Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
According to some viewpoints, life on Earth is getting worse, with more and more people competing for fewer and fewer resources. However, Peter Diamandis and Stephen Kotler are here to make the case for optimism, arguing that innovations in technology, communication, information access, energy production, medicine, agriculture, methods of learning, and entrepreneurship are likely to have vast, transformative effects on human society in the near future. Key to understanding this is the authors’ belief that technological progress tends to follow an exponential curve, rather than a linear one, with inventions that seem to be of limited use at first quickly evolving to become crucial, productivity-enhancing features of everyday life. We’ve already seen this happen with airplanes, cars, computers, and the Internet, and there’s little reason to believe it won’t happen with solar and nuclear energy, better batteries, smart agriculture, gene therapy, self-driving cars, and artificial intelligence. If you’re familiar with techno-optimists like Ray Kurzweil, then you know the cloth that Abundance is cut from.
The authors also focus some attention on the so-called “bottom billion”. As they point out, even small improvements that reach the very poor have a marked effect on their quality of life. Simple access to clean water, basic medicine, cell phone communication, a little electricity, and other small conveniences liberates people from their harshest struggles, enabling them to reach for better lives, including more education. This also reduces the rampant population growth and environmental strain associated with poverty, as people find that they no longer need to be subsistence farmers or have as many children as possible to ensure a comfortable future for themselves.
As a guy who works in technology, I think the book’s optimism in that department is well justified. Never underestimate what can happen when millions of very smart individuals, who can share knowledge easily, attack interconnected problems. The middle chapters contain a short who's-who catalog of inventors, thinkers, and entrepreneurs whose work is pushing the envelope in different areas. In fact, I took the artificial intelligence course taught by one of the researchers mentioned in the AI section, and offered for free online by Stanford University. How’s that for abundance? As Diamandis points out, even the President of the United States didn’t have so much expertise at his fingertips twenty-five years ago. Now a kid in India with a cheap laptop does.
On the social front, there seems to be a little more wishful thinking. The authors are hopeful that improved resource efficiency and slowing population growth will bring humanity’s rapacious levels of consumption and environmental impact down to sustainable levels, and I’m sure they’re right to some degree, but will they be right *enough*? Also, while I admire what certain billionaire philanthropists are doing with their money to solve real problems, the authors seem to discount the other side of concentrated wealth and power, the one that hasn’t always cared about humanity’s best interests. And I still have my concerns about the fate of people who no longer have skills that are useful in a technology-based economy -- what will they get paid to do?
But, even if Abundance doesn’t fully address all those questions, it’s still a hopeful, positive book, directing attention towards all the ways that human beings are applying their ingenuity for real good.
Being a developer of games and simulation/training software, myself, I think that this book delves into an important question: why do we play games? After all, when one thinks about it, most games are simply work, a series of repetitive tasks. What makes them *fun*? And why doesn’t work we do in real life engage us in the same way? Why do people enjoy doing chores in The Sims and Farmville, but hate doing their actual dishes and laundry? Why are X-Box first person shooter matches so popular with soldiers in Afghanistan, who presumably get enough of the real deal?
If you can mentally compensate for the author’s extremely starry-eyed view of gaming and gamers, she does raise some interesting points. There’s no question that games tap into our neurochemical wiring, stimulating our brains' reward systems with bite-sized challenges and constant feedback. We enjoy the competition and freedom of experimentation that games offer. Playing them also has more meaningful benefits, such as building self-confidence, providing healthy escape from stress, allowing us to explore and experiment, fostering community and connection, even creating a feeling of connection to something bigger.
This leads to the book's central questions: how can we apply what works in games to make aspects of the real world more engaging? How can we use game-like systems to solve problems that really matter? Would we have more fun with reality if it was more benignly competitive, more open to experimentation, more full of positive feedback for doing the right thing? If you weren't familiar with buzzy terms like "augmented reality" or "massively single-player", you will be.
