Clay Shirky: Society does not deal well with abundance
March 12, 2010 | 9:15 am
Clay Shirky spoke at the NFAIS National Conference a couple of weeks ago, and spoke on issues of customer networking and scarcity. When networked customers get unhappy, they are able to organize on-line in ways that were never possible before the emergence of the Internet. Moral: try to keep your customers happy.
But the main topic of interest here is scarcity—and in particular, a pithy quote:
Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does. Society knows how to react to scarcity.
He brings up the example of the Gutenberg printing press turning out not just Bibles, but indulgences (salable licenses to sin) in such numbers that it led Martin Luther to write the Ninety-Five Theses and touch off the Protestant Revolution. In other words, abundance is disruptive.
Guess what digital media reproducible at zero marginal cost leads to?
In discussing this comment on TechDirt, Mike Masnick notes that the default behavior of people when confronted by excessive abundance is to try to force it back into scarcity. Hence, publishers wed e-books (and other digital media) with law-backed DRM schemes that mean you can’t (legally) just make as many copies as you want.
Of course, this isn’t really going to work very well for long, but people keep trying it anyway.
Something else Shirky said was:
It’s easy to say "preserve the best of the old and combine it with the best of the new," but in revolution, the best of the new is incompatible with the best of the old. It’s about doing things a whole new way.
This put me in mind of the “burn the boats” comment that Marc Andreesen made, in reference to newspapers clinging to their print versions at the same time they try to get web versions up and running.
While the wisdom of Andreesen’s comment is uncertain (Alan Mutter at Reflections of a Newsosaur points out that print-driven ad sales still account for over 90% of a newspaper’s revenue), that basic incompatibility keeps showing up every time someone talks about charging for on-line content. People expect to pay for printed newspapers, but the paywall prisoner’s dilemma means that all charging for a web paper will do is drive people to other free web papers.
Another way that incompatibility shows is in the way publishers keep trying to protect their paper sales at the expense of electronic sales. They should be more mindful of adapting to the new electronic model—the more e-sales they build now, the better off they will be when more people change over.