When I worked at Open Society Foundations, we had a focus on defending rights, which derived from a worldview that assumes there are large institutions (mostly corporations and governments) that encroach upon our individual freedoms and our ability to live a prosperous life. By strengthening and defending rights, we can mitigate the negative effects of these large institutions. For all the insane blabber by Glenn Beck about George Soros being a Communist puppet master, the foundation actually has a worldview much aligned with the Republican Party of early 20th century: defend the rights of individuals so that they can seek prosperity and political representation.

At Omidyar Network, we never spoke about rights. Within the Omidyar Network worldview, there are no enemies, only opportunities to improve. Technology, according to this worldview, is the fulcrum that creates these new opportunities.

To put it in unsophisticated terms, Open Society Foundations seeks to defend individuals from a pessimistic view of the world while Omidyar Network seeks to accelerate and distribute an optimistic view of the world.

In general, Silicon Valley is a geography of optimism, but no one takes it to such an extreme as Peter Diamandis, co-founder of Singularity University, founder of the X Prize Foundation, and author of Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think.

The book makes three main arguments:

  1. The world today is better off than it ever has been. This is a result of formerly scarce resources becoming abundant and accessible to all thanks to technological innovations.
  2. As a species, we are psychologically primed to exaggerate the negative and ignore the positive.
  3. There are three main forces that are accelerating innovation to improve the lives of everyone, but especially the poor of developing countries.

The book begins by recounting the famous anecdote of a goldsmith who presented a new type of metal to Emperor Tiberius of Rome in 23 AD. The shiny silver metal was so alluring that, rather than reward the goldsmith for his invention, Tiberius ordered his beheading to ensure the new metal wouldn’t devalue the empire’s massive store of gold. Aluminum remained a rare metal until the middle of the 19th century. We are told that Napoléon III hosted the King of Siam for a banquet “where the honored guests were given aluminum utensils, while the others had to make do with gold.” Decades of technological innovation from 1825 to 1886 made aluminum cheaper and faster to produce. Today the International Aluminum Institute calls the lightweight material that we use to wrap our leftovers “almost infinite.”

For Diamandis, the anecdote is illustrative of the most important trend of the past 300 years: what begins as rare and only accessible by the rich becomes abundant and accessible to everyone. And, significantly, the timeframe between rare and abundant — whether it’s access to the latest gadgets or an individual’s ability to sequence her DNA — is narrowing with each passing year.

Haiti square 1

One of the book’s many examples from Singularity University is Matternet, a start-up that aims to deliver food and medicine to African villagers by drone. More recently, the questionably branded “Flying Donkey Challenge” wants to “pioneer a new transport system of large cargo robots in Africa and beyond.”

Diamandis spends a long time arguing with the pessimists. It’s a tiring, repetitive portion of the book that could have been summed up in a single paragraph: Our evolution on the African Savanna surrounded by predators primed us to be hypersensitive to any signs of threat. Our brains are structured to focus on the bad. As a result, even if our rational selves acknowledge that life expectancies have tripled in the past few hundred years, we still spend all our time worrying about Y2K or melting ice caps or the threat of China.

It’s probably a good thing that our brains are wired for alarmism — if, that is, our alarmism persuades us to lead more sustainable lives. Unfortunately, often times we spend all our attention worrying about the downfall that awaits us without ever changing the behaviors that cause the problems in the first place. Many of today’s most influential pundits gain fame by constantly pointing to the latest potential threats without ever offering any suggestions to address them. Diamandis thinks we’d all be better off if we spent less time worrying and more time innovating.

That takes us to his third and final argument: three forces are coming together to accelerate innovation in order to improve the lives of the world’s poor.

  • The DIY Innovator — You no longer need to work at Bell Labs or IBM in order to invent new products and bring them to market. Microsoft, Apple, Google and Craig Venter’s indie sequencing of the genome are all examples of how individual entrepreneurs have been able to outperform the giants.
  • The Technophilanthropists — Modern capitalism has produced extremely wealthy technology entrepreneurs who are increasingly using their money, insight and fame to address the world’s greatest problems.
  • The Rising Billion — Ever since C.K. Prahalad published The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, an increasing number of entrepreneurs are trying to build products and services designed for the billions of people at the bottom of the financial pyramid.

As an illustration of how old business is rethinking their practices to reach the “bottom billion,” one of the most intriguing anecdotes of the book describes how an Indian jeans manufacturer was able to change his approach to reach the rural poor that make up the majority of the country:

Arvind saw a golden opportunity forming in the budding domestic market for jeans. Today, the company sells four brands, priced between $7 and $30 a pair. Its best-selling label, Ruf & Tuf, caters to rural India, home to 70 percent of the country’s 950 million people. Before Ruf & Tuf was introduced in 1995, most rural Indians had only seen jeans on television.

It took some creativity to crack the rural market, where many Indians still prefer custom-tailored clothes. Rather than fight that mindset, Arvind conceived “ready-to-stitch” jeans. Ruf & Tuf jeans are sold as a kit: two legs, buttons, rivets, zipper, leather label and an instruction booklet for the neighborhood tailor.

I am sufficiently optimistic to get annoyed by the pessimists who are always crying wolf about the next disaster that awaits us. Yet, I am sufficiently pessimistic to get equally annoyed by the uber-optimists that disregard threats to our freedom because they are so focused on the next innovation. As I’ve written many times before, the automobile probably seemed like a pretty great idea at the time. Diamandis sits squarely in the camp of tunnel vision optimists. He isn’t concerned that we could run out of water, but rather that we aren’t able to make the systems efficient enough. He isn’t worried about our information overload, only that we don’t have better filters to help us focus on what’s important.

His only doubt as to whether we are gliding effortlessly toward utopia is how quickly we will arrive.