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The Case for Less

Is abundance really the solution to our problems? Creative Commons

“The future is better than you think” is the message of Peter Diamandis’s and Steven Kotler’s book. Despite a flat economy and intractable environmental problems, Diamandis and his journalist co-author are deeply optimistic about humanity’s prospects. “Technology,” they say, “has the potential to significantly raise the basic standards of living for every man, woman, and child on the planet.... Abundance for all is actually within our grasp.”

This is a lively book, and it provides an interesting, if uncritical, survey of developments across a range of technologies. We find Craig Venter, the man who sequenced the human genome, sailing around the world looking for algae that can be engineered to emit jet fuel. We explore “vertical farms,” which extend the methods perfected by pot growers to entire buildings full of crops. (Imagine Manhattan growing corn.1) And in their section on “the almighty stem cell,” the authors suggest a future in which the replacing of our organs is not dissimilar to installing a new muffler.

But Diamandis, a space entrepreneur and the co-founder of “Singularity University,” is ultimately more interested in our attitude toward the future than in scientific details. He fears that humanity is biologically wired to be pessimistic, and that it therefore cannot appreciate the capacity of “exponential technologies” (those that improve at an exponential rate) to solve humanity’s problems. By 2035, Diamandis claims, most of humanity’s problems can be solved: we can reach “an end to most of what ails us.” Those who doubt the truth of such a proposition are the avatars of “moaning pessimism,” who suffer from cognitive defects that prevent them from seeing the truth. The “linear brain,” Diamandis says, cannot “comprehend our exponential rate of progress.”

A book that preaches the “good news” of humanity’s redemption in 2035 may bring to mind more explicitly religious works. Skeptics may call it religion for geeks, where exponential technologies replace Yahweh as the Great Provider. Others may dismiss the book as a species-wide extrapolation from The Power of Positive Thinking, where cynicism is humanity’s downfall.

But the book is not so easily discounted, for it accurately reflects an important tradition that has driven American technologists since the time of Henry Ford, if not earlier. Abundance pretends to be contrarian, and it once might have been, but today it mainly reaffirms a view of society already deeply embedded in much of America’s technological elite, especially in Silicon Valley.

That view is simple to state. Humanity’s fundamental problem comes down to scarcity—not having enough of what we need and want. We need food, water, new shoes, new gadgets, and so on, and we suffer when we do not have them. That problem can and will be solved by technology, or—at an individual level—by buying or otherwise gaining access to the objects of our desires. Once our needs are met, we can all live happily ever after. As Diamandis puts it, we must imagine “a world where everyone’s days are spent dreaming and doing, not scrapping and scraping.”

Optimism is a useful motivational tool, and I see no reason to argue with Diamandis about the benefits of maintaining a sunny disposition. I also agree with both Diamandis and the New Testament that we may worry about the future more than necessary. Still, all this does not eliminate the need to ask whether the abundance program that Diamandis prescribes is actually right for humanity.

The unhappy irony is that Diamandis prescribes a program of “more” exactly at a point when a century of similar projects have begun to turn on us. To be fair, his ideas are most pertinent to the poorer parts of the world, where many suffer terribly from a lack of the basics. But in the rich and semi-rich parts of the world, it is a different story. There we are starting to see just what happens when we reach surplus levels across many categories of human desire, and it isn’t pretty. The unfortunate fact is that extreme abundance—like extreme scarcity, but in different ways—can make humans miserable. Where the abundance project has been truly successful, it has created a new host of problems that are now hitting humanity.

The worldwide obesity epidemic is our most obvious example of this “flip” from problems of scarcity to problems of surplus. Even a few decades ago, the idea of fatness as a public health problem would have seemed ridiculous. Yes, there have always been fat people, but as the scholar Benjamin Caballero writes, as late as the 1930s most nations still just wanted larger citizens. “The military and economic might of countries,” he observes, “was critically dependent on the body size and strength of their young generations, from which soldiers and workers were drawn.”2

Today the statistics on obesity are so outrageous that they seem almost unbelievable. The Centers for Disease Control find that 69 percent of American adults are overweight, and half that number obese or extremely obese. The suffering caused by extreme or morbid obesity is horrifying. Millions of people around the world (nearly seven million in the United States) have trouble moving, and may often stop breathing during sleep, and are prone to ghastly skin infections within the folds of fat, and may be unable to have sex because of hormonal imbalances or because the flab just gets in the way. While no one wants to starve, it is actually hard to say whether it is worse to be malnourished or extremely obese.

