A Singul(arity) Track Mind

I like reading things that I think I’ll disagree with. I just borrowed one such book from the library—Peter Diamandis’s Abundance. His book has gotten a fair bit of traction in the mainstream and technology press, and more than that Diamandis seemed to be one of the few techno-centric authors willing to at least attempt making a holistic case for his views. And so like Kevin Kelly’s book What Technology Wants that I discussed a few months back, Abundance seemed worth a look.

One thing I noticed right off the bat was the book relies upon two forms of argument:

1. Good news is being ignored, its impact is right around the corner, and here are some random examples. The idea is that the reason we don’t recognize that there are good things going on is that the news is focused on bad things, and that the human mind is trained to focus on those bad things. I’m reminded of something wise Bruce Schneier has written many times:

I tell people that if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it. The very definition of “news” is “something that hardly ever happens.” It’s when something isn’t in the news, when it’s so common that it’s no longer news — car crashes, domestic violence — that you should start worrying.

I’ll be examining Schneier’s latest book in an upcoming post. In any case, Diamandis makes this case again and again to defend the notion that good news is being lost in the noise, and floods the reader with random anecdotes without connecting the dots. Sure, I’ll agree that some good news isn’t widely acknowledged. Nevertheless, we can’t forget Schneier’s observation, which is that there are plenty of bad things that the news is ignoring as well. (Consider that there’s no opposite to Wired or Discover or Popular Mechanics—a magazine that focuses on the non-sensational, dire things that are being discovered every day. This is the closest to such a magazine in the blog world.) Anyway, I’ll come back to this again later.

2. Ruthless extrapolation. Tom Murphy wrote about this recently—the tendency of engineers and scientists to use past data to extrapolate into the future, which works most of the time except at turning points, when it fails spectacularly. In particular, Diamandis conveniently ignores trend changes when they don’t fit the argument being made. (Consider his claim that “quality of life has improved more in the past century than ever before” and that this indicates that more good things are on the way. He ignores that since the early 1970s median household real income, energy per capita, employment among youth, among other things, has been declining.) In this, he’s very much of the Kurzweil school of thought.

These are the main two tricks in his bag. But let’s get down to it, starting with the book’s treatment, very early on, of The Limits to Growth.

The Limits to Growth. To be fair, Diamandis does a slightly better job than most cornucopian authors at describing LTG at first. He does slip a bit, say by claiming “while many of their more dire predictions have failed to materialize…”—probably to Dennis Meadows’s chagrin, as Meadows has repeatedly pointed out that the book did not make predictions. But to my surprise, he doesn’t even attempt to take LTG head on, and instead drifts off into a discussion of irrelevant topics such as how population control is a bad idea, how people solve things that were thought to be unsolvable, etc. Diamandis claims that there are three driving forces that will lead to an “age of abundance”: a) “exponentially growing technologies”, b) money being spent by “technophilanthropists”, and c) the “combination of the Internet, microfinance, and wireless communication”, and that’s going to “[transform] the poorest of the poor into an emerging market force.” (This let them eat smartphones notion is one I see around a lot, as I wrote a few months back.) Fundamentally, though, the Limits to Growth was an examination of unchecked exponential functions of a different sort, a sort Diamandis carefully avoids.

Goals. I was surprised to find that Abundance took a fairly reasonable tack when discussing goals: what is this abundance he’s seeking (and claims is forthcoming), anyway? In his initial formulation, it’s that he wants to meet the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy for everyone on the planet: access to food, some energy to prepare food, lighting, sanitation, basic education, public health, etc. He also wants communication and information freedom for everyone on the planet, and I can’t disagree with that goal. This sounds good to me. His claim, however, is that this abundance “should be achievable within twenty-five years, with noticeable change possible within the next decade.” Much of the rest of the book is about making the case that this is possible.

The possibility of abundance. Diamandis feels that our cognitive biases are what are holding us back—that abundance is right around around the corner if we could just allow ourselves to believe in it. Through a flurry of pop-psychology, one of his primary claims is that because of cognitive biases, and that humans didn’t evolve to understand “exponential technologies”, we misunderstand new technologies and are disappointed, all while those same technologies revolutionize the world. However, one could draw a very different set of inferences from a discussion of such cognitive biases—at the end of my discussion of climate change vs. peak oil, I discussed Dan Miller’s application of these same cognitive biases to why we don’t as a society respond to the dire consequences of unchecked climate change.

