Technology Trends

Techno-Optimism: Everything Will Get Better

Imagine that, within the next couple of decades, worldwide living standards will have risen enough to end to dire poverty and material scarcity. Humanity will enter an era of bountiful food, endless clean water, inexhaustible cheap energy, greatly extended human longevity, exponentially improved communications and education. Such is the optimistic view presented in the just-published book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (Simon & Schuster), by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. Diamandis is the Chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, which designs and manages public competitions intended to encourage technological developments that benefit mankind. Kotler is a best-selling author and prize-winning journalist.

‘Abundance’ is only one of a number of recent scientifically-based books that profess this optimistic view of humanity’s present and future state. Several are briefly profiled below.

Abundance Book Cover - Peter Diamandis & Steven KotlerThe ‘Abundance’ authors acknowledge the tremendous challenges currently facing humanity, including climate change, the depletion of basic resources, and the threats of global pandemics and of terrorism. But, because of exponential growth in cutting-edge technologies, including computational systems, nanotechnology, and biomedical engineering, the authors systematically argue that humankind is on the cusp of a near-utopian phase of our history: “Humanity is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standards of living for every man, woman, and child on the planet. Within a generation, we will be able to provide goods and services, once reserved for the wealthy few, to any and all who need them.”

‘Abundance’ could serve as a manifesto for techno-optimism, the belief that technological progress builds on itself, always accelerating, and will steadily improve the lives of everyone. Techno-optimism is a more focused, near-term expression of techno-utopianism, defined by Wikipedia as “any ideology based on the belief that advances in science and technology will eventually bring about a utopia.”

Matt Ridley, an Oxford-trained zoologist who has spent most his career as a science writer, noticed some years ago that almost all of the expert doom-and-gloom predictions never came true. The forests did not die off from acid rain, the oil did not run out, the cancer epidemic supposedly caused by environmental pollutants did not continue to grow, there was no nuclear winter. Ridley focuses on this human predilection for negativity The Rational Optimist Book Cover - Matt Ridleyin his most recent book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (Harper Perennial). “It’s incredible…this moaning pessimism, this things-are-going-downhill reaction from people living amid luxury and security that their ancestors would have died for…But the vast majority of people are much better fed, much better sheltered, much better entertained, much better protected against disease and much more likely to live to old age than their ancestors have ever been.”

In an email reply, Ridley praised the role of technology in this forward progress. “I am a techno-optimist,” he said.The record shows that the advance of technology has greatly improved human living standards.” But Ridley believes that it is the exchange of ideas (“ideas having sex,” as he puts it) and trade that have advanced human progress more than any other single factor: “The greatest improvements have come in the places with the most trade and the least existential crises,” such as Renaissance Italy and modern China.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking) exhaustively argues that, by any measure, overall levels of virtually all types of human violence have declined. “Believe it or not—and I know that most people do not—violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence. The The Better Angels of Our Nature Book Cover - Steven Pinkerdecline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue…For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor.”

Pinker concurs with Ridley about the contribution of technology towards the betterment of humankind: “By any measure, the effects of technology have been overwhelmingly positive: we live longer, healthier, more pleasant and stimulating lives, and are less mired in ignorance and superstition,” he said by email.

To be sure, techno-optimism has its detractors. Paul Gilding, former CEO of Greenpeace International and author of The Great Disruption: How the Climate Crisis Will Change Everything (For The Better) (Bloomsbury Press), is a prominent critic, although he also celebrates technological innovation. Gilding delivered a recent TED talk entitled “The Earth Is Full.” In his blog, he contends that “a major economic crisis is now being triggered by humanity passing the limits of the earth’s capacity to provide cheap resources, especially soil, climate and water… The science says we simply don’t have a long time. In fact we’re completely out of time, with the evidence clear that the ecosystem limits have already been breached.”

The Great Disruption Book Cover - Paul GildingGilding believes that only great crises, such as climate change and resource depletion, are going to force the large-scale government action necessary to address the urgency of the situation. “The problem is timing – technology will be helpful but not in time to prevent a crisis. So relying on it is a form of denial,” he said by email. He views techno-optimism as dangerous, because it can lead to inaction in the face of present major crises. “People use the clearly huge opportunity of technology to reassure themselves we won’t face a crisis…Such a view is reassuring. It feels good. Unfortunately, it’s also wrong.”

Asked about Gilding’s warnings, ‘Abundance’ co-author Kotler replied by email, “Technology is becoming more and more democratized. Look at synthetic biology or 3-D printing…this puts near godlike power into the hands of the everyman…Our argument is that solving the world’s grand challenges can now be done by individuals or small groups—that’s the true power of exponentially growing technology. If we wait around for governments to get the job done, it will be too late.”

The scientific evidence presented in these books seems to justify an optimistic outlook. The world has become more peaceful, and the lives of most people have steadily become easier and healthier. There is every reason to expect that, thanks largely to technological innovation, the quality of life for virtually everyone will continue to improve and become more abundant.

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Video of Peter Diamandis & Matt Ridley delivering talks at TED conferences:

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About James Bedsole

James is a Boston-based freelance journalist and medical professional. Raised in Memphis, TN, James moved to Massachusetts in the 1980's and never plans to leave.

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