I recently read a blog post here that explained the concept of scarcity in the digital world extremely well. The author’s main point was “The result is a huge abundance of information. And this changes what is scarce: Not the actual product (information), but the capacity for consumption — attention. Every day more free information is made available to the world than a human being could consume in a lifetime. Obviously, human attention is finite, and therefore it’s the scarce factor in the digital world.”
It is an interesting paradigm shift when human attention, and not physical resource is the limiting factor. I would go a bit further and say that scarcity is a hindrance in the digital world. For example, the first fax machine was sold for $2,000 and was completely useless. It was years later that it became valuable and because fax machines were no longer scarce. The internet wouldn’t be nearly as valuable if it weren’t for the amount of people attached to it. Clearly abundance adds value to the digital world.
Moving back to the article. With the widespread availability of information, and human attention becoming the scarce resource, it begs an interesting question. Is society as a whole becoming more knowledgeable? Or do we put off learning because we can simply google information when we need it? I would argue that the latter is true.
Over the weekend, I went to the Emergency Room because it came to my attention that I had a strange condition. When I informed the ER doctor of my condition, he told me that he had no idea how to handle my condition, and that he was going to read up to decide how to treat it. The treatment he suggested was a treatment that I had received 5 times previously. When I informed him that I had previously received the treatment, his response was that I should be treated in the same manner again because that is what the computer says.
This situation reminded me of a quote from a book that I read. In, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcom Gladwell argues “We live in a world saturated with information. We have virtually unlimited amounts of data at our fingertips at all times, and we’re well versed enough in the arguments about the dangers of not knowing enough and not doing our homework. But what I have sensed is an enormous frustration with the unexpected costs of knowing too much, of being inundated with information. We have come to confuse information with understanding…The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It us understanding. We are swimming in the former, we are desperately lacking in the latter”
Clearly, in the digital world, understanding is becoming a scarce resource.