How abundances can create scarcities and other challenges

It has been pointed out that abundances of some things can create complementary scarcities. For example, too many emails means too little attention for each one. Too many snowmobiles may mean too little quiet woods. Too many fusion power systems may mean too much heat pollution everywhere. An abundance of nanobots or biotechnology may mean no one can walk unprotected ever outside of air tight dwellings, making for a scarcity of convenience and nature. And abundance of cheap digital cameras and voice recorders makes for a scarcity of privacy, as does an abundance of computers to analyze and organize all that digital information. And so on.

Here is a suggestion about finding business models related to scarcities that emerge from abundances:

"It’s a great way to think about developing business strategy for the future of any organization – what scarcity is being created by the abundance that is emerging around us, and how can one profit from it? One idea off the top of my head, though somewhat less poetic than those mentioned above, is that “an abundance of ideas creates a scarcity of executional ability.” ..."

As for social inequality specifically from abundance, yes, it is true that some people may use the powers of abundance within any socio-political-economic system to consolidate power. Marshall Brain suggests that has been happening with automation, and it will only continue unless various structural changes are made (like a redistributive basic income, such as Social Security for all instead of just those over 65). Marshall Brain explains that concentration idea here, with a picture:

"With most of the rank and file employees replaced by robots and eliminated from the payroll, all of the money flowing into a large corporation has only one place to go -- upward toward the executives and shareholders. The concentration of wealth will be dramatic when robots arrive."

Our US society has at its core some notion that the right to consume comes for most people from income earned by work. That was discussed in 1964 in this document sent to President Johnson along with the emerging problems, which overall have not gone away:

"The fundamental problem posed by the cybernation revolution in the U.S. is that it invalidates the general mechanism so far employed to undergird people’s rights as consumers. Up to this time economic resources have been distributed on the basis of contributions to production, with machines and men competing for employment on somewhat equal terms. In the developing cybernated system, potentially unlimited output can be achieved by systems of machines which will require little cooperation from human beings. As machines take over production from men, they absorb an increasing proportion of resources while the men who are displaced become dependent on minimal and unrelated government measures -- unemployment insurance, social security, welfare payments. These measures are less and less able to disguise a historic paradox: That a substantial proportion of the population is subsisting on minimal incomes, often below the poverty line, at a time when sufficient productive potential is available to supply the needs of everyone in the U.S."

A few years later, under President Nixon, something like a basic income passed the US House of Representatives, and almost passed the Senate, spearheaded by NY Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

"On Aug. 8 President Nixon announced the Family Assistance Plan, promoted by Daniel P. Moynihan, then his Assistant for Urban Affairs (and recently appointed Ambassador to India), over the opposition of many of the President's most conservative advisers. It would meet the most irksome of American problems--poverty--with the most direct and radical of solutions: money. All families with children would be eligible for a minimum stipend; no longer would the absence of a "man in the house" be a precondition for welfare.
    A Republican President, elected in significant measure out of distaste for the dependent poor, thus proposed the adoption of a guaranteed income. F.A.P. was a kind of domestic trip to China, a triumph of pragmatism over ideology.
    Or so it seemed at the time. Mr. Moynihan's new book, "The Politics of a Guaranteed Income," recounts how applause came from all corners: The Christian Science Monitor, Business Week, The Vicksburg Post, The Ottumwa Courier. 'TWO UPPER MIDDLE CLASS REPUBLICANS," ran a telegram quoted by Moynihan, "WHO WILL PAY FOR THE PROGRAM SAY BRAVO." Not until the Peking voyage was a Nixon initiative to receive such wide enthusiasm. In March of 1970, F.A.P. sailed through the House Ways and Means Committee, 21 votes in favor to three conservative Democrats opposed. A month later the full House concurred."

By the way, Paul Krugman just called for a similar thing:

"Education, then, is no longer the answer to rising inequality, if it ever was (which I doubt).
    So what is the answer? If the picture I’ve drawn is at all right, the only way we could have anything resembling a middle-class society — a society in which ordinary citizens have a reasonable assurance of maintaining a decent life as long as they work hard and play by the rules — would be by having a strong social safety net, one that guarantees not just health care but a minimum income, too. And with an ever-rising share of income going to capital rather than labor, that safety net would have to be paid for to an important extent via taxes on profits and/or investment income.
    I can already hear conservatives shouting about the evils of “redistribution.” But what, exactly, would they propose instead?"

