What is Scarcity?
Scarcity, more than anything else, determines the conditions in which we live. Things that are in abundance determine not only our quality of life but our safety, happiness and ability to access the things we need. Scarcity, on the other hand, defines our struggle, and the things we need to survive. They are what we must fight for, seek and need desperately to live a better, easier or safer life.
Scarcity has changed through the ages, and when it shifts it alters the fabric of society. These shifts mark not only progress but determine whether we are experiencing a revolution or stagnating. Scarcity determines how quickly we progress as it is the bottleneck for development, progress and evolution.
A Brief History of Human Scarcity
100,000 years ago
What was scarce was safety and food. We had evolved to become hunter-gatherers but the hunter could still be hunted. We didn’t have homes or settlements, what was scarce was knowledge and safety. We had yet to develop the sensibilities to set up shop in a specific geographic location, instead choosing to migrate with the season in order to ensure a steady supply of food.
What was in abundance was time. Employment was nowhere on the horizon, though people had responsibilities. We were each responsible for our own sustenance, each person a sovereign individual who determined their own riches and standard of living. Some people hunted, some people cooked and society operated on a small scale with tight-knit communities of families. Trade had yet to develop, so we were forced to create and produce everything we required.
10,000 years ago
We encountered the next revolution, agriculture, if you discount the advent of tools, weapons and fire along the way. The previous scarcity’s of safety and food were eradicated by technological progress. Farming emerged creating an abundance of food which enabled us to live in larger settlements where people were able to specialise in a specific trades. An abundance of food meant we no longer had to dedicate all our time to not starving. What now became scarce was land. Harvest was determined by the quality of our farms for crop growth and by how the suitable it was to feed the animals we domesticated.
Conventionally held belief that barter emerged is a fantasy. There is no evidence to suggest that it was ever a widespread means of facilitating trade. For one-off transactions it is a possibility, but for everyday exchange it is impossible. How could your requirement for a cow ever match with someone else’s need for shoes? How could you ever balance that transaction — how many shoes are equal to a cow? At various points during this period different things were used to enable trade. Dried fish, stones, precious metal and even reeds acted as currency. This ensured that prosperity and quality of life could continue to rise as consumer purchasing meant you didn’t have to create everything you needed.
200 years ago
The next revolution was thrust upon us. The advent of steam-powered engines and electricity ushered in the industrial revolution and scarcity shifted to capital. Capital in this instance means both human and machinery. We never had enough people or machines to produce the energy, products and services we needed to ensure continued progress. Technology enabled productivity on an industrial scale, where one person could create 1 product a day, with the help of machines we could now create 100’s or even 1,000’s of times as many. Mass production was realised. Machines allowed us to harvest our land far more efficiently so this was now in abundance. It took a long time for us to move from blue-collar fabrication jobs to service-based jobs but we got there eventually. This enabled an increasing number of people to escape poverty. Over time, through relentless automation, capital has become less scarce.
15 years ago
It shifts again. Computation effectively eradicated the scarcity of capital, and electricity is no longer an issue, albeit in the developed world. Scarcity shifted to money. Capital was still a means of accruing wealth, but to purchase these pieces of machinery and to pay for the people who operate them lots of money was need. The problem was that it was expensive. Interest rates were high, banks were incredibly selective and investors were reluctant to entrust money to risky ventures. If you are able to accrue 6% interest simply by parking capital institutions why take any risks at all?
The implication and reason for the 2008 financial collapse is that money is cheaper than it has ever been. Interest rates are terrible, banks are desperate to lend money in order to cultivate growth in the economy and investors are willing to take risks in order to accrue money which is not available by historical means. That’s not to say that it is easy to get, only that it is far easier than it has ever been.
So what is scarce today? Truly there is only one thing. We no longer worry about food, housing, capital, or money, comparative to historical precedent.
Our attention is the prize every single technology company in the world is competing for. Our phones, TV’s, the radio, printed media all compete relentlessly to steal our focus and our time. Things are free because we are the product. Companies make money off not just the number of eyeballs they have looking at them, but the length of time they do. Each must accrue inconceivable volumes of data in order to allow them to target you better.
It is almost impossible to escape. Minutes spent scrolling social media turn into hours. The smartest people in the world literally spend their lives exploring ways to hijack your time and attention. The colour of buttons, the size of logos, the specific words used, manipulate our behaviour by playing to natural human instinct. Instant gratification is achieved through a constant stream of feedback which keeps us engaged. Not only that but companies like Facebook experiment with the manipulation of our thoughts, feelings and moods in an attempt to elongate user engagement. Morally this is repugnant but what can we do? We sign up and allow ourselves to be exploited.
The internet is a battleground. We may no longer experience the same violence that was prevalent in the 20th century but there is a virtual war being waged to win your attention at all costs. If you use the internet and their services you consent fully to whatever tactics they decide to employ.