There is no single cause for obesity, but the sine qua non for it is plenty of cheap, high-calorie foods. And such foods, of course, are the byproduct of our marvelous technologies of abundance, many of them celebrated in Diamandis’s book. They are the byproducts of the “Green Revolution,” brilliant techniques in industrial farming and the genetic modification of crops. We have achieved abundance in food, and it is killing us.

Consider another problem with no precise historical equivalent: “information overload.” For most of history, humans have mainly been in a state of information scarcity. During the War of 1812, between Britain and the United States, hundreds of soldiers died during the battle of New Orleans because no one had yet heard that the war was over. People died for no reason other than want of good information. But today we sometimes have too much information, and phrases such as “Internet addiction” describe people who are literally unable to stop consuming information even though it is destroying their lives. Consider the case of a Hawaii man named Craig Smallwood who, in 2010, sued the developer of an online game named Lineage II for failing to warn him of its addictive qualities. Claiming that he played twenty thousand hours over five years (more than ten hours a day), Smallwood said that the game left him “unable to function independently in usual daily activities.”3

That is a bizarre extreme, of course; but many of us suffer from milder versions of information overload. Nicolas Carr, in The Shallows, made a persuasive case that the excessive availability of information has begun to re-program our brains, creating serious issues for memory and attention span. Where people were once bored, we now face too many entertainment choices, creating a strange misery aptly termed “the paradox of choice” by the psychologist Barry Schwartz. We have achieved the information abundance that our ancestors craved, and it is driving us insane.

Scarce credit—the inability of individuals to borrow money—has long been regarded by economists as among the principal obstacles to economic growth. Hence the “credit revolution” of the twentieth century—a series of inventions that made credit abundant and easily available not just to institutions but also to any individual consumer. Fannie Mae was a clever invention of the 1930s, designed to make it easier for banks to lend money to people who wanted to buy homes. The last century yielded an amazing range of new credit technologies that we now take for granted, such as credit cards, electronic payment systems, and the securitization of mortgages. These inventions, until recent years, managed at long last to make enormous amounts of personal credit available to nearly everyone.

Abundant credit is surely a blessing and essential to economic growth. Yet anyone who reads a newspaper cannot fail to be aware of the systemic downsides. Americans were once known as thrifty; today, personal debt is a leading source of misery. There are more than 1.1 billion credit cards in the United States, and a survey last year suggested that 24 percent of Americans have not just more debt, but more credit card debt, than savings. The amount of household debt held in the United States is about $11.3 trillion, comparable to the amount of government debt held by the public, $12 trillion. The result is that, despite greater actual wealth than ever before, and more access to credit, it is not uncommon for Americans to feel desperate and poor, like the indebted servitors of centuries past.

Those are the personal consequences. At a wider level, a century of technological abundance has failed in its promise to solve problems of disparity, and has actually exacerbated inequalities. While it cannot be denied that the inventions of the last half-century have done much to increase the size of the pie, they have also done much less to distribute it, particularly since the 1970s. The mathematics of more means that the potential for relative disparity has increased. Those with less do have more than before—but relative disparity, or feeling much poorer than others, is a different kind of problem. More of everything has simply made possible disparity on a different scale.

None of this should be taken to downplay the triumphs of the great abundance project of the last century. In the rich parts of the world, most do not fear starvation or a lack of the basics, for perhaps the first time in human history. That is nothing to overlook. Yet it has also many side effects and unintended consequences that we are just beginning to understand fully. If the old world of scarcity yielded a mass population that was hungry, bored, and impoverished, our current surpluses lead to a population that is fat, in debt, overwhelmed, and swamped with too much stuff.

This very idea that too much of what we want can be a bad thing is hard to accept. It seems like a problem that is nice to have: surely we would rather have too much than too little. The miserable in Dickens’s times—malnourished, impoverished, overworked—had the right to blame social conditions and demand change. But in today’s richer world, if you are overweight, in debt, and overwhelmed, there is no one to blame but yourself. Go on a diet, stop watching cable, and pay off your credit card—that’s the answer. In short, we think of scarcity problems as real, and surplus problems as matters of self-control.

That may account for the current popularity of books designed to help readers control themselves. The most interesting among them is Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, which was explicitly written as a response to the challenges of our times. “People feel overwhelmed because there are more temptations than ever,” Baumeister and Tierney argue. “You can put off any job by checking e-mail or Facebook, surfing gossip sites, or playing a video game,” not to mention the lure of “alcohol, tobacco, Cinnabons, and cocktail waitresses.”

