Saturday, January 21, 2006

Abundance and its limits

Kyril Faenov recently recommended The Era of Choice: The Ability to Choose and Its Transformation of Contemporary Life by Edward Rosenthal to me. Kyril points out that this book highlights one of the fundamental transitions that are occurring in a number of fields: the shift from scarcity to plenty, and thus the importance of search and choice as the way to navigate that reality.

Our times are sometimes called the Information Age. “The Era of Unnatural Abundance” may be a better term. We are living in a period where we, the fortunate ones, have more than we need of any material thing. This wealth and well-being is the result of centuries of accumulating technical know-how, as well as using up natural resources on an unprecedented scale.

Software is part of this abundance. Obesity is too. I think they’re linked. Our brains haven’t evolved to think easily about the weird intangibility of software, and our bodies aren’t equipped to handle a surfeit of sweet and fatty foods.

Plenitude is good for consumers, but tricky for producers. If something is abundant, it’s hard to charge a premium for it. Software companies are trying to limit abundance with “software as a service” and DRM, both ways to meter the consumption of digital goods. I can use a piece of software running on my own machine as much as I like; however, when I have to access it on a server I have to wait my turn. Control moves from the edge to the center. Performance may not always be crisp with server-based software, but piracy isn’t an issue since the software never leaves the owner’s control.

While massive choices on the scale we face may be recent, as Rosenthal argues, other cultures have had to deal with such affluence. Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches is a fascinating account of how the Dutch responded to their Golden Age in the 16th Century. There are echoes of contemporary America: the Dutch stereotype of the time was gluttony, the pursuit of wealth, love of family and children, and puritanical morality. The Dutch were more uneasy about the fleetingness of success; so many of their exquisite still lives have ants eating at the sumptuous fruit, observed by a skull’s hollow eyes

Abundance raises the question of what, if anything remains scarce. I’d pick three things: brilliant people, energy, and customer attention.

The hand-wringing over H1B visas and the off-shoring of software jobs serve to remind us that programmers are plentiful, but stars are scarce. We may or may not have reached Peak Oil, but it would be imprudent to bet against rising oil prices in the next few decades.

Compared to these two, capitalizing on consumer attention seems mundane, and yet it’s at the core of Google’s success. People use web search to conserve attention by having a machine do some of the work. Browsing feels like a moral failing since it “wastes” attention. In the Nineties people worried about wasting time “browsing the web”, and nowadays they agonize over how addictive myspace can be. The reason is the same, though: the buzz you get from devoting attention, and making one choice after another, like a rat compulsively pushing the feed-me button.