“The singularity is nearer”. Now we can shift gears into Diamandis’s flood of anecdotes. He’s trying to paint a picture, and I suppose it could be convincing to a certain type of reader; it’s equal measure “random thing X is better than it once was, so abundance is around the corner” and “somebody was wrong about something once, so any predictions I don’t like will also be wrong”. He considers, among other things:

  • How an acid rain catastrophe never happened despite what he claims were widespread fears among scientists. (The evidence he presents that this was a widely-held view is pretty thin.)
  • How lightbulbs are better today than in the 14th century, and will continue improving. (Sure, though the room for improvement is limited.)
  • Lifespans have continually increased. (Except when the trend turns around, as it has started to.)
  • Cell phones have spread through Africa. (Okay.)
  • Venter beat the Human Genome Project, so his genetically engineered algae that produces biofuel will save us. (Hmm…maybe it will help, but there are many issues. And for what it’s worth Venter is skeptical too.)
  • IPv6 will enable our toasters to be on the Internet, and this is a great thing. (I’m not clear on how this solves any fundamental problems.)
  • AI, and robots, and 3D printing, and nanotechnology will bring us into the sci-fi future we expected but never got. (Setting aside the issue of whether this will happen, once again I’m not clear on how this helps address any of the fundamental issues faced by global society.)

The list goes on, painting a portrait of technology that has been and will continue to be the driver for unchecked human advancement.

Food. The Abundance argument completely runs off the rails when it comes to food production. After going through a litany of warnings from scientists about future challenges in food production (only to dismiss these warnings as being ill-founded), Diamandis goes on to claim, first of all, that we’ve actually continued to produce plenty of food thanks to the wonders of genetically-engineered crops despite dire forecasts from the usual chorus of naysayers. (Never mind that per capita agricultural production has flatlined since the 1980s and is likely to decrease by most studies as a result of ecological mismanagement, and GE crops often don’t produce any benefits in terms of yields.) But the solution, he says, is vertical farming and “cultured” meat. I can’t do better than this dissection of such specious claims.

DIY and hagiography. There’s a whole middle section of the book that is a bit embarrassing: page after page extolling the virtues of everything from the Maker movement to the Whole Earth Catalog, but more importantly the men (and it’s all men from what I can tell) behind them. I don’t deny that each has its virtues, but how they lead to some sort of revolution in our culture and an age of abundance is left as an exercise for the reader. Well that’s not quite true: Diamandis tells us that we’ll get a leg up from “technophilanthropists” like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg (!).

Energy. It’s hard to know where to start with Diamandis’s claims about energy. On one hand PVs are going to be super cheap, he claims, because of exponential trends—I don’t doubt that solar cells will become very cheap in time, but infrastructure and installation costs seem like they won’t change much and will dominate. On the other hand he claims our oil woes will be no more because of synthetic biology. Throw in a smart grid, some new nuclear reactor designs (never confronting some of the real issues, of course) and some batteries, and apparently not only are our energy woes a thing of the past, but we will have a “squanderable abundance of energy” that will enable us to halt climate change in its tracks. If I’ve adopted a mocking tone at this point, it’s because the argument has gotten even more flimsy than before: despite discussing a topic like energy that is amenable to doing the math ala Tom Murphy, Diamandis reverts to a combination of hand waving and vignettes of inventors while ignoring basic issues like the energy trap or a whole host of other practical scaling challenges Murphy discusses.

While Diamandis drags the reader through a litany of anecdotes about education (OLPC anyone?) and health care, his approach remains the same for the rest of the book, and doesn’t grapple with the hard challenges that he ought to. In the end, I credit Kevin Kelly for having spent considerable time discussing technology’s limits in his book while trying to make a case that it does still provide some upside. The little Diamandis does to this end—in an appendix—is to make the case that nanobots and cybercrime won’t be our undoing. In any case, maybe Diamandis is onto something: nuanced arguments don’t make for bestsellers, and with numerous high-profile interviews and talks in the last year, he’s on a roll.

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Responses to “A Singul(arity) Track Mind”

  1. Great “review”. I also regularly write about all (non-fiction) books I read on my blog, buy seldom as thorough as you do here!

  2. Nice one Barath! Did he mention anywhere in his book anything about luck? We often use the word “breakthrough” in place of luck, and there is no law of nature that allows one to say if luck will show up at a time of most need.

  3. You know – I don’t remember if he mentioned luck. (I don’t have a copy of the book since I borrowed it from the library.) But given that he spent a lot of the book talking about human ingenuity and praising various individual wealthy businessmen, I can’t imagine he thinks luck has much to do with the abundance he sees.