Infinite Progress: How the Internet and Technology Will End Ignorance, Disease, Poverty, Hunger, and War

Infinite Progress: How the Internet and Technology Will End Ignorance, Disease, Poverty, Hunger, and War

by Byron Reese

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For years we’ve been inundated with bleak forecasts about the future. But in this electrifying new book, author Byron Reese debunks the pessimistic outlook as dangerous, and shows instead how technology will soon create a dramatically better world for every person on earth, beyond anything we have dared to imagine.

With the art of a storyteller, Reese

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For years we’ve been inundated with bleak forecasts about the future. But in this electrifying new book, author Byron Reese debunks the pessimistic outlook as dangerous, and shows instead how technology will soon create a dramatically better world for every person on earth, beyond anything we have dared to imagine.

With the art of a storyteller, Reese synthesizes history, technology, and sociology into an exciting, fast-moving narrative that shows how technological change has had dramatic effects on humanity in the past. He then looks forward at the technological changes we know are coming?from genetics, nanotechnology, robotics, and many other fields?and explores how they will vastly increase wealth, prolong our lifespans, redefine human rights, and alter the social fabric of the world.  

Reese explains how the Internet, human ingenuity, and technological innovation will help us forever end the five historic plagues of human existence: ignorance, disease, poverty, hunger, and war. With a rational and researched optimism, Reese sees the future not as a world in a downward spiral, but as destined for progress beyond our imaginations.

As Reese looks forward, he notes that “we are gaining speed, not winding down. We are blooming, not withering, as we leverage the greatest natural resource on the planet: the human mind.”

The future of Earth’s inhabitants has never been brighter. If you want to get excited about the future, then this is the book for you.

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Editorial Reviews

Stephen Wolfram

"Infinite Progress is a prophetic book that deserves to be widely read.  Drawing on Byron Reese's insights about both technology and history, its energetic optimism about the future is a wonderful inspiration." --Stephen Wolfram, founder and CEO of Wolfram Research, creator of Mathematica and ANew Kind of Science and creator of Wolfram/Alpha.
Premal Shah

“Byron Reese provides an essential road map for the intersection of social change and emerging technologies. For every nonprofit like Kiva, leveraging technology is key to accomplishing the missions we dedicate our lives to. Infinite Progress is the critical guide to understanding how new technologies can help solve some of the world’s oldest challenges.”

—Premal Shah, president of Kiva

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Greenleaf Book Group Press
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How the Internet and Technology Will End Ignorance, Disease, Poverty, Hunger, and War

Greenleaf Book Group Press

Copyright © 2013 Byron Reese
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60832-404-0

Chapter One


This book is unusual for two reasons. First, in the magnitude of what it claims, and second, in the degree to which it differs from what pessimists predict.

I make the predictions in this book not to be sensational or controversial. I make them because I believe I can back them up with convincing proofs and arguments. To lay the foundation for those arguments, I offer five simple premises—optimistic yet realistic assertions about the predictive nature of history, the infinite promise of technology, and the power of humanity to wield new technologies to create this world of infinite progress.

Premise One: Futurists Often Get It Wrong

Premise Two: History Can Help Us Get It Right

Premise Three: Internet Technology + Human Ingenuity = Infinite Promise

Premise Four: Accelerating Progress Is Inevitable

Premise Five: The New Renaissance Has Begun

Futurists Often Get It Wrong

For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see, saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be. –Alfred Lord Tennyson

Let's face it: Futurists as a whole have a pretty poor track record. I think it is because they traditionally make one of two fatal errors in their approach to predicting the future.

The first error is to assert that history unfolds in a basically linear fashion, that there is a fundamental continuity between the past, present, and future. This viewpoint seems reasonable because it is largely consistent with our everyday experience of life. But while this approach is fairly reliable across relatively short spans of time, it is almost always spectacularly wrong when used for longer-range predictions. For example:

• In 1894, a writer studying population growth in large cities along with the rising need of horse-drawn conveyances such as taxis and carriages concluded that in fifty years, every street in London would be buried under nine feet of horse manure. He didn't know the car was coming.