While McGonigal probably won’t sell you on the notion that games can solve humanity’s problems, her anecdotes about successful projects make a convincing case for their future potential. Yes, many of the cutesy social apps she described, such as the one that rewards users with virtual prizes for jogging, seem a little inconsequential, but the point is the *possibility* they imply. If we're using smart phones to manage our lives anyway, why not make the experience fun? I was fascinated by the use of crowd-sourcing to unravel a British political scandal (with astonishingly effective results) and McGonigal's assessment of wikipedia in gaming terms. The World Without Oil game and some similar experiments show a potential role for gamelike collaborative systems in addressing widespread political disconnect.
The author also provides a sense of the sheer energy, enthusiasm, and range of interests of gamers themselves. Let’s face it, if hundreds of millions of people across the Earth are using computers and playing games every day, this represents a huge mindshare that might be tapped. Sure, not all of their skills translate to real-world problems, but many do. As I’ve seen in my own line of work, part of the reason that game-based military simulations are so effective is because they leverage an already-existing base of skills found among most young people who join the US military (and I don’t mean shooting stuff, but navigating virtual environments).
McGonigal’s unbridled excitement may not speak to every reader, but I think that most who have had a more-than-casual experience with gaming will understand where it's coming from. Even if you decide not to read the book, I recommend googling some of the author’s talks and projects.
Whether you agree with his views or not, Christopher Hitchens was part of a breed that seems to be dying off in our dumbed-down era: the public intellectual. His essays express a formidable mind and a dry, pugnacious wit. Picture some suffer-no-fools British professor holding forth with a scotch glass in hand and you have a sense of Hitchens's style. To be sure, his opinions could be controversial -- he was outspokenly anti-religious, admired Karl Marx, and detested totalitarianism and Islamic extremism so vehemently that he broke ranks with fellow liberals who weren’t so enthusiastic about George W. Bush’s wars -- but there was refreshingly clarity and lack of dissembling to them. You could take issue with Hitch’s conclusions, but you could be certain that he wasn’t going to bow to religious orthodoxy, political correctness, or cultural double-standards. Any opponent being intellectually lazy would hear about it.
Hitchens was also very well-read, which means that about a third of the essays here, which discuss books (or some literary topic), are likely to delight some readers, but bore others. I admit that, as much as I admired Hitchens’s deftness at making connections to books and authors beyond the ones under discussion, I labored through this portion of Arguably. Still, even if my knowledge of the classics is skimpy, I found some of the biographical discussion of different writers interesting. I’ll have to check out Nabokov and W. Somerset Maugham.
However, my excitement picked up when the book got to the essays on history, culture, religion, and language. Hitchens knew how to poke apart a topic and get readers to look at it differently. Has Marx turned out to be right about capitalism, and did anyone ever really implement his ideas as he would have intended? Is the Kurdish region of Iraq a model for what the rest of that country might have been? Is Pakistan really America’s ally? What lessons do we really get from Harry Potter? His infamous Vanity Fair piece, “Why Women Aren’t Funny” is bound to rankle some readers, but many of them might not pick up on the real focus of his wit. And I had a good laugh during one of the latter essays, in which he examined the disingenuous use of the word “you” by advertisers and pamphleteers -- one of many moments when he got me to ponder something from an angle I hadn’t considered before. I even learned a few new words, such as “synecdoche”. (Yay, now I can see that Charlie Kaufman movie.)
All in all, a fine sampling of the contemplations of a strong, piquant mind, and one that had a faculty for language that the English-speaking world is rapidly losing. In an attention-deficit age in which youtube, buzzfeed, and “news” channels too moronic to call by name are supplanting the art of public disquisition, Arguably reminds us of the pleasures of that art and (arguably) its importance.
I forget what Hitchens actually sounded like, but audiobook narrator Simon Prebble is pretty effective at capturing the mannerisms I tended to imagine when reading some of these pieces in their original print form.