Abundance, 2012 – Why You Should Read This Book

Every few years a few truly great general interest books on technology, human problems, and social progress come along. Books like Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962. Toffer’s Future Shock, 1970. Piel’s The Acceleration of History, 1972. Drexler’s Engines of Creation, 1986. Moravec’s Mind Children, 1988. Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce, 1993. Stock’s Metaman, 1993. Simon’s The State of Humanity, 1996. Brin’s The Transparent Society, 1998. Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines, 1999. Rhodes’s Visions of Technology, 1999. Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree, 1999. Wright’s Nonzero, 2000. Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist, 2001. Wallace’s Moral Machines, 2008. Kelly’s What Technology Wants, 2010. Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011. Kenny’s Getting Better, 2011. Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, 2011, and Bowles and Gintis’s A Cooperative Species, 2011. Now comes Diamandis and Kotler’s Abundance, 2012, a member of this rare and special class.

To read books like these is to improve your ability to think, to see viable futures, to create and take control of your life’s path, and to live in a way that best advances society as a whole. In short, they upgrade your world view, by addressing the most important questions and conversations of our era. How do we best steer our accelerating technologies to create social progress? What are the great human problems our technologies create? What greater problems can they solve? How and why does technology improve itself even in spite of human failings? What is technology becoming, and how is it changing us?

Abundance helps us understand that we are not entering a “post-scarcity” world, but rather an abundance world. Scarcities and competitions will persist at the leading edge of civilization, and the winners will profit more than everyone else. But at the same time, our accelerating technologies are creating vast new abundance in living standards, and so much capability to take care of our environment, that the scarcities of today will be distant memories just a few generations from now. As long as we rise to the challenges.

Peter Diamandis, Founder and Chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation, Co-Founder and Chairman of Singularity University, and pioneer of the personal spaceflight industry, is eminently qualified to write this book. He is both a visionary and an accomplished entrepreneur, with a passion for new horizons, and a deep ethical interest in global development. His practical, results-oriented perspective permeates the book, and frankly, it jumps right into the reader’s psyche long before the end. His co-author, Steven Kotler, is a writer of vast experience, and it shows. Of all the books listed above, Abundance is perhaps the easiest to read, and digest. The writing is amazingly straightforward and clear. You can finish it in just a few evenings. If you are an influence leader with your family and friends I recommend getting a copy for them as well. If they are reading- or time-challenged, get them the MP3 audiobook. For special books like this, I recommend listening to the audiobook first in your car, then reading and annotating the book a week later. There’s no better way to deeply understand important ideas than to hear them more than once by different modes, then to summarize them when done. If you can, post your thoughts on the book in an Amazon Review, and discuss and debate it with others when you are done.

If Diamandis and Kotler don’t do a video documentary to follow up this achievement, that would be a shame. The images and themes in this book are so well chosen, I’m convinced that Abundance: The Movie would change millions of lives and minds. The book shows how to get beyond hand-wringing and finger pointing for those who want to create a better world. Instead, we can actively seek out and celebrate examples of what works, incentivize innovation, aggressively back the best of the innovators and disruptors, and help clear the many roadblocks out of their way. I found Abundance to strike a realistic balance between sustainability and innovation. It makes clear we aren’t just here to be change-averse stewards of the past, or the status quo. Humanity craves more freedom, intelligence, ethics, and ability, not just for us, but for every living creature. Increasingly, we’re figuring out how to achieve what we dream.

Singularity University, co-founded by Peter and the eminent futurist and innovator Ray Kurzweil, is an educational and entrepreneurship organization dedicated to defining and addressing the grand challenges of human development. I am an advisor at SU. Every year I’m privileged to meet the 80 students of their Graduate Studies Program, and every year I’m blown away by the vision, drive, ethics, and creativity of these students. I’ve also known several of them before they attended SU, and it’s magical to see how much more practical and effective they become once they’re part of the SU network. Peter and Ray have created an amazing environment, and it begins with the right mindset, the right world view. Unless you can afford to attend their GSP or their shorter Executive Program, reading this book is the closest you’ll get to creating the Singularity University mindset for yourself. I have been thinking about these issues as a technology foresight professional since 2000, going on 12 years now. This book left me significantly more optimistic, practical, and empowered than when I began, and I’ve got several friends now reading it as well.

Abundance, as I see it, has four main themes: 1. Mental blocks that keep us from seeing the world as it really is, 2. Grand challenges of global development, 3. Accelerating technological progress, and 4. Accelerating human ingenuity. Part One tackles the mental blocks that keep us from seeing accelerating change, and challenges us to improve our perspective. I think these 48 pages are the most important, for most people. If you have time for nothing else, just read this section. Part One helps us see how our culture and our human biases conspire to keep us cynical, passive, fear-driven, selfish, ignorant, and disconnected. Meanwhile planetary acceleration continues faster every year, with or without the awareness of us as individuals, organizations, or even nations, and it’s a strongly positive sum game for global civilization. The Chinese researcher who discovers the cure to the cancer that your partner will get in twenty years will soon be your hero, or she should be. The more innovative, wealthy, intelligent, and “cooperatively competitive” the world gets, the more human conflict migrates to where it belongs, at the leading edge, in the world of creative ideas, not in the realm of human rights, securities, and freedoms, which become increasingly clearly protected and defined. Will America turn away from its long history of openness to immigrants, freedom, thought leadership, and technological greatness, and increasingly reward ideology, bigness, and cronyism? The choice is before us.