• In the 1930s, the resulting decrease in birthrates brought about by the economic malaise of the Great Depression led social commentators to predict an end to the human race, fed by a decrease in procreation. They didn't foresee the baby boom brought about by a new post-war prosperity.

• A wild-eyed, crazed techno-optimist of the nineteenth century concluded that in fifty years there would be a telephone in every town in America. He didn't foresee the consumer demand for the telephone or its massive decline in price.

I don't cite these examples to mock these prognosticators. They were faithful straight liners. I include them to point out that history is discontinuous. It lulls you into thinking that things behave in a straight-line predictable way, and just when it looks like you have it all worked out, along comes an unforeseen, game-changing event, and WHAM!, it hits you upside the head.

The second methodology error that futurists often commit is the exact opposite of the first. This viewpoint acknowledges that history unfolds in a discontinuous manner and so assumes it must be random, arbitrary, and unpredictable. Therefore, any projection about what might happen is deemed legitimate. After all, who knows?

This approach is even more flawed than the first. Bad science fiction plots, speculating on futures which could not really happen, are the worst examples of this. These are easy to spot: They rely on huge conceptual leaps without a framework to support them. Or astounding technological breakthroughs that have no precedent in reality. Or radical shifts in human behavior or human nature, which will never happen. Books based on this "wouldn't-it-be-great-if ..." approach to the future are works of pure faith or pure fiction, not of reason. While entertaining, they are never, ever correct.

A third way to predict the future that I believe is reliable rejects both the slavish following of the straight line and the purely speculative approach. This third way is based on the principle that it is possible to see the future by accepting discontinuity but not unpredictability.

Imagine if someone had come to you on January 1, 1991, and said, "Before the end of the year, the Soviet Union will vote itself into nonexistence and peacefully break into fifteen republics. The defining political struggle of the world for nearly half a century will end without a shot fired, and Russia itself will reject Communism as a failed system."

You would have thought this was crazy. So would have I. So would have everyone. It seemed as if no one saw that coming because, frankly, no one could conceive of it happening.

But wait! A few people did see it coming. In 1970, Andrei Amalrik, a Russian writer and dissident, wrote an essay entitled "Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?" in which he concluded of the USSR that "the logical result will be its death, which will be followed by anarchy." His timeframe was off by a few years, but his prediction was right.

History is full of radical breaks with the past that only seem to have come out of nowhere but were, in fact, predictable.

What if you were a pilot who had met the Wright brothers as a child and someone had come to you in 1944, when every plane you had ever seen had a propeller, and said, "In twenty-five years, we will walk on the moon." You would have said that was crazy. And yet, that happened. As impossible as it must have seemed to most people in the 1940s, a few people in that era in fact foresaw the moon landing. They made their predictions mindful of both the non-linear increases in aircraft speed already being seen and their beliefs about the potential output of the new technology of jet engines.

Discontinuity happens, but it is not unpredictable. I believe we are living at a peculiar time, with many discontinuous breaks about to happen. I further believe the aggregate effect of these breaks will forever change life on this planet and usher in a new Golden Age for humanity.

How will we see these discontinuities coming? By looking, in part, at history.

History Can Help Us Get It Right

Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future, too. –Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor, second century

I don't use history to predict the future, like some talisman that lets me pick winning lottery numbers (don't I wish). But I do use history to guide my thinking and reasoning and to inform what I imagine of the future.

I don't dispute the cliché, "Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it." However, I often have thought that a second sentence should follow: "Also, those who do know history are doomed to repeat it." This is because history repeats itself—at least, as the great historian Will Durant says, "in outline form."

Why is it that history repeats itself? It repeats itself because it is the record of the choices of people. And because human nature changes either not at all or very slowly, people make the same choices over and over again.

When we look at this record of the choices of people, we see a wide range of behaviors. It shows us at our best and at our cruelest. Noble, wretched, magnanimous, heartless, petty, generous, self-sacrificing, and selfish. It is the record of innumerable conflicts and resolutions and a chronicle of uncounted victories and defeats.

