The Problem with Abundance
by Peter DeJager
What do traffic jams, obesity and Spam have in common? They are all problems caused by abundance in a world more attuned to scarcity. By achieving the goal of abundance, Technology renders the natural checks and balances of scarcity obsolete.
The automobile made it possible for individuals to travel 100 kilometers in an hour. The result is that roads and parking must potentially accommodate everyone driving downtown from an area approximately 200 Km in diameter. The speed of travel reduces the constraints of distance. When we unthinkingly increase the speed at which we can travel, we increase the distance we travel without thinking.
The human body was designed to survive on scarcity, and it has served us well over the past 50,000+ years. On those rare occasions when food was abundant it was stored as fat in advance of future scarcity. Today we are surrounded by an excess of food and the body continues to follow a proven survival strategy -- it stores energy in fat for lean days which no longer arrive.
The ability to send sales pitches via e-mail at a negligible cost, means it is economical and good business practice to send millions of e-mails even with response rates as low as .001%. That pile of fetid Spam in your mailbox is a direct result of technological progress. There should be no surprise here; the rise of Spam follows the same growth curve of books after the invention of the printing press, although in a much shorter time frame. The speed and negligible cost of e-mail delivers an abundance of potential customers to anyone with a computer.
There are other obvious examples. Today the music industry is being hammered on the anvil of abundance. We've always copied music, but in limited quantities because copying that LP/Cassette to an audio tape took time, was expensive and the quality wasn't the same.
Today, we cheaply create our own CDs by the hundreds and the quality is exactly the same as those we buy for $20.00 or more. The rise in the number of people copying music and burning their own CDs, has collapsed the music industry's ability to dole out tiny snippets of music as if it were a scarce resource. Their attempt to hold back progress, is to sue the consumer.
Ironically, it was the music industry which embraced and introduced both the CD and digital music to the consumer. They never thought about the long term consequences to their business. They had ample warning of future problems. When their cost to produce the CD dropped drastically to the point where consumers could create their own music CD for less than $0.50, warning bells should have rung out loudly. Perhaps they did, but obviously nobody paid attention until the consequences began to nibble away at their profits.
The increased capability to communicate effortlessly with anyone in the world, is an amazing result of technological know-how. It also means we can significantly reduce costs by sending work to the other side of the world, rather than employing people closer to home. Work is now geographically ambivalent and all white collar work is at risk of displacement.
A technology which has, as its primary advantage, an ability to create abundance, carries within it the potential to create problems invulnerable to simplistic solutions. Like genies let loose from the bottle, they are almost impossible to control. We can't solve traffic congestion by reducing the speed of traffic to 10 KM/Hr. Nor can we solve obesity by reducing the shelves in the supermarket, or Spam by making it difficult and costly to send e-mail.
It's not that it is physically impossible to do these things; it's that people will resist with all their might, those who attempt to replace new found abundance with their parent's scarcity.
Anyone considering a new technology should at least ask the question, what are the long term consequences if this advance reduces costs to zero, or increases access so that everyone with a desire to do so, can use the technology? That might seem to be a giant 'societal' question of value only to economists and city planners, but it has applications closer to home.
What does it mean for "family time" when every room has a TV?
What does it mean for my company when everyone has instant messaging?
What does it mean for newspapers when everyone has access to digital paper?
What does it mean for the telecom industry when everyone has a wireless network?
Any technology which creates abundance, poses problems for any process which existed to benefit from scarcity.
(c) 2004 Peter de Jager - Peter is a Keynote Speaker, writer and consultant focusing on issues relating to Change Management and the Future. All Rights Reserved.
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