Guru Madhaven: I am delighted to introduce this special interview. Our guest today is Steven Kotler. Director of Research for the Flow Genome Project, he is a best selling author and award-winning journalist. A self described “adventure junkie. Steven’s articles have appeared in over 60 publications including the NY Times, Wired, GQ, and National Geographic. His recent non-fiction book – the topic for today, is Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, which he co-authored with X-Prize founder, Peter Diamandis. He also writes The Playing Field, a blog about the science of sport for PsychologyToday.com.
Our guest interviewer today is Dustin Eirdosh, a graduate student at the University of Kassel in Witzenhausen, Germany. Dustin is examining the interconnections of emergent technology and animal agriculture from an evolutionary perspective. He is the author of the blog MythicMeats.com, and is currently working with team of volunteers to build the Abundance Hub; an on-line community based on the book by Peter Diamandis and our guest, Steven Kotler.
Dustin, the floor is yours.
Dustin Eirdosh (DE): Thank you Guru, and welcome to our guest, Steven Kotler.
I’d like to begin by just exploring how you have personally come develop an understanding of evolution, and; given your incredibly diverse background, how have you made connections between evolution your numerous areas of inquiry?
Steven Kotler (SK): The place to start is with the fact that; I was never a great student. I had a lot of trouble in high school and college, even in grad school. I don’t learn very well microscopic to macroscopic. I’m a macroscopic learner – so I need a big top down overview. I didn’t know this, nobody knew this – how I figured this out was; I was covering an oil war in the Amazon, or rather I was covering eco-tourism in the Amazon, very early in my writing career. I was headed to the Galapagos afterwards and as a way to sort of prep for the trip, I was reading David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo – which is an intro to island biogeography, and a really great history of evolutionary theory tucked into one. I got stuck in the Amazon because an oil war broke out, and so I basically volunteered for a bunch of entomologists working the in area; I said “look I’m here, we can’t get out of here without getting killed; why do you use me as a grad student?”. So – they did, and along the way I was kind of taught systems biology – and for the very first time, since I had just had all of this island biogeography and evolutionary theory from David’s book, everything all of a sudden clicked. For the first time in my life, I actually felt smart, because I could finally understand everything from a macroscopic framework; and that was the beginning of my career as a science journalist. Since then, when ever I encounter a problem; I always start out with an evolutionary framework, and most of the smartest people I know do as well.
DE: Great, I completely agree! So, before we get into the meat behind your book Abundance; could you just expand a little bit more on your career and how you’ve brought evolutionary science into some of your other work – for example the organisation you have founded; The Flow Genome Project?
SK: Well, the flow states, what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called the flow states; which are commonly defined as those points in time when actions and awareness merge; where you are so involved in what you are doing – self disappears; everything takes place in the now, there’s no past, no future. Sometimes time tends to dialate, speeds up or slows down – and then all kinds of other things can happen along the way. [The flow states] sit at the center of everything I do. The Flow Genome Project is an attempt to reverse engineer the genome of flow by 2020; it’s an international group of us who are working towards this. So flow states are at the center of everything; and very early on when I was looking at flow states; when I was writing West of Jesus; one of my questions was: Where do flow states come from? Why did they evolve? I picked up this theme again in Small Furry Creatures; my next book on the relationships of humans and animals. Flow states kind of do a lot of funky things; including expanding empathy, and widening our sphere of caring. So, I’m very interested in questions about group selection, and empathy and altruism; and obviously those are very evolutionary questions. So that has deeply informed a lot of my work along the way as well.
DE: Fascinating! So now let’s bring in the topic of your latest book – co-authored with Peter Diamandis: Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think. In the book, you place great emphasis on the exponential nature of information technologies; the spill over this is having into many spheres of life, and how we can understand this important change dynamic from an evolutionary perspective. Can you give our readers a little overview of what you mean by exponential technologies and how this all fits together?
SK: Well – let me back it up a step further, and sort of give a macroscopic overview of Abundance; then we can talk about exponential technologies; then we can talk about evolution.
DE: Sounds good.
SK: The quick version of what Abundance is about; it’s about four emerging forces that give everyone on this planet the power and opportunity to significantly increase global standards of living over the next 20-40 years. By Abundance we don’t mean Trump Towers and Mercedes Benz; we mean meeting and exceeding the needs of every man, woman, and child on the planet. The four forces we look at are:
• The new found power of the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) innovator
• The rise of the techno-philanthropist class
• A group we call the rising billion, or what some people refer to as the ‘bottom billion’ – or the so-called poorest people on earth
and under pinning these three sort of market forces, is our forth force:
• Exponentially growing technologies
Most people sort of know about [exponential technologies] because of Moore’s Law. In 1965, Gordon Moore figures out the the number of transistors on a computer chip is doubling every year since the birth of the computer industry and predicts this will keep going for another 10 years. Turns out it kept going for 50 more years – and it’s still going. What Ray Kurzweil figured out, and probably drove home more than anyone else – is the exact same kind of exponential growth curve can explain why the cell phone in your pocket costs about $200 and is more powerful and faster than a $60 million dollar supper computer from the 70’s – and underpins all information technologies. So this means that – incredibly, incredibly powerful technologies like Artificial Inteligence (AI), robotics, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and on and on and on; are all advancing along exponential lines.
