Optimism ↔ Pessimism

Which is the correct frame of mind when we think about the future? The authors of Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, think they have the sure-fire answer. And of course, in many ways they are absolutely correct. Looking at the globe, at human life everywhere, many of the scourges of the past, from endless cruel wars to epidemics of fatal disease, from isolation to scarcity, from universal ignorance to universal superstition—all these things have given way or are giving way to a far more optimistic picture and to abundance in many places unknown even a generation ago. But the more important thing to take note of is that changes that are happening today follow an exponential growth pattern, and have taken off like a skyrocket.

Technology promises solutions
for some of the most
intractable problems we face.

The authors don’t mention that our population and problems are also growing exponentially, and it’s not at all certain that the technical advances they describe will actually save the day, although they seem to be going in the right direction. Also, we cannot ignore the possibility of unintended consequences, which seem more the rule than the exception.

Even so, technology promises solutions for some of the most intractable problems we face. Here’s a good example from sub-Saharan Africa, often considered the prime basket case of the planet:

In a vast continent where there are often no paved highways, let alone phone lines, the mobile phone has already created huge changes that have translated into better lives with greater wealth and security for many millions. A farmer can find out about market conditions without walking for several days to do it, can sell his produce in advance, or buy seed at a distance, all without banks’ usurious fees, which often come to 25% of the transaction. Almost everyone benefits, not just farmers.

There are a number of other developments of great potential importance in rural Africa, for example the Lab on a Chip. This is a portable medical lab capable of making hundreds of analyses of bodily fluids way out in the boonies, after which immediate treatment can begin, and which can communicate the findings to central data bases for epidemic control. Simple cures by themselves greatly reduce the disastrous scourge of child death from easily cured conditions, which leads to reduced birth rates because it is no longer be necessary for rural families to have “extra” children to ensure survival of some of them. More wealth and better health for fewer people.

The Lab on a Chip analyses bodily fluids in the boonies.
Immediate treatment can greatly reduce deaths
from easily cured conditions.

Time is money, the saying goes. We can look at it from a slightly different angle, and say that time saved is prosperity. Anything that cuts down on the time spent on daily domestic chores—and technology is good at that—eventually translates to better health, better education, greater prosperity, lower fertility rate. In other words, enough time for school, for better health, for an improved future.

But there are good reasons for tempering our optimism. Take one example from the book. A gold miner turned to the computing public when he found his own engineers could not tell him where the gold was in spite of tons of data. More than a thousand responded to his internet offer of half a million dollars to find it. He emailed them all the data he had. Three teams were winners who told him exactly where to look. For half a million investment, several tens of millions were reaped.

But perhaps “raped” is a more proper term, because modern gold mining is one of the most environmentally disastrous processes there is, leaving a churned up and ruined countryside for miles, the permanent displacement of anyone who happened to live anywhere nearby, with water sources and soil poisoned by cyanide, and recovery of the environment all but impossible.

Robert Mugabe, and tyrants like him, are another reason to hold our applause. All the parts were in place for Zimbabwe to become a vibrant, modern nation under the control of native Africans. But Mugabe, a hero who liberated what was then called Rhodesia from the whites some 30 years ago, has ever since managed a kleptocracy that drove Zimbabwe into the ground, destroying every bit of the opportunity he was given, and forcing the people into deep poverty. Obviously, he is not the only despot to do the same thing. There is a new prize of $5-million, to be awarded to any African leader who leaves office when he’s supposed to, but I doubt that would attract most of them, since their numbered Swiss accounts commonly hold upwards of $500-million of the people’s money.

The authors say that the world
is on the verge of abundance.
I hope I’m wrong in being less optimistic.

Abundance doesn’t happen automatically just because it’s possible. There are unintended consequences that can be counted on to show up, and the planet and its resources are still finite, even if we haven’t overrun them. Even so, good things have happened, so there is reason for some optimism, and we can only hope it outweighs the reasons for pessimism. Most of the American nations have shed their ruthless dictators and extracted themselves from the imperialist meddling of the US. This at least set the stage for more widespread prosperity, but it hasn’t prevented people like Mexico’s Carlos Slim from seizing colonial monopoly rights to make himself the richest man in the world. Nor has affluence arrived for the continent’s hundreds of millions whose lives are so devoid of opportunity they play out in misery from beginning to end.

One of the best parts of Abundance is not the authors’ predictions for the future, which is always a risky venture at best. The best part is that they quickly bring us up to speed on the technological changes that are coming at us fast and furious, and tell us what these changes could mean. The book also has a great reference section with tons of information, for those to whom it matters. Most of us can’t keep up with these things, even if we try, because we have other fish to grill.

In all, what the authors say, that the world is on the verge of abundance for all persons, is hopeful and encouraging. But the millennium did arrive a few years ago, and when it did, the millennium didn’t arrive, so to speak. I’m not nearly as sanguine as they are, and I don’t believe we’re nearly as close to Shangri-La as they think. But I hope I’m wrong.

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