Scarcity and Abundance, Digitally

My friend Chris Krycho, synthesizing some recent articles on scarcity and abundance, came up with a career-long research project idea:

And from this wondering emerges a dream of a research program for technologists: What would the implementation of such technologies look like? What would their edges and limitations be? What would they afford, and what would they not afford? How might they be well-adapted to us and our scale? How might they be built for mutual thriving with the rest of the creatures with which we share God’s green earth?

-Chris Krycho

The whole post is commendable, and thus I commend it to you.

As I pondered his call at the end there, I started sketching out some thoughts. Scarcity itself is intriguing. As a concept, scarcity is rich with philosophical and practical concerns. Abundance is also rich in these ways; while one could posit scarcity and abundance as opposites and invert opinions about scarcity to get opinions about abundance, I don’t think this is the right move. While I pick up this thread on abundance below, I start with scarcity.

[More so than most posts on this blog, these are provisional thoughts; I have been kicking them around for a while, but can’t seem to go much further than I have without restarting. So these are almost certainly going to be messier than usual, and that’s okay! Blogging!]

One angle on scarcity is “artificial scarcity”, the sense in that we can make things scarce by not making as many of them as we could. This action spikes the demand past the supply and creates conditions of “artificial” scarcity. In this formation, though, I would argue that all scarcity is artificial except for food, clothing, and housing. 1 I am about to argue that scarcity and abundance are social phenomena. Food, shelter, and clothing are truly scarce in places, because I believe the correct human relationship to those things is divinely derived from Genesis 1-3 and not from social constructions. When those three things are in limited numbers below the amount of people who would want them, this is not a social phenomenon; this is a brokenness in the way the world should be. Beyond the essentials mentioned in the previous sentence, scarcity is not just a raw accounting of what is available or not. Instead, scarcity (and abundance) are social phenomena: the amount of a thing in relation to the collected amount of desire for the thing. There is very little smallpox in the world, and we are generally thrilled about this; we do not have a scarcity of smallpox. Limited existence is not scarcity.

Instead, scarcity is a social experience. To wit: we have a set number of Picasso paintings in the world. There are a large number of people who would want a Picasso if they could get one. (I am one of those people.) But even if there were a large number of Picassos available at the current average price of a Picasso (or even a lower price, as more Picassos would inevitably dampen the price due to having more supply for a in-this-example stable amount of demand), it is unreasonable for me to expect that I would be able to buy one. There is not a scarcity of Picassos for me when there are none on offer because I have no ability to buy one even if one had been on offer. My inability to buy a Picasso is not a shortage of Picassos, but a shortage of funds regardless of the number of Picassos (until the point that so many Picassos exist that the price is driven down far enough that I _could_ buy them if they were on offer; but there are no more Picassos being made and the demand remains high, so it is unlikely the price would ever drop to a point that I could feasibly buy one.)

Thus, there is a smaller number of people who feel like they could get one if they wanted one, in that their resources are large enough that they could theoretically procure one if one was on offer. If a person who wants a Picasso and has the resources to theoretically meet the last price that a Picasso was sold for cannot secure one because there are none on offer, then that suggests a scarcity. Put another way: if the number of people who want one but could not possibly get one is much higher than the people who feel like they could get one if they wanted one, that’s a meaningful problem, but not scarcity. (Perhaps it could be called elitism instead. Elitism and scarcity are deeply intertwined! But not the same thing.) It is not merely the number of people who want a Picasso that creates scarcity; it’s the conditions surrounding the desiring of Picasso that creates scarcity. In specific: if the conditions are such that all (or even a large number) of the people who desire a thing can imagine getting one easily, that’s not scarcity.

The digital makes it so that almost everyone who wants a digital good could imagine getting a digital good. The Wu-Tang record that has only one physical copy is scarce because lots of people want it and there is only one. (Infamous personality Martin Shkreli bought it for $2 million, later almost sold it on Ebay for $1.025 million and got tut-tutted by Wu-Tang for it, and had it seized by the federal government when he was arrested. They sold it anonymously this week, actually. Shkreli also had a Picasso seized.) But all the other Wu-Tang albums, insofar as the music is concerned and not the physical objects, are not scarce–almost anyone who wants them can imagine listening to them. However, I wouldn’t say their music is abundant either, in the sense that those who want it have more than they could imagine needing or wanting of it. Interestingly, music is superabundant, in that with a streaming service at my fingertips, I do have more music than I could imagine needing or wanting. But Wu-Tang’s music itself is not abundant in my consideration; my value on Wu-Tang is not high enough to merit a belief that there is scarcity or abundance. My relationship to Wu-Tang’s albums is of existence: they exist and I can listen to them if I want to. I could probably also get physical instantiations of all but one of their records if I wanted to. I have no particular emotion toward these records that would result in feelings of scarcity or abundance, even though there are literally enough digital instantiations of Wu-Tang’s songs for everyone in the world to listen to them as many times as they so desire, as long as they have internet speeds commensurate with the task. (And many people do not!)

So abundance is not the opposite of scarcity. Scarcity equals fewer numbers of things than the number of people who want the thing and could imagine being able to get the thing. However, abundance does not equal larger numbers of things than the number of people who want and could imagine being able to get the thing.

Instead: abundance is about our collected (and collective) valuing of something. Abundance is the group all agreeing that this thing is worthwhile and then still all of us finding that there is more than enough for all of us; we all get the benefit of feeling like we are part of the group that values a thing highly and also is able to have more of that thing that we could want or need. You’d have to be on the path to solipsism or addiction to have an abundance for yourself, not share that abundance socially in any way (even lording abundance over people is a social instantiation of social abundance sharing, although obviously a bad one), and privately enjoy maximum abundance with pleasure.

So you can imagine why the dead end of David Hume’s total skepticism and radical individualism would largely avoid a discussion of abundance, because I would argue that abundance requires social structures–otherwise it’s just a big undifferentiated pile o’ stuff. This is why I note that all scarcity is “artificial.” Scarcity is not just accounting, it is a social phenomenon. And social phenomena are not hard objects that can be counted.