When there is not much needed funded work, what then? The US GDP grew about 30% in the past decade while employment remained essentially flat. Farming went from 50% to 2% of the workforce over a century. Manufacturing went from about 35% to 15% over about 50 years and continues to drop rapidly. And centuries ago, children worked a lot from age 4 or 5 (including in the mines) and many people worked 80-90 hour weeks, always keeping busy doing something obviously physically productive. Why should services (including retail) go the same way, dropping to 2% of the population needed to maintain it? Look at Amazon, which recently bought Kiva Robotics. We are starting to see thing with the need for systems administrators diminishing as people move stuff to the cloud, and we are seeing somewhat the need for programmers diminish as more and more high-quality off-the-shelf solutions appear.

To be clear, I always think humans will have things to do, such as raising children well, being good friends and neighbors, making art that is meaningful to themselves and their communities, and being informed citizens, and being concerned about security for themselves and their communities (something that can't be entirely delegated without making a new security risk). The issue is what economic system surrounds that.

But, as Elysium the movie suggests, an abundance of police robots may create a scarcity of options as the current system plays out to the bitter end?

"I always look for political subtext and commentary in the film trailers I show you, and I think it's particularly interesting to see such references in Hollywood blockbusters, because they are mass-market products for an increasingly global market, which suggests that these political messages have resonance with audiences around the world.
      In the case of the new Matt Damon scifi thriller Elysium, there is political subtext aplenty: environmental degradation, electronic surveillance, robot warfare, and perhaps most prominently, economic inequality. In fact, judging by the synopsis for the film, the space station known as Elysium looks like the ultimate gated community.
      Judging by the brief glimpses in this trailer, the design of the Elysium space station draws on the space colony artwork that NASA dreamed up in the 70s. As a kid, I used to pore over these images in picture books about space travel and imagine the idealised lifestyles portrayed in these orbiting utopias. The makers of Elysium have rather abruptly subverted that image."

And finally, after decades, there was a chance for me to make an somewhat "on topic" post about self-replicating space habitats and social divides at a fan website for the soon-to-be-released sci-fi movie Elysium (the extended trailer is well worth watching):

It's great to see the concept of space habitats in the movies again! Another IMAX film that had one was "L5: First City in Space". Babylon 5 feature one, but it did not make it look very inviting. For story-telling reasons, it makes sense to have a hero solving a big problem, like when Spiderman stops a master criminal. bent on destroying a city. But Spiderman never solves things like deep cultural issues that might cause people to turn to a life of crime or decadence. So, I'll be curious to see how that is treated in the movie. Ultimately, we could use other NASA ideas to build self-replicating space habitats (habitats that can duplicate themselves from sunlight and asteroidal or lunar ore). James P. Hogan has a good description of one as the main setting of his novel "The Two Faces Of Tomorrow". Then everyone on Earth could migrate to one if he or she wanted -- since they could make enough living space for quadrillions of humans around the solar system. So, there is an an inconsistency in the Elysium movie based on the trailers and the related official website. Robots are everywhere on Earth, but why not have robots that mine the asteroids to build space habitats for everyone, as NASA scientist suggested in a 1980 summer study called "Advanced Automation for Space Missions"? And why have humans repairing or assembling robots, when robots could do that job too? Of course, one can always invent reasons to fill plot holes (including just people making bad choices collectively). Still, despite some possible conceptual shortcomings related to the potential of advanced technology implied in the trailers, it still looks like a great film to raise awareness about important issues. Anyway, hopefully someday our global culture will catch up with the idea of material abundance for everyone that all this advanced technology makes possible, Then we can move past the irony of technologies of abundance (like robotics) in the hands of those still thinking in terms of scarcity (such as apparently those on Elysium), But, that might not make for such an exciting looking film? :-)

Here is my own take on that rich/poor divide from technology, made a couple years ago, inspired by Marshall Brain's thinking and that of other thinkers:
"The Richest Man in the World: A parable about structural unemployment and a basic income"

Here is another thought on that from Marshall Sahlins, an anthropologist, in an essay called "The Original Affluent Society":

"Hunter-gatherers consume less energy per capita per year than any other group of human beings. Yet when you come to examine it the original affluent society was none other than the hunter's - in which all the people's material wants were easily satisfied. To accept that hunters are affluent is therefore to recognise that the present human condition of man slaving to bridge the gap between his unlimited wants and his insufficient means is a tragedy of modern times. ...
    Above all. what about the world today? One-third to one-half of humanity are said to go to bed hungry every night. In the Old Stone Age the fraction must have been much smaller. This is the era of hunger unprecedented. Now, in the time of the greatest technical power, is starvation an in. situation. Reverse another venerable formula: the amount of hunger increases relatively and absolutely with the evolution of culture. This paradox is my whole point. Hunters and gatherers have by force of circumstances an objectively low standard of living. But taken as their objective, and given their adequate means of production. all the people's material wants usually can be easily satisfied.
    The world's most primitive people have few possessions. but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilisation. It has grown with civilisation, at once as an invidious distinction between classes and more importantly as a tributary relation that can render agrarian peasants more susceptible to natural catastrophes than any winter camp of Alaskan Eskimo."

