ve just been through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. But there are major forces converging quickly that will help us solve an incredibly wide array of the major problems we face. This sounds like blind optimism, and there are clear precedents that technology can be used for evil as well as good. But, like Ray Kurzweil, Diamandis and Kotler make a clear and reasoned case for optimism based on hard data, facts and history.
There are many abundance producing and problem-solving breakthroughs happening now and poised to happen in the very near future. Humans think mostly in a linear fashion. But the pace of change in so many areas of technology is exponential rather than linear. Therefore, we don’t realize how fast things are changing and getting better. From smart phones that have allowed Africa to skip an entire stage of landline infrastructure for communications and enabled the emergence of micro-finance as a major force for growth and positive change to a desk-sized device, recently given a great boost by the Gates Foundation, that requires a very small amount of energy to turn anything wet (yes, anything) into pure distilled water, society is evolving rapidly beneath our awareness.
Diamandis and Kotler make the case that there are four major forces accelerating these innovations in technology from the lab to the consumer. First are tech philanthropists like Bill Gates who believe that technology can help us solve most problems we face. Second is the realization that the Third World and poor people collectively are an enormous and mostly untapped market for those who can make things on the cheap. Third, the open source DIY maker/hacker tools help unleash the creativity of smart people anywhere in the world who have good ideas and the drive to bring them to fruition. Finally, the smart use of prizes (e.g. the X Prize and similar efforts) help focus the efforts of many smart people as individuals or teams to work on major problems. For instance, Qualcomm is offering a prize of $10 million for a mobile app that will provide better diagnoses than most physicians (of course, the Trekkies in the room will recognize this as Dr. McCoy’s tricorder).
A recent Schumpeter column in The Economist reviewed Abundance and Eric Topol’s The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care. Topol is one of the nation’s top physicians and a leading voice on the digital revolution in medicine. He makes the compelling argument that radical innovation and a true democratization of medical care are within reach, but not unless we, as consumers, demand it.
On the facing page of that same issue was an article illustrating the point that the number of poor people everywhere is declining for the first time ever in spite of the financial crisis and jump in food prices. The pie isn’t fixed and the rich aren’t riding the backs of the poor. The pie is expanding and everybody’s slice is getting bigger. Although this may not be as proportionally or as quickly as we would like, we’re busy baking more pies. But you’d never know it from the media.
The fact is that things are getting better on almost all fronts and at a rapidly expanding pace. Progress in technology development is not stopped by political or economic turmoil. Sure, there will be dangers, heavy lifting and “unknown unknowns” along the path, but it’s a good trajectory. Half empty? Half full? More like half full and rapidly filling to overflow. This is a good time to be alive.