The World Is Getting Better, Argues New Book, ‘Abundance
Cheer up! According to the new book Abundance, all the trend
lines point to a better, healthier, richer world. Sam Harris talks
to the authors about why this is.
Peter H. Diamandis is the founder and CEO of the X Prize
Foundation and cofounder and chairman of Singularity University.
He is a serial entrepreneur turned philanthropist who has started
more than a dozen high-tech companies. He has degrees in
molecular biology and aerospace engineering from MIT, and an
M.D. from Harvard Medical School. He has written a new book,
Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think , with author
and journalist Steven Kotler, whose articles have appeared in The
New York Times Magazine , Wired, Discover , Popular Science,
Outside , GQ , and National Geographic .
Diamandis and Kotler were kind enough to answer my questions
Is the world really getting better?
If you pull back a little bit from the sea of bad news that’s
assaulting us these days, what you actually see is a
preponderance of trends that are moving in a fantastic direction.
Take health care: over the past century, child-mortality rates have
dropped by 90 percent, while the human lifespan has doubled.
Or poverty, which has dropped more in the past 50 years than it
did in the previous 500.
At a global level, the gap between wealthy nations and poorer
nations continues to close. Across the board, we are living
longer, wealthier, healthier lives. Certainly, there are still millions
of people living in dire, back-breaking poverty, but using almost
every quality-of-life metric available—access to goods and
services, access to transportation, access to information, access
to education, access to lifesaving medicines and procedures,
means of communication, value of human rights, importance of
democratic institutions, durable shelter, available calories,
available employment, affordable energy, even affordable beer—
our day-to-day experience has improved massively over the past
Why aren’t we more aware of these positive trends?
The simple answer is, because we’re hard-wired not to notice.
As the first order of business for any organism is survival, our
brain privileges information that appears to threaten us. As a
result, we tend to focus too much on the bad news even as the
good news struggles to get through. The media are so saturated
with bad news—if it bleeds, it leads—because they’re vying for
the amygdala’s attention.
‘Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think’ by Peter H.
Diamandis and Steven Kotler. 400 pages. Free Press. $26.99 ()
Furthermore, to handle the massive influx of information we
process on a moment-by-moment basis, the brain relies on
heuristics. Most of the time these work. Sometimes they fail.
When they fail we call them cognitive biases. As it turns out, a
lot of our cognitive biases keep us pessimistic as well. The
negativity bias is a tendency to give more weight to negative
information and experiences than positive ones. Confirmation bias
is our tendency to search for or interpret information in ways that
confirms our preconceptions—which might not be so bad on its
own, but when you add the media’s focus on negative news,
you have a recipe for psychological disaster. This list goes on.
The result is a brain that believes the end is near and there’s not
a damn thing we can do about it.
What do you mean by “abundance”?
We believe that over the next two to three decades it will be
possible to significantly raise global standards of living.
Abundance is not about providing everyone on this planet with a
life of luxury—rather, it’s about providing everyone with a life of
possibility. To be able to live such a life requires having the
basics covered and then some. It also means stanching some
fairly ridiculous bleeding: feeding the hungry, providing access to
clean water, ending indoor air pollution, and wiping out malaria
—four entirely preventable conditions that kill, respectively,
seven, three, three, and two people per minute worldwide. But
ultimately, abundance is about creating a world of possibility: a
world where everyone’s days are spent dreaming and doing, not
scrapping and scraping.
What makes you think that this is possible?
The data, for starters. We combed through decades of research,
reams of hard facts, and interviewed dozens of scientists,
innovators, engineers, and philanthropists. We also see four
emerging forces that are beginning to really make their presence
felt in the world, but together should enable us to make the
equivalent of 200 years of progress over the next 20 years.
What are these forces?
Exponential technologies : Over the past few decades, researchers
have come to conclude that any information-based technology is
advancing along exponential growth curves. This is why the
cellphone in your pocket is as powerful as a mid-’70s-era
supercomputer for a minute fraction of the cost. Besides
communication technology, exponential forces are at work in
computational and network systems, artificial intelligence,
robotics, biotechnology, bio-informatics, nanotechnology, human-
machine interfaces, and many more. These technologies will soon
enable the vast majority of human beings to experience what only
the affluent have had access to thus far. In Abundance , we
examine how exponential technologies are being used (and can
be used) to provide 7 billion people with clean water, nutritious
food, affordable housing, personalized education, top-tier
medical care, nonpolluting and ubiquitous energy.