As we point out in the book – these lines are very deceptive. The brain is hardwired, from an evolutionary perspective – because we evolved in an environment that was local and linear; local meaning everything that happened, happened within a days walk; linear meaning if you took thirty linear steps, you ended up thirty steps away. The difference in an exponential world; take thirty exponential steps, you end up orbiting the earth 26 times. Thats a pretty big difference – so our brain doesn’t really understand it. When we are talking about these technologies able to advance global standards of living advancing at this incredibly accelerated rate; it’s hard to believe it – until you start thinking about the billion dollar companies that have gone out of existence, or the new ones that have sprung up over night – this is really astounding to me. Exponential technologies have obviously made the hugest impact on information and communication technologies. Right now, a Masai warrior with a cell phone in Kenya has better access to information and communication technologies than the President of the United States did 25 years ago; and if they’re on a cell phone with access to google; they have better access to information than the President did 15 years ago. That’s Clinton! That’s the power of exponential technologies.
DE: So then let’s just try to put this into an evolutionary context – in your book you sort of seem to characterise this exponential growth of information technologies as an evolutionary force, or at least a logical extension of evolutionary trends – would you agree to characterise it in this way?
SK: Well – we don’t describe exponential technologies as an evolutionary force; though Ray [Kurzweil] does, and we would tend to agree with him on this. Right – it tends to be – if you look at how life has expanded exponentially – and sort of tracks on these same exponential curves, and Ray has done extensive work on this and it certainly underpins [our work].
What we were really more looking at was this second question – what we called the tools of cooperation. Which just that as life has evolved, it’s developed greater and greater ways to cooperate. And you can see this at every level, from Lynn Marguilis’ work with the cell, all the way up to now; in the 20th century – where this finally starts to intersect is where we finally started to develop these tools of cooperation. First being the transportation network, second being the information communication network – these are unlike anything the world has ever seen. So we talk about our urge toward cooperation, sort of in the way that Robert Wright talks about it in Non-Zero, and Martin Nowak thinks about it in SuperCooperators, seems to be built into us.
DE: And this spirit of cooperation really seems to be core to the argumentation around the claim you make in the subtitle: The Future is Better Than You Think. Perhaps most all of us want the future to be better than we think – but I do find that I have really hard time selling people on this idea. For the technologically skeptical, it may seem like Abundance is about finding that next quick fix solution – can you talk about this?
SK: Ok, there are really two things here; there’s the present and there’s the future. Why don’t we take them one at a time. The question of the present is interesting. You do hear these kind of apocalyptic predictions everywhere. There’s doom and gloom everywhere. When Peter and I wrote this book – the goal was to change people’s mindsets; both about what’s possible, and about where we are now. And we not – let’s be perfectly clear – we are not saying that the problems the world is facing are no gigantic. This is in no way, shape, or form, a techno-utopianist book where you ignore the data and say technology is going to fix everything. That is not what we did.
Let’s talk about the present for a second. Right now, in the past 100 years, longevity has doubled; child mortality has dropped by 90%, and maternal mortality by 99%, food is 13 times cheaper, transportation is 100 fold cheaper, telecom is 1000 times cheaper- and this list goes on and on and on. Even if you look at Americans; at the poverty line today, many people under the poverty line still have access to an air conditioner, running water, flushing toilet, a car, a television – things that 100 years ago the richest people on earth wouldn’t have. So our point is – the present is a hell of a lot better than people think. And I think [Steven] Pinker’s point is the same; violence has dropped 100 fold since the middle ages – a lot of people have been pointing these things out. Matt Ridley did some of this early research for The Rational Optimist. So part of what we were trying to get people to do is to look at where we are now in historical terms – because once you do – it’s pretty astounding.
DE: And for our readers who want to check out the book, download the first chapter for free, and learn more about our guest Steven Kotler and his Co-author, Peter Diamandis; check out www.AbundanceTheBook.com. Steven, thank you so much for joing us today.
Steven Kotler is Director of Research for the Flow Genome Project and is a best selling author and award-winning journalist. A self described “adventure junkie. Steven’s articles have appeared in over 60 publications including the NY Times, Wired, GQ, and National Geographic. His recent non-fiction book – the topic for today, is Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, which he co-authored with X-Prize founder, Peter Diamandis. He also writes The Playing Field, a blog about the science of sport for PsychologyToday.com