If it bleeds, it leads

August 11, 2014

The old newspaper adage has more to do with us than with journalism. At least that’s one conclusion from Abundance: The Future is  Better than You Think. The 2012 book by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kolter. Diamandis is an engineer, physician, entrepreneur, and founder and chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation. I had been meaning to read his book for some time, and a recent remote working assignment away from the office gave me the perfect excuse.

Abundance presents a rare, positive look at our future and at how much progress our civilization has made, particularly in the past 50 years. It all goes under-reported, though, because Diamandis believes we are predisposed to negative biases by a primitive structure in our brain that is ever vigilant, searching for danger above all else. No matter the good, it’s our brain that allows the bad to dominate our attention, much of which is focused by the media.

His account comes at a particularly disturbing time, as disease ravages western Africa, the Middle East is inflamed in war, and the U.S. is being called back to clean up its mess. All disconcerting. But consider this: The 1918 Influenza Pandemic killed 50 to 100 million people, three to five percent of the world’s population.

The latest Ebola outbreak has killed 2,000. Tragic and worthy of international concern and action, but not insurmountable. And neither is the prospect of war. From 1950 to 2007, there was an average of 148,000 global battlefield deaths per year; from 2008 to 2012, the average was 28,000, the latest number I can find.

But as Diamandis might point out, the suggested outcome of much doomsday reporting never comes to pass because we do often act to correct problems, acid rain and the ozone hole being great examples. But it’s our primitive brain and its negative bias that precludes us from imagining solutions to seemingly intractable challenges.

For instance, he tells the story of Londoners panicked in the late 1900s because the city was becoming uninhabitable, thanks to horse manure. They had no way of knowing that the technology of the car would render their worries unwarranted. And this was before the advent of 24/7 news reporting — 90 percent of which is bad, playing to our negative bias.

Don’t let your primitive brain fool you. The truth is much of the world is better off today than it was 50 years ago. As Diamandis notes, in India, the number of high income middle-class households now exceeds the number of low-income middle class households. He’s realistic, in that much of the underdeveloped world still suffers from huge challenges: disease, malnutrition, and incredibly low living standards.

But for each of the major problems facing our generation, Diamandis offers solutions. Perhaps the greatest solutions rest with Moore’s Law, the fact that technology tends to double every two years. He cites that as the solution to the problem of how America visited the moon in 1969. At the outset of the effort, NASA scientists and engineers didn’t even know the technological challenges they would face on their decade-long mission. They did, however, believe that the rate of technological development would lead them to a solution. Just like Diamandis believes that the rate of technological change can solve many of the issues we face, including feeding our planet, providing the world with potable water, and averting climate calamities.

But you aren’t about to find any of that good news in the nightly news, and it’s not the media’s fault. Rather, it’s biology that drives our focus on the negative to the exclusion of stories of hope and triumphs … of African tribesmen who now use their cell phones to find fertile grazing lands, vastly increasing their family’s wealth, small but incalculably important to his family.

Perhaps our greatest challenge is finding ways to overcome our own bias for the negative … especially among smart, young people who seem to view science as a way to validate our problems instead of the key to safeguarding our future. And a media that understands how to transform negativity into commerce. After all, it’s all in our mind, isn’t it?

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