Monday, April 29, 2013

The Case for Less: Is Abundance Really the Solution to Our Problems?

The two examples of the problem with abundance that the author uses are each in their own way incorrect.
On obesity the problem is not just the availability of cheap high calorie food, it is that what passes for food really isn't. The manufactured/processed stuff that lines the grocery aisles is about as close to food as masturbation is to sex.

The second example, information overload, is just silly. There may be a firehose of of data coming at you but being overloaded by it is a choice and a failure to move up the DIKW pyramid.

A few years ago Barry Ritholtz had a simple, straightforward post on the topic: "Intelligence Hierarchy: Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom".

Here's another way to look at it:

Getting stuck at the base of the pyramid or off on the left side of the flow chart is your own damn fault.

From the New Republic:
The future is better than you think” is the message of Peter Diamandis’s and Steven Kotler’s book. Despite a flat economy and intractable environmental problems, Diamandis and his journalist co-author are deeply optimistic about humanity’s prospects. “Technology,” they say, “has the potential to significantly raise the basic standards of living for every man, woman, and child on the planet.... Abundance for all is actually within our grasp.”

This is a lively book, and it provides an interesting, if uncritical, survey of developments across a range of technologies. We find Craig Venter, the man who sequenced the human genome, sailing around the world looking for algae that can be engineered to emit jet fuel. We explore “vertical farms,” which extend the methods perfected by pot growers to entire buildings full of crops. (Imagine Manhattan growing corn.1) And in their section on “the almighty stem cell,” the authors suggest a future in which the replacing of our organs is not dissimilar to installing a new muffler.

But Diamandis, a space entrepreneur and the co-founder of “Singularity University,” is ultimately more interested in our attitude toward the future than in scientific details. He fears that humanity is biologically wired to be pessimistic, and that it therefore cannot appreciate the capacity of “exponential technologies” (those that improve at an exponential rate) to solve humanity’s problems. By 2035, Diamandis claims, most of humanity’s problems can be solved: we can reach “an end to most of what ails us.” Those who doubt the truth of such a proposition are the avatars of “moaning pessimism,” who suffer from cognitive defects that prevent them from seeing the truth. The “linear brain,” Diamandis says, cannot “comprehend our exponential rate of progress.”
A book that preaches the “good news” of humanity’s redemption in 2035 may bring to mind more explicitly religious works. Skeptics may call it religion for geeks, where exponential technologies replace Yahweh as the Great Provider. Others may dismiss the book as a species-wide extrapolation from The Power of Positive Thinkingwhere cynicism is humanity’s downfall. 

But the book is not so easily discounted, for it accurately reflects an important tradition that has driven American technologists since the time of Henry Ford, if not earlier. Abundance pretends to be contrarian, and it once might have been, but today it mainly reaffirms a view of society already deeply embedded in much of America’s technological elite, especially in Silicon Valley.

That view is simple to state. Humanity’s fundamental problem comes down to scarcity—not having enough of what we need and want. We need food, water, new shoes, new gadgets, and so on, and we suffer when we do not have them. That problem can and will be solved by technology, or—at an individual level—by buying or otherwise gaining access to the objects of our desires. Once our needs are met, we can all live happily ever after. As Diamandis puts it, we must imagine “a world where everyone’s days are spent dreaming and doing, not scrapping and scraping.”

Optimism is a useful motivational tool, and I see no reason to argue with Diamandis about the benefits of maintaining a sunny disposition. I also agree with both Diamandis and the New Testament that we may worry about the future more than necessary. Still, all this does not eliminate the need to ask whether the abundance program that Diamandis prescribes is actually right for humanity. 

The unhappy irony is that Diamandis prescribes a program of “more” exactly at a point when a century of similar projects have begun to turn on us. To be fair, his ideas are most pertinent to the poorer parts of the world, where many suffer terribly from a lack of the basics. But in the rich and semi-rich parts of the world, it is a different story. There we are starting to see just what happens when we reach surplus levels across many categories of human desire, and it isn’t pretty. The unfortunate fact is that extreme abundance—like extreme scarcity, but in different ways—can make humans miserable. Where the abundance project has been truly successful, it has created a new host of problems that are now hitting humanity.

The worldwide obesity epidemic is our most obvious example of this “flip” from problems of scarcity to problems of surplus. Even a few decades ago, the idea of fatness as a public health problem would have seemed ridiculous. Yes, there have always been fat people, but as the scholar Benjamin Caballero writes, as late as the 1930s most nations still just wanted larger citizens. “The military and economic might of countries,” he observes, “was critically dependent on the body size and strength of their young generations, from which soldiers and workers were drawn.”2

 Today the statistics on obesity are so outrageous that they seem almost unbelievable. The Centers for Disease Control find that 69 percent of American adults are overweight, and half that number obese or extremely obese....MORE
HT: Abnormal Returns

See also:
And Now for Some Good News
X Prize Founder Wants to Mine Asteroids
I am personally quite optimistic and grow weary of hammering our readers with negative postings.
The only reason we do it is, as one gutsy young lady said to me, "do you want to know the bad news or not?"
You get a faster and more extreme move out of bad news so yes I want to know it.