DIY innovators : These are individuals and small groups
empowered by exponential technologies and driven by the desire
to take on humanity’s grand challenges. As we explore in the
book, these groups now have the ability to tackle problems that
were once the sole domain of governments and major
corporations and NGOs. As a result, we are at the front end of a
DIY revolution unlike anything the world has yet seen.
Technophilanthropists: Today there are more than 1,400
billionaires and 93,000 “ultrahigh net worth” individuals in the
world. Many of these are young, very socially conscious
entrepreneurs who made their money in technology and are now
interested in using it to slay some of the world’s grandest
challenges. Bill Gates fighting against malaria, Jeff Skoll
crusading against pandemics, Pierre Omidyar’s democracy-
spreading efforts. There are many, many more. We call these
Rising billion : These are the poorest people on Earth, the so-
called bottom billion. We have renamed this group the “Rising
Billion” because, thanks to the exponential spread of
communication and information technologies (like the
smartphone), these people are coming online for the very first
time. Their voices, which have never before been heard, are
suddenly joining the global conversation. Aided by these
technologies, the Rising Billion are beginning to pull themselves
out of poverty. They are already on their way to becoming a
powerful and significant consuming segment of humanity, and
many companies are rushing to develop ultralow-cost products to
meet their needs. This effort will drive down the price of basic
goods and services in a fashion that will benefit everyone. But
the Rising Billion have also become a producing and consuming
segment of humanity, generating new ideas, insights, products,
and services that add to the overall wealth of Earth.
It seems to me that all of this can sound a little quixotic and
out of touch with some of the challenges that humanity now
faces. Can you give me a concrete example of a trend toward
abundance that is unlikely to ever be reversed?
Over the past 20 years wireless technologies and the Internet
have become ubiquitous, affordable, and available to almost
everyone. Africa has skipped a technological generation,
bypassing the landlines that stripe our Western skies for the
wireless way. Today, a Masai warrior with a cellphone has better
telecom capabilities than the president of the United States did
25 years ago. If he’s a Masai warrior on a smartphone with
access to Google, then he has access to more information than
the president did just 15 years ago. By the end of 2013, over 70
percent of humanity will have access to instantaneous, low-cost
communications and information. In other words, we are now
living in a world of information and communication abundance.
And to your exact point—poverty has been reduced more in the
past 50 years than in the previous 500. One major reason is the
abundance of information-and-communication technology.
According to research done at the London School of Business,
adding 10 cellphones per 100 people raises GDP by 0.6 percent.
To quote technology writer Nicholas Sullivan on this matter,
“extrapolating from UN figures on poverty reduction (1 percent
GDP growth results in a 2 percent poverty reduction), that 0.6
percent growth would cut poverty by roughly 1.2 percent. Given
4 billion people in poverty, that means with every 10 new phones
per 100 people, 48 million people graduate from poverty.”
So do you believe that the future is guaranteed to be better
than most people think?
We are not so naive as to think that there won’t be bumps along
the way. Some of those will be big bumps: economic
meltdowns, natural disasters, terrorist attacks. During these
times, the concept of abundance will seem far-off, alien, even
nonsensical, but if history is our guide, then progress continues
through the good times and the bad.
The 20th century, for example, witnessed both incredible
advancement and unspeakable tragedy. The 1918 influenza
epidemic killed 50 million people; World War II killed another 60
million. There were tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires,
floods, even plagues of locusts. Despite such problems, this
period also saw infant mortality decrease by 90 percent, maternal
mortality decrease by 99 percent, and, overall, human lifespan
increase by more than 100 percent.
So while there are likely to be plenty of rude, heartbreaking
interruptions between here and there, we do feel that with the
proper application of resources and capital, global living
standards can continue to improve regardless of the horrors that
dominate the headlines.
What do you hope people will get from reading your book?
The first is hope. You can’t change the world if you don’t believe
The second is a vision and road map: a way to take bigger risks,
create an innovation culture, and focus on solving problems
rather than complaining about them.
Most importantly, we want people to understand that, more than
ever before in history, individuals can now band together to solve
grand challenges. We don’t believe abundance happens
automatically. It’s up to each of us. That’s what makes today so
different. We face enormous problems, but we—as individuals—
have enormous power to solve them. It really is a magical time.