For the last six months, the scarcity/abundance dichotomy has been annoying me. All dichotomies are false of course, but some are more of a bitch to transcend than others. On a 10-point scale where good vs. evil is a 4 in terms of transcendence difficulty, I’d rate scarcity versus abundance at 8.5.
And it is more than a harmless intellectual distraction. The scarcity versus abundance dichotomy is central to all technological thinking. The two sides of the dichotomy also have the two most powerful ideas in science — the second law of thermodynamics and evolution — as their respective intellectual motifs (I once called these two ideas the only sexy ideas in science; I think they appeal to humans because they both involve irreversibility, but that’s a story for another day).
So anytime you talk scarcity versus abundance, you are holding a sort of sumo wrestling match between two heavyweight ideas. This is why the respective poles of technological visioning, the ideas of the Singularity and Collapse, exercise such a powerful grip on our imagination.
I can’t say I’ve managed to rise above the dichotomy yet, but I am beginning to see a glimmer of a way out of this particular cognitive trap.
The trigger for this train of thought was probably Refactor Camp in March, where I deliberately asked Nick Pinkston to speak first, and put myself last on the agenda. Nick is about as cheerful an evangelist for abundance thinking as you can hope to find this side of The Secret, and given my own gloomy and scarcity-driven predisposition, I figured it would make for an interesting framing dichotomy for the event.
It turned into more than that. That’s worth a little sidebar.
Godwin’s Corollary for Technology
If you are at all interested in technology and futurism, and spend even a little time talking about these subjects, you will notice something funny. No matter what you are talking about, be it cellphones or 3d printing or Big Data, if a conversation goes on long enough, somebody will mention either the Singularity or the idea of Collapse. I noticed the phenomenon in the Facebook discussion group we created after Refactor Camp. Then I checked a few other fora and realized it was not unique to our group.
It’s sort of like Godwin’s Law: every Internet discussion that goes on long enough will eventually mention Nazis or Hitler.
So I am calling it Godwin’s Corollary for Technology: every online discussion about technology that goes on long enough will eventually mention the Singularity or Collapse.
Both laws of course, derive from powerful dichotomies underlying their respective overarching grand narratives. In general discussions on arbitrary subjects, good versus evil is most likely to be the framing dichotomy, and that gives you Godwin’s Law. Since technological determinism often involves abandoning the good/evil dichotomy, you end up with the Singularity/Collapse watershed as the frame for Godwin’s Corollary.
(I also have a more ambitious conjecture: the Generalized Godwin’s Law. Every discussion within an online community converges to a zero-information signal characterized by empty assertions concerning the foundational dichotomy of that community. There’s a whole bunny trail there, having to do with how online communities live and die and transform, but I won’t go there today).
Let’s get back to scarcity and waste.
Good Waste and Bad Waste
We generally associate the idea of waste with profligate excess of the hedonistic variety. Destructive non-consumption withno redeeming value. Behavior that destroys resources that took human energy and resources to create, or non-renewable natural resources. Pure dissipation.
That’s bad waste.
There’s also good waste. This is the sort of waste people mean when they say to become a good artist, you have to waste paper. At one point, you used to hear the advice, to become a good photographer, waste film.
Here’s the thing about good waste: it fosters creativity. If you have the luxury of being able to waste a resource, it means you don’t have to think about it. It is not an active constraint. This doesn’t mean you perversely set out to destroy that resource. It simply means you don’t worry about it as a constraint. This simplifies your thinking, which allows you to redeploy those mental resources on more fertile fronts.
You see this sort of “good waste” everywhere you see creativity. I think the relationship is quite intimate. Creativity involves a lot of false starts, dead-end explorations and so forth. The resource you can waste is precisely the resource that allows you to make this trial and error process fast (not efficient) and frictionless. In fact, your creative medium is defined by the wasteable resource. It is the canvas (literally in painting).
Speed is important because ideation is not generally a steady cognitive process. It likes to develop runaway momentum and exhaust itself, often explosively. You then pick through the debris of the explosion and pull out the good bits to develop with more deliberate and measured attention. Anything that dampens the explosion also lowers its fertility.
The interplay of good and bad waste is not simple. Here is an example.
One-Sided Print Outs
My preferred thinking medium is one-sided print outs. When I am thinking through an idea, I run through perhaps 10-15 sheets in about an hour before running out of energy. On explosive days, I fill maybe 60 sheets over the course of 4-5 intense hours (these are sadly getting rarer; physical fatigue often stops me before the idea runs its course these days).
But it has to be one-sided print outs.
I can’t really work with ruled paper or blank two-sided paper. Both are pristine resources that I feel guilty about wasting with my manic scribbling of mostly useless thoughts. Ruled paper has the additional problem of being ruled.
It is completely irrational, but revealing: the reason I work best with one-sided printed paper is that it has already been bad-wasted. It’s going to the recycling bin anyway. So it is a particularly liberating medium to work with. More than liberating. You can feel virtuous because you are effectively redeeming bad waste.
What’s more, since I am personally conscientious about limiting what I print, and always printing two-sided when I can, not only am I redeeming bad waste, I am generally redeeming others’ bad waste (I am always on the lookout for one-sided paper that others are about to recycle, which is now a problem since I don’t work in an office with others). I pay for your profligate printing sins. I am a minor Jesus of paper.