Willpower offers observations, backed by scientific studies, that cannot fail to be fascinating to anyone who has ever wondered where the last hour went. The authors suggest that one’s willpower is less an abstraction and more like an actual muscle that must be trained and can fail. The book’s most profound sections describe a phenomenon that they call “ego depletion,” a state of mental exhaustion where bad decisions are made. It turns out that being forced to make constant decisions is what causes ego depletion. So if willpower is a muscle, making too many decisions in one day is the equivalent of blowing out your hamstrings with too many squats.4

The best advice that the authors of Willpower offer is this: yes, you can improve your powers of self-control, but don’t expect too much. Rather, they recommend avoiding situations that cause ego-depletion altogether. And here is where we find the link between Abundance and Willpower.

Over the last century, mainly through the abundance project, we have created a world where avoiding constant decisions is nearly impossible. We have created environments that are designed to destroy our powers of self-control by creating constant choices among abundant options. The path of least resistance leads to a pile of debt, a fat body, and an enormous cable bill; strenuous daily efforts are required to avoid that fate. The result is a negative feedback loop: we have more than ever, and therefore need more self-control than ever, but the abundance we’ve created destroys our ability to resist. It is a setup that Sisyphus might have actually envied.

One possible solution is to double-down on the self-control, and train ourselves to better resist temptation and stick with the program. But, as even Baumeister and Tierney admit, there are good reasons to suspect that relying on willpower alone will not work in an environment designed to destroy it. For, as Baumeister and Tierney make clear, self-control is highly fallible at the best of times. A German study found that using willpower to resist a specific temptation failed half the time. (And those were Germans!) Humans have tested and tried self-control in the face of temptation, and it has repeatedly been found wanting. After decades of dieting and good nutrition, Americans are fatter than ever. And the authors of Willpower make the reason clear: we have created conditions that exhaust our willpower, more or less guaranteeing failure.

Moreover, the development of extreme self-control can have some unpleasant side-effects. Baumeister and Tierney don’t discuss anorexia nervosa, but they do concede that willpower’s greatest twentieth-century advocate was Hitler, and that his greatest propaganda film was named Triumph of the Will. Self-control is no doubt the first line of defense in an age of abundance. But if surviving in modern times takes the iron will of a Nazi stormtrooper, perhaps we should ask why we made things this way in the first place.

It is time, as Baumeister and Tierney would agree, to think systematically about the human environments that we are creating with technological powers only imagined by previous generations. At this point, using our powers to create still more of everything—the prescription of Abundance—is simply to add fuel to the fire. It is time to take seriously the problems of overload and excess as collective, social challenges, even though they may be our own creations.

When facing a systemic challenge, the classic answer is to deploy government, as the representative of the people. Measures such as New York City’s proposed ban on large bottles of soda is exactly such a measure. It is a good start, but there are limits as to what government can do and to what Americans will accept as solutions dictated by elected officials. It is challenging for centralized institutions to manage such subtle matters as information overload and lack of time.

The fact is that our technology industries do far more to determine how we live on a daily basis than government does. For that reason, it is increasingly the duty of the technology industry and the technologists to take seriously the challenge of human overload, and to give it as much attention as the abundance project. It is the first great challenge for post-scarcity thinkers.

Consider that the most successful tech companies of the twentieth century were instruments of abundance, firms such as Archer Daniels Midland, General Motors, and Procter & Gamble. Those firms and their technologies will not disappear. But many of the most successful firms of the twenty-first will be different. They will be augmenters of human will, engineers of self-management, and agents of more effective self-control. Their mission is to liberate humans from the sufferings created by too much.

If I am right, then the future of technology will be different than the one forecast in Abundance. Using the technologies that Diamandis describes, there will indeed be, as he says, much more of everything by 2035. But that will be only one side of the picture—the producers, who will generate more and more of what humans crave. On the other side will be the technologies of self-control, which seek to augment humanity’s powers to deal with too many choices and with too much of what we want. It may sound crazy, but our technologies are always extensions of ourselves, and humans are strange and conflicted creatures.

So advanced are our technological powers that we will be increasingly trying to create access to abundance and to limit it at the same time. Sometimes we must create both the thesis and the antithesis to go in the right direction. We have spent the last century creating an abundance that exceeds any human scale, and now technologists must turn their powers to controlling our, or their, creation.

Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School and the author, most recently, of The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (Knopf).

  1. Interesting depictions of how cities would look with vertical farms can be found here.
  2. Here is Caballero’s full assessment of “the global obesity epidemic.”
  3. Smallwood’s legal complaint, brought without a lawyer, survived a motion to dismiss.
  4. The original academic paper on ego depletion is an interesting read and relies on a radish/chocolate experiment.