It is hard to avoid getting swept up in the utopian optimism of Peter Diamandis. The world he presents in his Abundance: The Future is Better Than you Think is certainly the kind of future I would hope for all of us: the earth’s environment saved and its energy costless, public health diseases, global hunger and thirst eradicated, quality education and health care ubiquitous (not to mention cheap) and, above, all extreme poverty at long last conquered.
The way Diamandis gets us from here to there is almost all a matter of increasing efficiency through technological innovation. The efficiency of solar cells is rising exponentially along with a whole suite of clean energy options from fuel producing organisms created through synthetic biology to Fourth Generation nuclear power plants that not only manage to not produce any radioactive byproduct, they are safe from Three Mile Island style disasters, consume old nuclear waste and are so small they actually don’t need anyone to run them.
Then there is the future of toilets. Hypothetical sewage systems that in addition to not using any of our precious water, can use human waste as a home brewed power source, and produce a natural form of agricultural fertilizer to boot. Access to a clean toilet is actually a very big deal. 2.5 billion people on earth do not have access to a clean toilet with the effect that 1,800 children die needlessly from waste borne illness each day.
Amazingly enough more people have access to cellphones than clean toilets as the use of the former has exploded over the preceding decade, and with this factoid appeared my first doubts regarding Diamandis’ assumptions, but for now let’s stick to the optimism of solutions.
Far too many people go hungry in the world today, 925 million or one out of every 7 of us, according to Diamandis (102), but that might be about to get a whole lot worse. That’s because the world’s population is rapidly headed towards 9 billion while our ability to increase agricultural yields in the way we did with the Green Revolution has stalled. Thankfully, Diamandis sees technological solutions on the horizon- genetically modified crops, including one of the best ideas I have heard in years that of “golden rice”, that is rice fortified with the essential and often missing vitamin in the diet of the poor- Vitamin A. There are also vertical farms where crops are grown using aeroponics, giving a whole new meaning to “locally grown” along with bringing agriculture into the “internet of things” equipping plants and animals with sensors that give constant feedback and allow the meticulous allocation of water, nutrients, light, temperature and pesticides. There is also the long promised “meat in a vat” promising a final rapprochement between carnivores and herbivores everywhere. World running out of fresh water? No problem, technologies are in the works that can cheaply realize the perennial human dream of turning the salted oceans into a drinkable Niagara.
Then there is the education of tomorrow: if much of essential learning in the world today is either absent, as in large parts of the developing world, or composed of factory age style education that lumps children into groups and stamps them out like Model T’s, technology promises to solve that too. Salman Khan, whose Academy I love, has brought learning to anyone with an internet connection. Massive Open Online Courses -MOOCS- have done Khan one better and are now bringing the classrooms of elite universities to the masses. Advances in artificial intelligence promise a future where every child (and perhaps adult) has their own customized tutor and moves through the world of knowledge not based on some cookie cutter idea of what an educated person looks like, but based on their own interests, abilities and learning styles.
The doctorless masses, especially those in the developing world, are about to get their own personal assistants as well- automated nurses and doctors brought to them through the miracle of their cell phone and other wireless technology.
All these developments Diamandis hopes will raise the world’s bottom billion up through Maslow’s Pyramid to the point where the bear struggle to survive no longer prevents individuals from pursuing self-actualization. A billion new entrants to the global economy will make a damned good consumer market to boot.
Every bone in my body hopes Diamadis’ predictions bear fruit and believes we should push forward at every level, both public and private, technological innovations to address many of the world’s problems. There are, however, a number of big- questions Diamandis does not address- issues like inequality and technological unemployment, and the tensions between globalization and democracy- that should give us pause when it comes to the essentials of Diamadis’ argument which in a nutshell boils down to this: that most of the world’s deepest problems are to be solved by the application of technology to increase efficiency, and that a good deal of these solutions will be spurred on by a class that combines aspects of business, science and technology. and philanthropy, the so called techno-philanthropists of which Diamandis counts himself.
