/ abundance

Abundant Living

Watching a video Peter Diamandis: A future of Abundance provides a reminder of the limits of what is sometimes called technological solutionism. I think Jono Bacon joined the Diamandis organisation at around the time that video was made, but I don't know how that worked out for him. My guess would be that he probably encountered some limitations of this type of narrative.

It's not that the Diamandis narrative is necessarily wrong, and you can find comparable viewpoints about the potential of technology to produce riches for all expressed over the decades going all the way back to the mid 19th century. It's just that this viewpoint is partial and often overly simplistic.

For example, in the early part of the video Diamandis mentions how national wealth is increasing over time. That may be true, but how is national wealth measured? If you dig into the details there are all sorts of problems. It turns out that it's hard to measure many types of production because they're primarily qualitative rather than quantitative - trans-duction rather than pro-duction. Things like the production of open source software are entirely absent from GDP, even though that's now a critical enabler of the modern economy.

But it gets worse. National income doesn't tell you much about what's happening to the average person - the per capita income. When you look at average incomes over the last few decades it's no longer a simple tale of things getting relentlessly better due to technology.

Another point which was perhaps misleading is the "melting pot" idea. That is that merely bringing lots of people together in a city results in exponential increase in idea combinations and new syntheses or inventions. This doesn't always work out, since like a growing embryo scale results in differentiation. People form affinity groups and gatekeep their districts. The city council assigns people with different characteristics to different housing zones, and so on. Even in the heart of the metropolis it's possible to be alone and with little meaningful interaction with other people other than in highly commoditised and stereotyped forms, or be stuck in a ghetto or gated community.

There's no doubt that humans are an ingenious species capable of revolutionizing themselves and their environment. Diamandis rightly points out that anyone can have ideas and that it's really the translation of ideas into things or new states of being which matters. That's where the really hard work resides. The transformation of ideas into technology and technology into new ways of living is the political economy equivalent to the genotype to phenotype translation in biology, and that side of the story is entirely absent from the Diamandis narrative. So solar panels can get cheaper and computer networks can become more powerful but this does not necessarily translate into a better life for the average person. As we've seen with surveillance capital it may even result in a worse and more impoverished situation in which people lose control over their information and consequently their life.

One thing I liked from the video was the project or turning deserts into farms with desalination of sea water. There seemed to be a conspicuous absence of any workers though. Even with a lot of automation, things like those cardboard air coolers would need replacing fairly regularly. Glasshouses definitely require maintenance and I'm not aware of any robotics which can do that yet. But perhaps depicting workers creating the new agrarian paradise would show what a giant difference there is in wealth and status between these well-nourished ideas men in business suits and the people carrying out the more difficult task of implementing those ideas. And that gets back to the point about political economy being missing.

I think abundance has been possible for a long time. Perhaps a century or more. I'd define it as freedom from want of basic necessities such as food, water, energy, health care, adequate clothing and housing. In the well known Charlie Caplain rant from the movie The Great Dictator he says something like "machines which can produce abundance have brought only want". Decades earlier than that Peter Kropotkin describes the same abundance potential in The Conquest of Bread, but in a more sophisticated manner which doesn't run away from the political economy problem.

Until there is a political transformation then no matter how sophisticated the technology gets it won't necessarily make a the difference that's required for abundant living. Technology is undoubtedly part of the solution, but it's not the whole solution.