AFTER THE BELL
The future is going to be really fabulous, but it also could be a real bummer
In 2012, tech enthusiasts Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler wrote a book titled ‘Abundance; the Future is Better Than You Think’. In the book, the pair made a whole bunch of predictions about the future. We are now a decade on, so it’s worth asking how their predictions turned out.
You have to say, we live in straitened times compared with 2012. The world had lived through the 2008 financial crisis, and (notwithstanding the worst predictions of the pessimists), the global financial system had survived pretty much intact. By 2012, the S&P 500 was trading above the level it was in 2008 before the crisis, which most observers at the time considered grotesquely inflated. President Barack Obama had just been elected for a second time, a continuation of the breakthrough for racial redemption that few predicted just a few years earlier.
But wowser, how times have changed. War in eastern Europe, the Covid pandemic still lingering, a grotesque and risible character somehow contrived to become the US president and a journalist managed to become the Prime Minister of the UK. The gushing enthusiasm of tech industry acolytes seems so naive now.
But is that entirely true? What happened to the actual predictions Diamandis and Kotler made in what seems like an eternity ago. The duo’s book was fabulously popular, and was the number one bestseller on both the Amazon and Barnes and Noble bestseller lists. There was some criticism though, notably from Timothy Ogden, writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, who described the books, according to Wikipedia, as “techno-utopianism at its worst,” decrying its emphasis on “technological fixes to social problems”.
Well, let’s see. As examples of the things that were going to make the world a better place, the writers cited online learning platforms, faster computer chips, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, biotechnology in food production, greater online participation, solar energy production and wider use of sensors.
Just at first glance, this looks like a very varied list. And yet some of their predictions are stunningly accurate; they even underestimated how things turned out. For example, at the time of publication, the daily penetration of the internet was around two billion people. The duo made the bold prediction that by 2020, that would rise to, hold your breath, three billion people. Actually, it was more like 4.5 billion people in 2020, and it’s risen to around five billion today.
The problem is that although there is no doubting its ubiquity, we have also come to see the dark side of the internet: the enormous spread of lies and garbage, a utility that repulsive demigods of every description have used to their advantage. Yet on balance, the internet’s success is demonstrated by its popularity and utility.
On that topic, at the time of writing, the book heralded online learning through the Khan Academy. Today, this innovation has just exploded, and there are dozens of similar efforts — Udemy, Coursera — and an avalanche of similar institutions. The Khan Academy alone has 7.11 million subscribers and its videos have been viewed more than 1.94 billion times. So big tick there. And of course we should not forget how many disputes of facts Google solves every day.
But on the other hand, unless I’m very much mistaken, nanotechnology has been a bit of a bust, and 3D printing has failed to live up to expectations. It has created the ability to make coffee cups, not a facility to be sneezed at, but it certainly hasn’t revolutionised the industrial process.
Yet you could argue that the industrial process has been revolutionised in other ways; the giga press is a big part of making electric cars, which by the way, somehow didn’t get a mention in the book. The Internet of Things is of course a thing too. Computer chips have shown fabulous progress, although Moore’s Law — the theory that processing speed would double every two years — is now past its sell-by date.
The other ideas have certainly had some application; solar panels are everywhere and are now much cheaper; agri-tech is certainly changing agriculture, and sensors are helping. But are they life-changing? Yes, but perhaps not yet gaspingly revolutionary.
Just think of the other things the book didn’t even mention: quantum computing, the extraordinary progress in mRNA vaccine production, cloud computing, cryptocurrency, and a myriad of other breakthroughs. Diamandis and Kotler have written about some of these ideas in subsequent books, of course.
Yet, taken together, despite the miss-hits and partial predictive successes, you have to say, the fundamental thesis that the world is materially and technologically a better place more or less stands. But it also unwittingly demonstrates that technological solutions will not solve our social problems, or at least not entirely.
Paradise remains, alas, a somewhat distant prospect. DM/BM