In general, more egalitarian societies tend to be happier:

"The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier"

but that is not the current economic dogma based on "Pareto efficiency" and an assumption of material scarcity:

"Economics for the Rest of Us: Debunking the Science that Makes Life Dismal"

Still, it is also true that humans like to challenge themselves, and young people especially like to challenge others to stand out to look good to potential mates. So, it is up to society to structure the context for those competitive behaviors. I made some comments on that here:

On overcoming those mental and cultural limitations about dealing with that challenge of redirecting competetive urges in productive ways, I find James P. Hogan's writings inspiring, such as "Voyage from Yesteryear":

There may be other ways that abundance creates problems too, no doubt, because it can connect to very specialized divisions of labor including bureaucracies, which, as systems, to put it charitably are "amoral". Organizations can behave in amoral ways regardless of the morality of the people who are the components who make up the system, since any "failing" component that does not perform to standards will just be replaced (Langdon Winner at RPI wrote about this in "Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-control as a theme in political thought"). Yes, people can drag their feet (examples abound like in WWII Germany), but the system will still trundle along based on its own emergent organizational dynamics to the bitter end unless it meets some other system that stops it or it hits some sort of natural limit as it burns like a fire through that which sustains it (including the people that compose it). So, we have to be careful what values our systems embody, because the systems will serve as amplifiers of those values.

Of course, organizational values can drift over time, constitutions get re-interpreted, and so on. Thus John Gardner says in "Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society", that every generation must relearn for itself what the words carved on the monuments mean:

And Manuel De Landa suggests that is part of why we always need some aspect of hierarchy in healthy systems:

To make things worse, the solution to this is not simply to begin adding meshwork components to the mix. Indeed, one must resist the temptation to make hierarchies into villains and meshworks into heroes, not only because, as I said, they are constantly turning into one another, but because in real life we find only mixtures and hybrids, and the properties of these cannot be established through theory alone but demand concrete experimentation. Certain standardizations, say, of electric outlet designs or of data-structures traveling through the Internet, may actually turn out to promote heterogenization at another level, in terms of the appliances that may be designed around the standard outlet, or of the services that a common data-structure may make possible. On the other hand, the mere presence of increased heterogeneity is no guarantee that a better state for society has been achieved. After all, the territory occupied by former Yugoslavia is more heterogeneous now than it was ten years ago, but the lack of uniformity at one level simply hides an increase of homogeneity at the level of the warring ethnic communities. But even if we managed to promote not only heterogeneity, but diversity articulated into a meshwork, that still would not be a perfect solution. After all, meshworks grow by drift and they may drift to places where we do not want to go. The goal-directedness of hierarchies is the kind of property that we may desire to keep at least for certain institutions. Hence, demonizing centralization and glorifying decentralization as the solution to all our problems would be wrong. An open and experimental attitude towards the question of different hybrids and mixtures is what the complexity of reality itself seems to call for. To paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari, never believe that a meshwork will suffice to save us.

Or, for another take on building healthy systems or at least building health within the ones we have, from a systems thinker:
"Outcome responsibility is always an amalgam of social system and technical system competency. The book describes how the same natural laws that determine technical system dynamics apply just as well to institutional behavior. The message in the book is that the principles that apply to engineering design apply to problem solving at any scale; to all institutional behavior past, present and future."

Another way that abundances can create scarcities of self-control is "The Pleasure Trap", "Supernormal Stimuli", "The Acceleration of Addiction", and "The Tyranny of Choice" all resulting in "Ego Depletion".

Laughter supposedly helps with ego depletion. :-)

So, yes, abundance will bring its own challenges. Things were no doubt simpler when the typical digital watch did not have more computing power than was used to create the first atomic weapons:

"The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking...the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker."

Hopefully we can use what computing power we have individually and collectively to think up and implement ways of dealing with all these challenges, like I suggest here:
"The need for FOSS intelligence tools for sensemaking etc."

And here:

And my wife suggests here:

--Paul Fernhout

Last update: June 2013