April 13th, 2012

Books!

An encouraging look towards the future ...

Well … you've had to wait a while to read this review. I was halfway into writing it five weeks ago when my much-beloved netbook up and died … in the middle of a sentence. It's taken this long for me to a) get hooked up with a replacement and b) get back out to do some reviews … and, of course, the material (which was fresh in my mind back then) has faded slightly in my recall.

However, I really, really liked Peter Diamandis' Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, which I anticipated I would when I requested a review copy from Free Press. As you can guess from the subtitle, this is not your typical “the sky is falling” futurist book … instead, it's a look ahead at all the stuff that is trending positively, and what might bring a very bright future. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the “if it bleeds, it leads” mainstream media, which thrives on sensationalizing bad news, as Abundance is very much the antithesis of that.

Diamandis works with a “pyramid” symbolism here, somewhat related to Maslow's, with “simple physiological needs” at the base: water, food, and shelter; the next level featuring energy, education, information and communications, and finally, at the top, health and freedom. All the elements in the book relate to one or another of these concepts, and how they can be brought to the whole of humanity. This is a challenging book to summarize, because there is so much in it, hundreds of case studies and reports of research and programs moving things forward toward the “abundance” of the title. As with most books that I have been enthusiastic for while reading, this has dozens of little slips of paper sticking out of the top, with pages that I noted as having particularly important passages, or things that I wanted to take a further look at later. Here are a few of the points made in the introductory sections:

Our current educational system … is built around fact-based learning, but the Internet makes almost every fact desirable instantly available. This means we're training our children in skills they rarely need, while ignoring those they absolutely do. Teaching kids how to nourish their creativity and curiosity, while still providing a sound foundation in critical thinking, literacy and math, is the best way to prepare them for a future of increasingly rapid technological change.
...
Many of today's dangers are probabilistic – the economy might nose-dive, there could be a terrorist attack – and the amygdala can't tell the difference. Worse, the system is also designed not to shut off until the potential danger has vanished completely, but probabilistic dangers never vanish completely. Add in an impossible-to-avoid media continuously scaring us in an attempt to capture market share, and you have a brain convinced it's living in a state of siege ...
...
In contemporary society … very few of us actually maintain 150 relationships. But we still have this primitive pattern imprinted on our brain, so we fill those open slots with whomever we have the most daily “contact” - even if that contact comes only from watching that person on television. … The reason we care so much about what happens to the likes of Lady Gaga is … because our brain doesn't realize there's a difference between rock stars we know about and relatives we know.
This initial section is fascinating as it shows how we're not set up to see the good stuff that's happening, on both an organic and societal basis. It then presents a litany of “dire forecasts” of the (mainly recent) past that were just plain wrong … and then moves into a wide array of exciting new things, which rarely make it onto the media's radar, and so don't get into the general population's minds.

These are all over the board … with new subjects every few pages. There is Dean Kamen's water purification project, that started out as a way to help dialysis patients, but was scaled up to the point where “The current version can purify 1,000 liters of water a day using the same amount of energy it takes to run a hair dryer.”. There are the “highrise farm” projects (this one has recently been in the news), with promises that “One hundred fifty vertical farms could feed everyone in New York City.”. There are the “generation IV” nuclear reactors, being developed by the likes of Nathan Myhrvold and others, which are “backyard nukes” that have “no moving parts, can't melt down, and can run safely for fifty-plus years, literally without human intervention … We could power the world for the next one thousand years just burning and disposing of the depleted uranium and spent fuel rods in today's stockpiles.”, and are projected to be priced “to undercut coal”.

Abundance then moves into health care, and the remarkable advances in systems to diagnose, treat, and prevent illness … and the evolving capabilities to address health at the genetic level. Advances in robotics are also promising to replace (or at least augment) surgeons, and nurses. Technology developed for (and made very inexpensive by) the Xbox Kinect is at the forefront for sensors that will allow for nearly-automated assisted living at a fraction of the current costs.

There is so much in this book that I've not even touched on. The scope here is really breathtaking, and the vision world-changing. There is a web resource for on-going research at AbundanceHub.com, which promises to keep updating material in line with what's in the book (although, at the moment - only a couple of months past its publication - it's mainly about the book). The last 20% of Abundance is a remarkable collection of references with data related to elements covered in the book (one of my favorites is the side-by-side comparison of a Cray2 supercomputer from 1985 and the iPad2 from 2011, where the latter had almost everything the former did, at a bit over a pound vs. nearly three tons, and at less than 1/50,000th the cost!), which in many cases brings home the really remarkable advancements discussed in the main text.

Abundance is one of those books that I wish EVERYBODY would read … it's really that important. If people took the information in this to heart, it could radically change the future of the planet and the race dramatically for the better. Heck, there were a dozen projects described here I wish I could work with, given my current job search! As it's brand new, your odds of finding it at your local brick-and-mortar book store are very good, and the on-line big boys are currently both featuring it at a deep discount. Do get a copy … it's a game-changer … highly, highly recommended!


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