“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.”
Optimism is a useful motivational tool, and I see no reason to argue with Diamandis about the benefits of maintaining a sunny disposition...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…There is no single cause for obesity, but the sine qua non for it is plenty of cheap, high-calorie foods. And such foods, of course, are the byproduct of our marvelous technologies of abundance, many of them celebrated in Diamandis’s book. They are the byproducts of the “Green Revolution,” brilliant techniques in industrial farming and the genetic modification of crops. We have achieved abundance in food, and it is killing us.
Consider another problem with no precise historical equivalent: “information overload.”…phrases such as “Internet addiction” describe people who are literally unable to stop consuming information even though it is destroying their lives…many of us suffer from milder versions of information overload. Nicolas Carr, in The Shallows, made a persuasive case that the excessive availability of information has begun to re-program our brains, creating serious issues for memory and attention span. Where people were once bored, we now face too many entertainment choices, creating a strange misery aptly termed “the paradox of choice” by the psychologist Barry Schwartz. We have achieved the information abundance that our ancestors craved, and it is driving us insane.
This very idea that too much of what we want can be a bad thing is hard to accept…But in today’s richer world, if you are overweight, in debt, and overwhelmed, there is no one to blame but yourself. Go on a diet, stop watching cable, and pay off your credit card—that’s the answer. In short, we think of scarcity problems as real, and surplus problems as matters of self-control…That may account for the current popularity of books designed to help readers control themselves. The most interesting among them is Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.
The book’s most profound sections describe a phenomenon that they call “ego depletion,” a state of mental exhaustion where bad decisions are made. It turns out that being forced to make constant decisions is what causes ego depletion. So if willpower is a muscle, making too many decisions in one day is the equivalent of blowing out your hamstrings with too many squats…they recommend avoiding situations that cause ego-depletion altogether. And here is where we find the link between Abundance and Willpower…Over the last century, mainly through the abundance project, we have created a world where avoiding constant decisions is nearly impossible. We have created environments that are designed to destroy our powers of self-control by creating constant choices among abundant options. [We have] a negative feedback loop: we have more than ever, and therefore need more self-control than ever, but the abundance we’ve created destroys our ability to resist. It is a setup that Sisyphus might have actually envied.
…it is increasingly the duty of the technology industry and the technologists to take seriously the challenge of human overload, and to give it as much attention as the abundance project. It is the first great challenge for post-scarcity thinkers…So advanced are our technological powers that we will be increasingly trying to create access to abundance and to limit it at the same time. Sometimes we must create both the thesis and the antithesis to go in the right direction. We have spent the last century creating an abundance that exceeds any human scale, and now technologists must turn their powers to controlling our, or their, creation.