Inequality gets barely a mention in Abundance and when it does it is brought up in the carbon cutout form of “the rich get richer while the poor get poorer” only to be dispatched with with a wave of Diamandis’ hand. Sometimes the things unmentioned in a good book on closer inspection turn out to be somehow deeply interwoven with the author’s underlying assumptions. The primary target of Abundance is not how to get the sputtering US economy back into motion it is how technology might be used to get the horribly poor 2.5 billion people who struggle on a little more than a dollar a day out of such extreme poverty without as a consequence wrecking the planet. Behind these billions of the poor lies a sad statistic that reveals a great deal about the nature of our new global economy that, as David Rothkopf puts it in his Superclass, The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making:
The reality is that the combined net worth of the world’s richest thousand or so people- the planet’s billionaires- is almost twice that of the poorest 2.5 billion. (xv)
I do not know what it is like going to sleep knowing that you own more than hundreds of millions of people many of whom live in conditions you would not think fit for your pets, but somewhere it has to pull on the conscience. When you hold Diamandis’ argument in your hand and spin it so that you can see it from the view of the bottom up what you get, I think, is a kind of shaving off of these sharp edges of egregious human inequality in order to justify what amounts to a still pretty extreme view of what “normal” inequality looks like. It’s a hell of alot easier to justify your G550 when millions of children aren’t living in garbage.
The fact that Diamandis’ argument is at bottom a justification for an only somewhat less extreme form of today’s unprecedented levels of inequality can be seen in one of the primary vectors through which he thinks the “bottom billion” will be raised out of the most dehumanizing poverty not nation states, international institutions, or world government, but those Diamandis calls “techno-philanthropists” that is people with both the technological prowess and the capital to solve the major energy, food, water, education and communication problems that he holds responsible for extreme poverty. His models for this are not only Bill Gates and his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, an institution that I do believe when the history books are written will be remembered as one of the most positive and impactful initiatives of the early 21st century, but also the old “robber barons” of the late 19th century of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. For Diamandis the robber barons were economically transformative figures that in addition left a lasting cultural and educational legacy that has benefited us all. Doubtless, but then no mention is made of how the likes of Carnegie achieved this enormous wealth he could use for our benefit by earning ten thousand times the salary of his lowest paid workers. (Superclass 102)
Diamandis is speaking from the perspective of a global elite, the people who hobnob at Davos, and whip up sleek versions of saving the world at TED, people that quite rightly, and much unlike the provincial bumpkins of American national politics, are conscious of the enormous problems found in the world. Diamandis thinks the solution to these problems is an increase in technological efficiency which only raises questions when one remembers that is this very efficiency which is the source of the global elites enormous wealth in the first place, and is an area where their global interests collides head on with the economic and social reality of the developed world’s democracies from which most of this elite still hails.
Like Carnegie and Rockefeller and unlike many of the elites of old today’s superclass have their money and the power that comes with it because they have been transformative figures and have largely affected this transformation through quantum leaps in efficiency- for those old enough- think of how difficult it was to find information before Larry Page and Sergey Brin invented Google, or how easy Jeff Bezos’s Amazon made shopping for books or anything else or how expensive necessities were before Sam Walton built Walmart. Diamandis promises more of these revolutions in efficiency this time targeted directly at the world’s poorest. Yet already there is an elephant in the room.
The largely unacknowledged problem is that globalization and the revolutions brought about by the continued progress of Moore’s Law have been of enormous benefit to the developing world and a decidedly mixed bag for the developed countries. To quote John Cassidy from the New Yorker from back in 2011:
To me, what is really, really alarming is this: a typical American male who works full time and still has a job is earning almost exactly the same now as his counterpart was back in 1972, when Richard Nixon was in the White House, O. J. Simpson rushed a thousand yards for the Buffalo Bills, and Don McLean topped the charts with “American Pie”
Both globalization and Moore’s Law enabled revolutions have, however, been a miracle for the world’s poor- especially those of the world’s two most populous countries China and India- something the ever entertaining Hans Rosling brings home with gusto here. The uplifting effects of globalization are now, at long last, even being felt in Africa, and Diamandis is right to point out the profound changes cell phones have brought to that continent.
