As we move further into the presidential campaign, we're going to hear a lot about the ways we're lacking and where we fall short. And though the conversation has rightly and finally shifted to the need to grow the economy, much of it is still dominated by hysterical and destructive demands to impose deficit-cutting austerity even before the economy gets back on its feet (which would only increase, not cut, the deficit).
Of course, it's only right that we should focus on where we're coming up short. Those of us in the media focus too much on autopsies and not enough on biopsies of our problems. So, yes, let's talk about our shortages -- of jobs and revenue and good ideas coming from our leaders. But let's start talking much more about our surpluses.
With unemployment still over 8 percent, we currently have more ingenuity, energy, spirit, and expertise than we have jobs -- and definitely more time on our hands. And the story of how this abundance is being put to use, of what is working and how we can scale it, has been part of HuffPost's mission from the very beginning -- and was the guiding principle behind the recent launch of our Good News section.
That's why I was so drawn to a new book by Peter Diamandis, who has been a friend for many years and is the CEO and chairman of the X Prize Foundation (of which I am a board member). Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, co-written by Steven Kotler, arrives in a world facing multiple crises and awash in pessimism. And it offers three things in short supply: solutions, perspective and, just as important, optimism.
Arguing, as Diamandis and Kotler do, that the world is getting steadily, demonstrably better carries multiple hazards: of tone-deafness; of giving short shrift to suffering, corruption, and the parts of the world -- including many parts of America -- that are in steady, demonstrable decline.
But Abundance is not a work of Pollyannaism. The portraits of brilliant and empathetic minds at work improving the human condition are not an excuse to ignore the many areas in which our leaders and institutions are failing us. Rather, they are a reminder of the possibility of doing good by tapping into our collective intelligence and wisdom -- and into game-changing advances in technology. As Diamandis and Kotler point out, a Maasai tribesman living in Kenya today with a cellphone has better mobile communications than President Reagan had 25 years ago. And if it's a smartphone with an Internet connection, the tribesman has instant access to more knowledge and information than President Clinton had just 15 years ago.
Abundance delves into the ways innovators and entrepreneurs have seized on the advances in computing, robotics, artificial intelligence and medicine, collectively solving problems like never before. It puts special emphasis on the wave of Do It Yourself innovators who "can now tackle problems that were once the sole purview of big governments and large corporations" -- citing many examples, including Burt Rutan, an aerospace engineer who became frustrated by the state of government-run space exploration (one of Diamandis' passions) and built SpaceShipOne, a human-carrying spaceplane built by a team of thirty engineers that outperformed the government's model, at a lower cost. Then there are the more than 100 teams who have signed up to take on the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE challenge to build a hand-held, consumer-friendly device combining artificial intelligence, digital imaging, and cloud computing to bring to life the mythical "medical tricorder" from Star Trek that will ultimately allow users to diagnose themselves better than a doctor can.
The book also spotlights the ways the walls have come down in terms of how we connect. Social entrepreneurs have created sites like DonorsChoose.org, Crowdrise, Kiva, and Enterprise Community Partners. Diamandis and Kotler highlight groups that exemplify the DIY principle -- especially those operating in spheres that were formerly the sole province of government. These groups are expanding our understanding of the ways we can innovate, improve, and help each other.
In education, there's Sal Khan, a one-time hedge fund analyst who founded the Khan Academy, featuring a series of digital video lessons for students of all ages, on subjects ranging from history to math to molecular biology. According to the book, as of last summer, the Khan Academy was getting more than 2 million visitors a month and building up its library at the rate of three new videos a day. Abundance charts the rise of Khan's idea from a series of videos shared online with his cousins to "an underground Internet sensation" to a full-fledged education movement; after hearing Khan's TED talk last year, Bill Gates told attendees that they "just got a glimpse of the future of education."
"Technophilanthropists" -- as the authors label a collection of tech entrepreneurs who made their money before the age of 40 and are now turning their attention and their considerable resources to solving the world's biggest problems -- are another group the book identifies as essential in building a future of abundance. As examples they point to Gates' crusade against malaria, and Jeff Skoll's work fighting pandemics and nuclear proliferation. Because many of these Technophilanthropists made their money reinventing entire industries, when they turn their attention to philanthropy they are, by their very nature, bold and global.
And then there are the world's poorest people, the "Rising Billion" whose limited circumstances have historically locked them out of the conversation. But no more. "The net is allowing us to turn ourselves into a giant, collective meta-intelligence," the authors write. "And this meta-intelligence continues to grow as more and more people come online. Think about this for a moment: by 2020, nearly 3 billion people will be added to the Internet's community." It's like sitting at a table with a group of people, and having another group of people -- bringing different insights and perspectives -- pull up chairs and join the conversation. But what Diamandis and Kotler are talking about delivers this on a global scale.
As Clay Shirky, author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, recently wrote:
This linking together in turn lets us tap our cognitive surplus, the trillion hours a year of free time the educated population of the planet has to spend doing things they care about. In the 20th century, the bulk of that time was spent watching television, but our cognitive surplus is so enormous that diverting even a tiny fraction of time from consumption to participation can create enormous positive effects.
It is a challenge playing out in very real ways across the globe -- nowhere more poignantly than in Peter's and my homeland. As Greeks, we watch as the debate continues to narrowly focus on austerity measures instead of the abundance of human and natural resources Greece has been blessed with. The real question facing the country is whether its leaders will be able to harness the incredible energy, idealism, ingenuity and passion that are currently being subsumed by the mania for slashing budgets and curtailing services. As then-prime minister George Papandreou told me when I met with him in June: "Greece needs a new narrative." Abundance could provide it.
But the book also shows us why changing narratives is so difficult. In one of its most fascinating sections, the authors explain why evolution has made us more likely to focus on bad news:
The amygdala is an almond-shaped sliver of the temporal lobe responsible for primal emotions like rage, hate, and fear. It's our early warning system, an organ always on high alert, whose job is to find anything in our environment that could threaten survival... So potent is this response that once turned on, it's almost impossible to shut off, and this is a problem in the modern world.
It's not hard to understand why evolution didn't favor a focus on good news: the price of failing to appreciate a gorgeous sunset is negligible, while failing to notice an approaching saber-toothed tiger could result in paying the ultimate price.
Diamandis and Kotler are very aware of the huge roadblocks in the way of those who would change the world. Now, as ever, there is potential for transformative ideas to go unheard -- and for destructive ideas to gain traction. But by highlighting so many examples of innovation and creativity in so many different fields, Abundance is a book with the power to inform, inspire, and push back against the forces that have always existed to stifle the dreams of those who, like the young engineers behind the 1960s moon launches, "didn't know they were trying to do the impossible."
"Demonstrating great ideas involves a considerable amount of risk," Diamandis and Kotler write. "There will always be naysayers. People will resist breakthrough ideas until the moment they're accepted as the new norm. Since the road to abundance requires significant innovation, it also requires significant tolerance for risk, for failure, and for ideas that strike most as absolute nonsense." And here is their blueprint for abundance: "think young, roll the dice, and perhaps most importantly, get comfortable with failure."
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