Parts Two through Six alternate the last three themes. We’re introduced next to Exponential Technologies, and we begin to appreciate the disruptions to come, and the special tools that every wise society needs to employ. The reader considers a special set of Grand Challenge problems, and their looming solutions: The final spurt of Population Growth (in Africa and Asia only, it’s pretty much over everywhere else). Sanitation. Water. Food. Energy. Education. Health Care. Freedom. Potential pitfalls of exponential technology like the growing rich poor divide, corruption, pandemics, military conflict, and terrorism are relegated to the Appendix. This is nervy yet ultimately a smart call. Abundance focuses our attention on all the problems that can be noticeably improved or eliminated in the next ten to twenty five years. The problems in the Appendix can and will be solved as well, but likely not nearly as fast.

The fourth theme, rising human ingenuity, collective intelligence, and cooperative competition (institutions and rules for competition that maximize GDP and innovation per capita, see Acemoglu and Robinson, Why Nations Fail, 2012, for a lot more on that) is treated in two groups of three chapters, so in essence it’s the largest theme of the book. While Diamandis and Kotler make an excellent case that our Grand Challenge problems can be solved. They also make it very clear that these solutions won’t happen if we don’t keep striving. As always, a subset of motivated, visionary, talented, and practical entrepreneurs, innovators, policymakers, and philanthopists will lead the way, and the billions who are presently marginalized will do most of the heavy lifting, in pursuit of a decent quality of life, not the diversions of luxury.

Books like Abundance help us to get our bearings in a sea of change. They remind us where we are, and where we are going. The more people read them, the more purposeful and effective we all become. We’ve got big problems to solve, and Abundance is one of the best guides to the near future that you could ever ask for. I hope you’ll read it, learn it, and share it far and wide. Let me end with Peter’s 16-min TED talk, which is a great entry into the book.

“John Smart – Futurist” YouTube Channel

My dear friend Joe Quirk challenged me to set up a YouTube channel to find videos of my talks, so… Ta Da! Announcing the John Smart- Futurist channel. It’s got 54 subscribers so far. Might you perhaps be #55? I’d love to hear from you in the video comments. In coming weeks I promise to add no more than one video a week to the channel, either my own or someone else’s foresight, innovation, strategy, or industry tech videos that I think folks might particularly enjoy watching and discussing.

The currently featured video is an interview with the very thoughtful Nikola Danaylov (aka Socrates, for his propensity to engage in Socratic dialog). Nikola is an illustrious Singularity University GSP2011 grad, and webmaster of SingularityWeblog, a great site featuring video interviews and articles on technology, artificial intelligence, and the singularity. He is doing an excellent job covering these topics on his site, but he’s still in need of a monetization strategy. I sent him some of my ideas on that, feel free to send him your own and donate a wee bit if you like what he’s doing. Supporting worthy individuals with small Direct Actions, like donating $5, will get you big results! A little love motivates people for a long time, believe me.

Over the course of an hour we discuss our exciting new Foresight Education and Research Network (FERNweb.org), resources for improving career foresight, my personal path to becoming a foresight professional, biologically inspired computing, IBM’s SyNAPSE project, STEM compression, the transcension hypothesis, and why accelerating technological change is not going to slow down any time soon, no matter what you may hear in the news. I hope you enjoy it, and please let me know of any critiques, caveats, or disagreements. Here’s an embed of the video if you don’t want to visit my channel. After you click play you can click the YouTube logo to leave comments.

God Fights Back – The Return of Religious Fundamentalism to Iran (Late 1970’s to Early 1980’s), BBC Doc: People’s Century, Episode 24

I’ve just finished People’s Century*, 1995, an amazing 26 part BBC series, 54 minutes each, that chronicles our entire 20th Century. It is definitely the most impressive documentary series I’ve seen yet.

I hope that you will consider watching all 26 episodes for yourself at some point in your life, and showing it to and discussing it with your children. It is a singular experience. It should be part of the core curriculum in every enlightened high school or college. Documentaries with this kind of scope in time (100 years), and breadth in subject (the whole world) give us what David Gelernter calls topsight, the ability to see and understand the whole of a system in its essentials. People’s Century gives you unparalleled topsight into the nature of human life, the perennial trends, cycles, opportunities, and challenges of civilization, and in particular our relentless and uplifting history of accelerating scientific, technical, and social complexification.