Because history is a record of the choices of people, it generally holds that when we put people in similar circumstances, they will make basically the same choices. In short, it tells us everything about ourselves. It's all there. The historian Will Durant described it remarkably in his 1945 radio broadcast called "Invitation to History." It is well worth listening to, but you can get a sense of it in this transcribed passage:

It is a mistake to think that the past is dead. Nothing that has ever happened is quite without influence at this moment. The present is merely the past rolled up and concentrated in this second of time. You, too, are your past; often your face is your autobiography; you are what you are because of what you have been; because of your heredity stretching back into forgotten generations; because of every element of environment that has affected you, every man or woman that has met you, every book that you have read, every experience that you have had; all these are accumulated in your memory, your body, your character, your soul. So with a city, a country, a race; it is its past, and cannot be understood without it. It is the present, not the past, that dies; this present moment, to which we give so much attention, is forever flitting from our eyes and fingers into that pedestal and matrix of our lives which we call the past. It is only the past that lives.

Therefore I feel that we of this generation give too much time to news about the transient present, too little to the living past. We are choked with news, and starved of history ...

Examining history is not like gazing into some fantasy crystal ball, where what we see is prophetic in detail. But history does give us plenty of patterns of behavior and examples of cause and effect, and in those patterns and examples we usually can find ones that approximate our circumstances. I refer to history extensively in these pages because I believe historical people are exactly like us, only in different circumstances. Thus their actions, when placed in situations like ours, show what we would do. At the very least, history can clearly show the range of outcomes that are likely.

This will be extremely useful, because the game, as they say, has just changed completely.

Internet Technology + Human Ingenuity = Infinite Promise

The beginning of wisdom lies in calling things by their right name. –Chinese proverb

According to, the Internet is "a vast computer network linking smaller computer networks worldwide."

It is an interesting definition, for in it there is no clue as to what this device is for—what the Internet actually does. Contrast it to the definition of another piece of similar, albeit older, technology—namely, the telegraph, which defines (in part) as "an apparatus ... for transmitting messages or signals to a distant place."

Do you see the difference? Bound up in the very definition of the telegraph is its purpose.

Why is the Internet so sterilely defined? Why is it only described as a mechanical device divorced from any purpose? It would be tempting to say this is an effect of the relative newness of the Internet, reflecting a time not long ago when we literally had to explain to less digital friends exactly what it was.

But this is not really a satisfying answer. The consumer Internet is roughly two decades old. If we go back and look at definitions of the telegraph when it was a similar age, we discover that Noah Webster's 1828 American Dictionary defined it as "an apparatus ... for communicating intelligence rapidly between distant points." So, what the telegraph does is in its definition even at its early age.

I submit that the Internet is not defined in that way because it is a technology without an implicit purpose. Its purpose is neither evident nor predetermined; its purpose must be imputed to it. A telegraph exists only to transmit messages—in short, it is what it does. The Internet is whatever we make it to be.

When new technology comes out, we generally understand it in terms of what it displaces. This is not a shortcoming of our imaginations but rather a simple reality. When contemplating the future, our only point of reference is present reality. Whether things in the future stay the same as they are today or change from what they are today, both are understood in terms of the current reality.

Thus, when television first came out, people said it was "radio with pictures." The first cars were called "horseless carriages." Telephones, when they first appeared, were called "talking telegraphs." Then when telephones became untethered, they were "wireless telephones." ATMs replaced human bank tellers, so they are called "Automated Teller Machines." E-mail is electronic mail. The list is long.

Sometimes the new technology so overwhelms the old that when looking back, we explain the old technology in terms of the new. Diapers weren't called "cloth diapers" until disposable ones came out. All corn used to be "corn on the cob" until canned corn came along. And the U.S. Postal Service delivered mail until the electronic age demoted it to "snail mail."

When we only understand the new technology in terms of the old, how we use the new technology is also solely an extension of how we used the old technology. Because television was radio with pictures, the first television shows were simply men in suits standing in front of microphones reading the news. It took a decade or two for the new medium to be seen in light of itself, not just in terms of what it displaced.

Even most futurists have fallen into this trap. The 1920s to 1950s renderings of what people thought the future would look like are full of things like personal jetpacks and flying cars. Because the major technological advances occurring in those eras were related to transportation, that's what they thought of when pondering technological advance. And I think that helps explain why no one quite foresaw the rise of the Internet: because it doesn't have an offline corollary of its own. The future of cars? Flying cars, faster cars, more features in cars, we all get that. But what could you have seen in the 1950s from which you could deduce the Internet?

