Provoked by Tim Wu’s review of the book Abundance, Chris Mitchell of ILSR asked whether abundance might not be too much. Won’t we get bogged down in all the choices we have to make?
I love this question because I think seeing abundance (and acting in ways that generate abundance) is a big piece of the solution to the world’s present woes. As a point example, here’s 8 minutes on how we needlessly create artificial scarcity in education, when in fact there is abundance.
We’re just so accustomed to the institution as it exists today — in this case, education — that we can’t see the abundance, which violates many of our dearly held beliefs.
The problem with sudden abundance that Chris described is the Tyranny of Choice (pdf), which Barry Schwartz has investigated well, and Malcolm Gladwell has popularized by writing and speaking about it in his appealing way (I think it’s in this TED talk). A typical story: When faced with 23 jam samples, people bought fewer than when they saw only three. Our mental fuses pop when there’s too much to consider.
When the Cluetrain cabal announced that Markets Are Conversations, a common complaint was that nobody wants to enter a negotiation or selection decision every time they are thirsty for a soda pop. Yup. No doubt.
The good news is that over time we get used to abundance. We form habits. We learn what we like, we share opinions, we groove behaviors that make us happy. Now and then we change them.
The advent of the Internet is the latest firehose of abundance in our lives (compare to the telegraph, then TV). Despite all the hyperbole already written about the Net, it is an amazing thing. Now we can communicate instantaneously with half the humans on this pale blue dot, at zero marginal cost.
Now everything people write on line is available, as well as their movies, tunes, scribbles and (sigh) breakfast photos (well, Zittrain and Pariser show how companies and governments are trying to stop this wanton open sharing, but I’m hopeful it’ll be around a while).
We’re at such an interesting moment in history. When I run workshops about the great change afoot, I’ll sometimes read out loud the semi-famous paragraph from Borges’ short story The Aleph, in which he describes seeing everything that ever happened, is happening, and will happen, through the Aleph (it’s the paragraph that begins “On the back part of the step”).
The Net is our modern Aleph. It just showed up a few years ago.
We’re overwhelmed now, as we should be. (It’s an Aleph!) Since the dawn of hominins (is that what we’re calling our precursors now?), nobody has been able to do what the Net now lets us do — a pretty good reason to preserve Freedom to Connect, if you ask me. It will take us a while to sort out how to deal with it all. Along the way, many of us will just check out or give up. So it goes.
But we humans do sort things out. We find clever mechanisms to sift through the torrent to find what we want. Today it’s hashtags, WODs, playlists, timelines, concept maps and pinboards. Tomorrow, who knows? We curate, share and recommend. We create better tools. Our perception of the environment evolves over time.
The bigger win, though, is when we let abundance back in to industries and sectors of life that have been denuded by notions like “scarcity equals value,” or by social norms and cultural conventions based on trying to stop bad actors from acting badly, rather than on cooperation, then dealing with the bad actors later.
Think about copyright overprotection. Treating the radio spectrum as if it were real estate along a beachfront. The compulsory education system. At the start of this post I pointed to that 8-min screencast about education. I amplify on it in my TEDx talk, which plays out this idea of designing from trust in education, and teases about more.
That’s all fodder for much more than these couple paragraphs. It’s the foundation of the Relationship Economy.
Early on, when the firehose opens up, the barriers crumble and all the new choices multiply, this process takes patience. But it leads to a better world.