Wasting Bits, Wasting Pixels
What got me thinking about good waste was preparing for the talk I just did at the Media Evolution conference in Sweden (I am now officially an “international speaker,” just over a year into my talking-head career) titled Wasting Pixels. The organizers contacted me to speak after reading my post on the idea of Public Computing on Forbes, where I’d talked about a possible future with large touchscreen displays everywhere.
In groping about for a high-concept with which to think about ubiquitous displays, I settled on Alan Kay’s famous idea of “wasting bits” as a starting point.
For those who are not familiar with the idea, “wasting bits” was Kay’s reaction, as a designer of software systems, to the promise of Moore’s Law.
He recognized that Moore’s Law meant that a previously scarce resource (computing power and memory) was now going to become increasingly cheap. This meant that effective design thinking could now ignore processing speed and memory limits as meaningful constraints.
Or stated another way, you could now afford to waste bits, something that would have been unthinkable to old-school punch-card programmers trained to conserve every precious CPU cycle and memory bit.
Kay’s idea turned into the overarching design principle that has since driven software design. Though memory and processing constraints still do keep popping up (especially when new platforms emerge, such as mobile), the general trend of technology towards wasteable bits has stayed robust.
Applying that logic to displays that are getting cheaper by the year (though not at Moore’s Law rates), it struck me that you could think about the future of public computing, with touchable displays everywhere, in terms of the overarching “wasting pixels” design principle.
I won’t get into this particular example, but there is a general principle here: civilizations are defined by the resources they can waste. This constitutes the wasteable frontier of resources.
The Wasteable Frontier
Good waste is related to, but not synonymous with, the ideas of commoditization and “costs of doing business.”
A technology development can be commoditized, offering no competitive advantage to anyone, without getting cheap enough to waste. It can even go beyond commoditization within the market to becoming a public utility or commons resource (effectively being taken out of play from the economy) and not get that cheap.
Gold is an example. It is a commodity, but not cheap. So is law enforcement.
Wasteable resources are a special case. A resource gets cheap enough to waste when it is cheap enough that you can leave it out of the strategic cost calculations for most products and services that it is a part of.
This is a relative definition of cheap. Global shipping is an example of a wasteable resource today, for value-added manufactured goods. Relative to manufacturing and other costs, the costs of shipping something from China to the US (say) are so trivial that as a first approximation, you can ignore them. You can think about business models and strategic positioning issues without thinking about transport (your accountants still have to include it in their book-keeping of course). The design space for your business model shrinks in useful ways.
Not all resources are wasteable in all industries. Electricity is something you can waste in many contexts in the developed world, but not in the data center business, where it is a big enough cost component that it pays to locate data centers near cheap power.
This suggests a good measure for development actually. A nation or region is as developed as the resources its economy views as wasteable (in the good+strategic sense).
This is one major reason innovation is largely a one-way flow from developed to developing economies. Even though there is plenty of innovation and creativity in developing countries, much of it is a context of a much smaller wasteable frontier. If you’ve developed a really clever solution for efficiently operating a factory in an environment of load-shedding and power disruptions, or a way to power light bulbs far away from the grid, good for you, but it isn’t a particularly useful technology to export to the developed world.
Waste and Abundance
The more distinct resources you can waste (paper, clean water, electricity, bits, pixels), the simpler creativity becomes. This leads to an empirical basis for faith in technological abundance.
When you waste paper while writing, you are making the leap of faith that by crumpling and tossing twenty sheets of paper, you will get to an essay in the twenty-first sheet that is much better than if you had carefully restricted yourselves to one sheet.
How much better? You can quantify it.
Value of Essay (21 sheets) > Value of Essay (1 sheet) + cost of 20 blank sheets.
This is a very simple example of what is known as an exploration-exploitation trade-off in control theory and machine learning. You are assuming that there are returns from exploratory trial-and-error activity that outweigh the costs of wasted resources. These returns diminish the longer you explore (so if you crumple and toss 1000 sheets of paper, you might have an entirely different problem like writer’s block), but the point is, waste is good in a definable and quantifiable sense.
The problem of course, is applying this sort of logic to human civilization at large. The leap of faith that wasting oil will lead to a new abundance somewhere else is much less defensible than wasting paper in search of the perfect angle from which to write about a subject.
But for better or worse, technological debates today are based on the idea of climbing a stairway to a heaven of permacultural abundance, with the stairs below you crumbling as you climb. A sort of bootstrapping via profligacy. You either believe your sins of waste will not catch up with you before you reach the heaven, or that they will.
I am not satisfied with this. It is not a resolution of the abundance/scarcity dichotomy. But it is a starting point that may lead to a more basic and powerful dichotomy. I think.
Good waste/bad waste is sort of a temporary framing. I like it because it gets at both our moral and conceptual confusions around resources, and forces us to examine the vast amounts of cultural baggage we carry around under the term “waste.”
But I’ll have to stop here with this quick-and-dirty post. I have a conference to get to, and then on to Stockholm for a couple of days.