Though I was a bit distracted by the Hackathon, I still managed to listen to and watch several talks from TED while out in Palm Springs.  Here are a couple of brief notes and opinions, and links to the talks themselves from when available.
Paul Gilding: It is probably not surprising that I didn’t much enjoy Gilding’s talk.  For one, I don’t agree with his central thesis: that the earth is full.  Indeed, writing from a small apartment in NY and thinking home to Oregon, I know just how much farther we have to expand.  Anyone who says the earth is full needs to take a flight across America and contemplate the vast reaches where essentially no one lives.

But even if earth was full, we would simply expand outward.  We will find new tech, compete with new species and with ourselves, and grow.  Or we will die out, as other species have.  And all of these will be natural outgrowths and acceptable ends.  Gilding asked us to question what our children would think, but as I look back at the generations before me, I don’t have the same “why didn’t they do anything?” sensation.  I have argued for years that the bombing of Japan was unnecessary and resulted from the misunderstanding of Japanese culture but I look at it as a mistake, a terrible and tragic one, that taught the world lessons that have helped us become better.

Gilding’s lesson only works if we suppose that the earth will really “go dark” and hit a low so terrible that we simply cannot recover.  But I cannot imagine what even it is that he imagines that would cause that.  Even terribly apocalyptic views, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, have within them a continued human civilization that will re-evolve.  I’m just not on the same page.

Peter Diamandis: In many ways a rebuttal to Gilding’s talk by someone I think is better informed, Diamandis points out over and over again how things are actually getting better (despite the media’s perpetual coverage of disaster).  The standard up-and-to-the-right trend talk isn’t really the interesting bit unless you’re unfamiliar with all the many sources of information that point to things getting better for mankind.

The part where I get interested is not about state but rather trajectory.  Diamandis’ argument against Gilding is essentially this: why would we assume that doing more or less the same thing (advancement and consumption) would result in radically different results than it has previously harvested (the downfall of mankind)?  That’s a dramatic over-consumption and of course there are reasons to pay attention to consumption, but I can’t help but think about Star Trek: The Next Generation.  It may seem like a step, but in the iconic series, the moment of transcendence for humans was when we figured out how to get around the resource barrier and we could create almost anything for anyone.

I don’t think we’re really all that far from that, at least in the basic sense.  If we take the long view on technology, there is every reason to believe that we’ll figure out fusion in the next 100 years.  And with virtually limitless power, a great many other things become possible, like transportation of crops across long distances and the fabrication of materials at high energy costs and low waste.  Instead of focusing on pulling back, let us proceed ever onward, for the good of all those who are not sitting at the top of this hill.

3 replies
  1. Steve Nelson
    Steve Nelson says:

    In Gilding’s case, “full” doesn’t mean volume, it means full vs other measures of capacity; that’s the fallacy of measuring “full” against the vast expanses of land you fly over. When you see a flatbed truck with one small but heavy load balanced over its axles, it is “full”, though if you were a bug you could fly over vast expanses of the flatbed and assume that the truck still had plenty of room. Add more load to the flatbed and you risk collapse. It looks like this truck still had plenty of room:

  2. matt
    matt says:

    I like the flatbed analogy, so let’s stick with it. My Diamandis interpretation, contra Gilding, is “we’re pretty smart, with a long track record of innovation. We’ll either build a flatbed with better suspension, spread the load out, start moving things by airplane instead, or find one of a hundred other solutions that still allows the load to be carried in a way that doesn’t cause catastrophe.” My point about wide empty spaces is that we actually have the pieces that we need and that we have plenty of time to learn how to shift loads, build better trucks, etc. – the situation is not nearly so desire as Gilding seems to believe.

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