Within 25 years, a life of “possibility,” including clean water, energy, education, information/communication, health, and freedom, will be attainable for all. So claims Abundance, a book that cites and has been glowingly reviewed by some of the most brilliant and successful science and technology entrepreneurs on the planet. And yet, in its rush to breathlessly catalogue the most innovative tech breakthroughs, Abundance promotes a free-market capitalism concentrating resources and decision-making in the hands of a new class of owners of the means of production: the techies and their corporations. Indeed, as Diamandis and Kotler note, “today’s greatest commodities aren’t physical objects, they’re ideas.”
Future abundance lies at the convergence of three emergent factors: an entrepreneurial “Do It Yourself” ethos, the rise of “technophilanthropy” by a swashbuckling tech elite directing millions toward alleviating global crises, and a re-envisioning of the world’s poor “bottom billion” as a “rising billion” due to their massive, untapped market potential. Invoking Friedrich Hayek, Diamandis and Kotler explain that as the global lower classes rise, their socioeconomic position will gain speed and inequalities will “naturally” disappear. Global networks and interconnectedness will make abundance possible—and help the currently better off reap returns through impact investing and social entrepreneurship initiatives. Little attention is given to the role of governments, other than a brief critique of their inefficiency against crowd-sourcing or private sector innovation. Private investment in spaceflight, for example, has produced innovations more advanced than “primitive” government-funded aeronautics.
Abundance explains that our “linear”-thinking brains are struggling to comprehend the exponential progress of the technology-driven present
Forget agricultural subsidies, exploitative trade agreements, protracted violent conflicts, political corruption, or deregulated Wall Street. Or the fact that the massive global circulation of capital in this era of financial securitization has created as many new challenges as opportunities for the world’s poor. According to Diamandis and Kotler, the main roadblock to abundance is psychological. “Cynicism and pessimism”—dubbed the “crutches of contemporary thinking”—produce “cognitive biases” that make radical progress invisible to those who aren’t looking for it. But Abundance adheres to a similar methodology, cherry-picking research that supports its broad claims. Want clean water for the globe? Look no further than future toilets that will “burn … feces and flash evaporate … urine” while producing urea fertilizer, table salt, freshwater, and electricity for charging cell phones. There’s a difference, however, between optimism (the subject of Diamandis’ own TED talk) and a reductive cause-and-effect worldview that makes complex realities simplistic by fiat. “By solving our water worries,” the authors assure us, “we’re also alleviating world hunger, relieving poverty.”
Abundance explains that our “linear”-thinking brains are struggling to comprehend the exponential progress of the technology-driven present, whereby the future is a space of emergent complexity, real creativity, and imagination. Fair enough. But this contradicts the book’s own argument that increasing complexity is unequivocally trending in a singular (and positive) direction, toward greater specialization, robotization—and reduced reliance on human labor.
And therein lies the rub. From medicine to agriculture to education, Diamandis and Kotler argue “While short-term job loss is the inevitable and often painful result … the long-term payoff is undeniable: goods and services once reserved for the wealthy few are now available to anyone equipped with a smartphone.” This sounds like an old idea in new packaging, recently protested loudly by the Occupy movement: trust the capitalists to bring prosperity to all. It’s uncertain how the masses will afford smartphones without jobs, but the tech companies will certainly grow quite rich as the masses try.