Sunday, January 20, 2013

Exponentially Bad? Exponentially Good?

Some argue that we're entering an age of exponential growth in technologies that will transform everything for the better. This argument is summarized well in the book Abundance by Diamandis and Kotler.  As summarized on the Amazon site:
"We will soon be able to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman and child on the planet. Abundance for all is within our grasp. This bold, contrarian view, backed up by exhaustive research, introduces our near-term future, where exponentially growing technologies and three other powerful forces are conspiring to better the lives of billions." 
I admire the writers and can, without much persuasion, find myself understanding their argument.

However, I can also understand and sympathize with the other side of the argument. Blogger Dave Pollard recently had a post that fundamentally agreed with the first part of the argument - exponential growth is changing everything - but, Pollard argues, it is going to lead to a fundamental collapse:
"There is something seemingly unfathomable to the human mind about exponential curves. As I wrote last fall:
There is an old story about the invention of the chessboard, in which the inventor as his reward asks for one grain of wheat on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and doubling until all 64 squares are full. The seemingly modest request adds up to many times more than all the wheat the world has ever produced. The purpose of the story is to teach about our inability to grasp the impact and unsustainability of accelerating increases in anything, particularly in the final stages. Even when more than half of the squares have been filled the inventor’s request still seems manageable. It is only when it is too late that its impossibility is realized.
 Even when almost all the squares have been filled, the request still seems manageable. We are now living in a world where almost all the squares have been filled. We have used up the easy-to-get half of the Earth’s resources, which accumulated over billions of years. We have used most of that in the last two centuries, and most of that in the last two decades. In the process we have destabilized the planet’s climate systems. We are nearing what is now being called “peak everything”."
 And here is Chris Hedges, The Myth of Human Progress, @ Truthdig:
"The human species, led by white Europeans and Euro-Americans, has been on a 500-year-long planetwide rampage of conquering, plundering, looting, exploiting and polluting the Earth—as well as killing the indigenous communities that stood in the way. But the game is up. The technical and scientific forces that created a life of unparalleled luxury—as well as unrivaled military and economic power—for the industrial elites are the forces that now doom us. The mania for ceaseless economic expansion and exploitation has become a curse, a death sentence. But even as our economic and environmental systems unravel, after the hottest year in the contiguous 48 states since record keeping began 107 years ago, we lack the emotional and intellectual creativity to shut down the engine of global capitalism."
It's tempting to make this a glass half empty or glass half full argument.  But, it's more.  What interests me is how to prepare for both possibilities?  I have young children, which world do you prepare them for?  Perhaps, the best we can do is first go to where there is some agreement - change will no longer be incremental, it will be exponential - then, prepare myself, and my family, to be able to adjust and adapt.  How do you rapidly learn and unlearn?  How do you black swan proof your life?"

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