How is such a discrepancy between the rich/developed and poor/developing world to be explained? I think at least part of it can be explained this way: if technological innovation is all about creative destruction then perhaps the developed and developing world do not get the two in equal measure. This is because in the developed world there is an awful lot to destroy. Cell phones in North America, Europe and Japan replaced well established landlines, whereas cell phones in the developing world had very little to replace at all. Automation has been in a generation long race with the poorly paid factory workers of the developing world as to which could produce goods more cheaply, but both left developed world manufacturing workers in the dust. Diamandis’ prescriptions fails to acknowledge this disconnect of globalization and technological innovation in terms of their varied impact on developed and developing economies to merely embrace the trend.
It is one thing to replace nurses with cell phone apps where few nurses are to be found-the situation in the developing world- and quite another in an economy such as that of the US where not only do millions make their living doing such tasks but where we have spent a decade or more pushing people towards this career on account of a looming shortage of health care workers. Replacing non-existent teachers with AI tutors is all well and good where there are very few teachers to begin with, but what do you do when you have millions of people who have committed themselves to this noble profession who have been replaced by self-directed videos or a teaching bot?
We have seen the idea that globalization and technology has the effect of pushing down wages for the majority while creating at the same time a spiked world of the super-wealthy before. This was essentially the future as written by Karl Marx- a still relevant thinker who gets no mention from Diamandis. Marx might have been widely off in terms of his historical timeline, but correctly identified the deep trend of capitalism to push in this direction. If we are at the beginning stages of developing something like Marx’s bi-polar class system we might ask what took these predictions so long in coming about? Marx missed a lot of things- from the strength of unions to the willingness of the state to act against the interest of economic actors, which were important in delaying his predictions but tangential here.
Someone might have been able to prove to Marx, writing in the 1800s, that his ideas were going to take a long time to be anywhere close to reality with the simple exercise of asking him how long he thought it would take until the majority of available occupations would be replaced by mechanized labor or labor so simplified that it could be done by a human being with even the most rudimentary education. How long would it take before there was an automated doctor, automated lawyer, automated journalist like Marx himself. How long would it be until shopkeepers and bureaucrats could be replaced by machines? For it was fields such as these that exploded in growth after the decline of the craft guilds and the mechanization of agriculture, both brought about by machines and the new ideas regarding the division of labor in which workers were turned into cogs of production. Marx might have then seen that the near future in front of him would be less likely to be the age of revolution than a golden age of the middle class as societies were able to tap millions of workers who had been let loose by the end of the craft guilds and above all the mechanization of the farms and put then to work at non-automated tasks. Today’s situation might prove different because the kinds of innovations we are pushing towards, for the developed economies, might end up leaving far too many people without a job. Unless that is we can come up with a whole host of occupations that will remain off limits to AI for quite some time.
I have no real solution to this dilemma other than to caution skepticism towards the all too common view that technology is somehow a panacea to all, rather than just some, of our problems and that innovation is merely a matter of gain without real and profound costs. Above all, I would warn against attempts to read our present condition as somehow indicative of the “destiny” of life, our world, or the universe itself or at least not in ways where such views can be used as justifications for what in the end remain political decisions.
Towards the beginning of Abundance Diamandis presents a picture of the evolution of life moving through stages of specialization and cooperation from the singular prokaryotes to the cooperative eukaryotes with their internal specialization to multicellular organisms. Diamandis leaning on Robert Wright takes this story of specialization and cooperation up another level to us and our global civilization built on yet greater specialization and complexity. In a separate article that in some sense is merely an extension of the argument proposed by Diamandis Wright discusses the rise of the internet and the way it has allowed human beings to weave themselves together, asking:
Could it be that, in some sense, the point of evolution — both the biological evolution that created an intelligent species and the technological evolution that a sufficiently intelligent species is bound to unleash — has been to create these social brains, and maybe even to weave them into a giant, loosely organized planetary brain? Kind of in the way that the point of the maturation of an organism is to create an adult organism?”
On the one hand this view rings true to me, but then I start to think about the life and nature of our 21st century elites who have thrown off their ties to the local and the national to live their lives enmeshed in global networks of the rich and powerful. Innovators who have built, own, and control the very networks through which a world that is for the first time in history truly one has come about. People who whatever their virtues reap enormous benefits from the wealth they possess and the power they exercise, who already act in some sense like Wright’s “planetary brain”. It’s then that I remember how invisibly political such ideas are and wonder- was there ever an age where the elites of the day did not see their own reign written into the very fabric of the universe itself?