Of the 26 episodes, I found Episode 24, God Fights Back (see links for a great PBS site with program descriptions and teacher resources), the most personally enlightening by a narrow margin, though several others, particularly Killing Fields, Lost Peace, On the Line, Breadline, Total War, Freedom Now, Asia Rising, Endangered Planet, Great Leap and Half the People are also particularly great, to pick a personal top 11 (sometimes 10 isn’t enough!). They all tell amazing, inspiring stories of cultural, political and technological change, in a format short enough for dinner viewing. Unfortunately, aside from a few random episodes (see bottom of this post), the interwebs are the only place you can find this incredible series online at present. Let’s hope the BBC releases it digitally for a reasonable price soon. In the meantime, check the torrent sites, and caveat emptor.

God Fights Back, after a brief nod to the rapid civil rights and modernization disruptions occurring round the world in the 1960’s (covered beautifully in earlier episodes), considers the inevitable and equally rapid fundamentalist backlash against modernization that occurred in Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan, India, the USA, and several other countries beginning in the late 1970’s to the early 80’s. For the US version, recall the fundamentalist Christians who marched on Washington for Jesus in 1980, the Reagan Revolution, and the rise of the Christian Right and its neoconsequences. All of these backlashes were triggered largely by too-fast and too-insensitive modernization, from the filmmaker’s perspective. Although I’d like to see more data to back that hypothesis, I find it quite plausible. Also, the film is rich with ideas for how things could have been handled better, ideas which continue to be useful today.

For example, there’s an awesome bit in the film on the way sexual objectification of women used by growth-oriented Western corporations to sell products in Iran was seen as particularly offensive and corrupting by some Islamic women. If only the Shah had been smart enough to be listening to his people, and sharply restricted this kind of advertising (basically pornography, from the Islamic perspective) and other bits of unthinking cultural warfare by the newly monied class on the rest of society. He could have set some smart standards, requiring social referenda before the “pornography” laws would be relaxed in various classes (it will clearly be a few more decades before anti-Mohammed cartoons will be allowed in most Islamic societies, for example) that other modernizing Islamic nations could have emulated. Every society regulates speech and has pornography standards, which reform on their own internal pace, and if you ignore them, you pay a steep price for your ignorance and arrogance. Some errors turn out to be critically important, in the end.

There was certainly a lot of gambling and prostitution and other corrosions of traditional values going under the Shah, just as in Cuba under Batista, which JFK, in 1963, said was the worst he knew of in any colonial country (see Cuban Revolution on Wikipedia for the surprising quote). When the Shah didn’t realize he needed the continual blessing of a significant portion of clerics and ministers to the poor, and wasn’t willing to engage in a brutal and damning de-religification of his society the way Mao and Castro and other extreme autocrats did, a Pyrrhic victory not worth the cost, he sealed his fate.

This series shows the folly of pushing modernization too fast, of letting unrestrained commercialism disrupt social fabric, of not honoring the ideas and beliefs of the majority, of not engaging the religious community in inevitable reforms, and of not staying at the pace of the most rapid religious reformers in your community. In this episode we see modernization driven at the unsustainable speeds of technocratic visionaries in Iran, Egypt, and Turkey. Some of them, like the Shah, had their modernization fueled by massive new oil wealth, and the changes went insanely fast. Anyone with sense could see the train wreck coming.

The story of Iran’s incredible modernization under Shah Reza Pahlavi from 1936 to 1979, when women lost the veil and got modern educations and freedoms, and when commerce and technology ruled the day, then the even more rapid and brutal loss of women’s and civil rights under the fundamentalist Khomeini in the 1980’s, and Iran’s isolation and extremism since, is one of the most dramatic tales of the 20th century. I’ve recently heard that The Queen and I, 2008 (IMDB 7.2), by an Iranian filmmaker who talks with the widow of the Shah, is a compelling and very personal retelling of Iran’s late 20th century story. It’s on my watchlist now. This history is critical not only to understanding modern Iran, but to understanding modernization in general.

The only thing People’s Century has underplayed so far is the impact of the massive rise of the corporations since 1950. We’ve let our global corporations get bigger than most of our governments in the last 60 years, so we shouldn’t be surprised when they take over our political systems, remove choice and competition at the top, and corruption and crony capitalism and corporate welfare result. I’m confident we’ll fix this imbalance in the future, but the first step is seeing the problem. People’s Century gets close in several of its episodes, but ultimately it misses on this critical point. I’m giving the series an 8.8 however. Ultimately it’s must-watch material.

*Finding People’s Century online isn’t easy at present. Episode 2, Killing Fields (WW I) is on Amazon Instant Video. A few more are online here. For now, to see all 26 you will have to go to the torrent or usenet sites (use an anonymizer of some type if you torrent, so your ISP doesn’t throttle your connection), or buy a creaky old VHS copy ($99 for the series) off Amazon or eBay. DVDs don’t appear to be available at any price. As I’ve written in How the Television Will be Revolutionized, until reasonably priced digital educational video emerges (and we all know what reasonable is), you should have no qualms going to the internets for this, as long as you are willing to pay the price, as in all conflict. Be a soldier in the war for global access to affordable quality educational video!

Objections? Additions? Omissions? Let me know. I hope you can find time to watch the series, it’s amazing.

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