This tendency to only be able to see new technology as an extension of the old is exactly the phenomena we have seen with the Internet. Because its meaning has to be imputed, we have tended to describe it in terms of prior technologies—which, in many cases, understates its potential by many orders of magnitude.

So when we say, "The Internet is an electronic library," this is true. But it is an electronic library bigger and better than any other library that has ever existed or even been contemplated by humans. (In this allegorical understanding of the Internet, we could say Google is the card catalog—although as I write this, it dawns on me that not too many years hence, the average reader won't ever have seen a card catalog and probably won't even know the term.)

And when we say, "The Internet is an electronic store," this is true. But it is the biggest, best store ever, where you can buy anything from anywhere, based on reviews by other buyers, at a discount, and have it gift wrapped, engraved, altered, drop-shipped, and probably delivered by tomorrow.

And if the Internet is an electronic debate, it is a more robust forum for debate than has ever before arisen on the planet, where you can find people expressing any viewpoint on any topic. And if the Internet is an electronic cocktail party, it is more like a hundred million cocktail parties going on at once, with friends connecting, professionals networking, competitors playing games, and groups coalescing around every sort of interest. What's more, the Internet can be a fact checker, post office, Rolodex, Yellow Pages, White Pages, game board, garage sale, university, movie theater, jukebox, matchmaking service, travel agent, photo album, bank, support group ...

My point is: While the Internet does all those things, it is not accurate to say the Internet is only any one of them.

This is not merely a linguistic distinction. It is like my car. My car has a CD player. It has GPS navigation. It has an air conditioner. But my car is not a CD player, GPS navigation system, or air conditioner. The essence of my car is that it takes me places I want to go.

The Internet does not, like the car, have a single essence. It has many. And to the extent that our minds still perceive the Internet as an extension of offline things, we will fail to see its most revolutionary possibilities.

Until we see how the Internet changes us and allows us to do things we never even thought about doing—never imagined we would want to do—we will miss the enormous impact it can have.

We are getting there, though. We are at the point, finally, where we are seeing uses of the Internet that have no offline corollary. Think, for example, of Twitter. Nothing exists that even remotely looks like Twitter before the Internet. The mark of these technologies is that they are greeted with universal skepticism at first. That is because they seem so far out of the daily experience of most people that they cannot conceive of how or why they would use them.

I mention Twitter as an example, but there are hundreds more, most of which are presently obscure. These, to me, are the most exciting companies to look at. To paraphrase the old saying about the thin line separating genius from insanity: Online, there often is a thin line between "brilliant new idea" and "utter lunacy." But sometimes it is hard to tell them apart when we don't have an offline frame of reference. When you hear about a new company and your response is, "Why in the world would anyone want to do that?" it will be because there is no offline corollary. Will people like it? Will they do it? Only time will tell.

And that leads us to a critical question: Who decides what we will make the Internet do? Who decides what the Internet will become?

All of us, through the choices we make.

The Internet has no central planning agency deciding what new, cool websites should be made. New products are driven not by some central authority but by the free market. When it comes to starting a new business, nothing that previously existed can rival the Internet in terms of both ease of entry and breadth of potential. It's the ultimate environment for an entrepreneur who, as Peter Drucker noted, "Always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity."

Let's run through a scenario with a fictional entrepreneur: Linda, a single mom living in Portland, Oregon. Let's say Linda has come up with a pretty interesting idea: a social network for couples. She reasons: "When we think of social networks, we are individualistic in our approach. I have a page about me. That is the basic unit—me. I may be connected to other people, but still it is all about me. What if we thought differently? What if the basic unit was a couple, a relationship, and what if that relationship had an identity? It would have sections called 'How we met,' 'Our first quarrel,' 'How we make it work,' and so on. We post pictures, the progress of our relationship, and people can follow our "us" page."


Excerpted from INFINITE PROGRESS by RON REESE Copyright © 2013 by Byron Reese. Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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