Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The World Is Getting Better, Argues New Book, ‘Abundance’

Cheer up! According to the new book Abundance, all the trend lines point to a better, healthier, richer world. Sam Harris at The Book Beast talks to the authors about why this is.

Peter H. Diamandis is the founder and CEO of the X Prize Foundation and cofounder and chairman of Singularity University. He is a serial entrepreneur turned philanthropist who has started more than a dozen high-tech companies. He has degrees in molecular biology and aerospace engineering from MIT, and an M.D. from Harvard Medical School. He has written a new book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, with author and journalist Steven Kotler, whose articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Discover, Popular Science, Outside, GQ, and National Geographic.

Diamandis and Kotler were kind enough to answer my questions by email:
Is the world really getting better?
If you pull back a little bit from the sea of bad news that’s assaulting us these days, what you actually see is a preponderance of trends that are moving in a fantastic direction. Take health care: over the past century, child-mortality rates have dropped by 90 percent, while the human lifespan has doubled. Or poverty, which has dropped more in the past 50 years than it did in the previous 500.
At a global level, the gap between wealthy nations and poorer nations continues to close. Across the board, we are living longer, wealthier, healthier lives. Certainly, there are still millions of people living in dire, back-breaking poverty, but using almost every quality-of-life metric available—access to goods and services, access to transportation, access to information, access to education, access to lifesaving medicines and procedures, means of communication, value of human rights, importance of democratic institutions, durable shelter, available calories, available employment, affordable energy, even affordable beer—our day-to-day experience has improved massively over the past two centuries.
Why aren’t we more aware of these positive trends?
The simple answer is, because we’re hard-wired not to notice. As the first order of business for any organism is survival, our brain privileges information that appears to threaten us. As a result, we tend to focus too much on the bad news even as the good news struggles to get through. The media are so saturated with bad news—if it bleeds, it leads—because they’re vying for the amygdala’s attention.
'Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think' by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler. 400 pages. Free Press. US$26.99
Furthermore, to handle the massive influx of information we process on a moment-by-moment basis, the brain relies on heuristics. Most of the time these work. Sometimes they fail. When they fail we call them cognitive biases. As it turns out, a lot of our cognitive biases keep us pessimistic as well. The negativity bias is a tendency to give more weight to negative information and experiences than positive ones. Confirmation bias is our tendency to search for or interpret information in ways that confirms our preconceptions—which might not be so bad on its own, but when you add the media’s focus on negative news, you have a recipe for psychological disaster. This list goes on. The result is a brain that believes the end is near and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.
Full story at The Book Beast.

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