Moving to Freedom, .Org

Scarcity and Abundance: Clay Shirky, “Cognitive Surplus”

I just got Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus from the library. Full of goodies, as expected.

Scarcity is easier to deal with than abundance, because when something becomes rare, we simply think it more valuable than it was before, a conceptually easy change. Abundance is different: its advent means we can start treating previously valuable things as if they were cheap enough to waste, which is to say cheap enough to experiment with. Because abundance can remove the trade-offs we’re used to, it can be disorienting to the people who’ve grown up with scarcity. When a resource is scarce, the people who manage it often regard it as valuable in itself, without stopping to consider how much of its value is tied to its scarcity. For years after the price of long-distance phone calls collapsed in the United States, my older relatives would still announce that a call was “long distance.” Such calls had previously been special, because they were expensive; it took people years to understand that cheap long-distance calls removed the rationale for regarding them as inherently valuable.

Similarly, when publication—the act of making something public—goes from being hard to being virtually effortless, people used to the old system often regard publishing by amateurs as frivolous, as if publishing was an inherently seriously activity. It never was, though. Publishing had to be taken seriously when its cost and effort made people take it seriously—if you made too many mistakes, you were out of business. But if these factors collapse, then the risk collapses too. An activity that once seemed inherently valuable turned out to be only accidentally valuable, as a change in the economics revealed.