Scarcity, Excess and Abundance

Professor Andrew Abbott gave last year an awesome lecture at the London School of Economics. Abbott argued that while many of today’s problems seem to arise from scarcity – the lack of resources, such as food or money –, in fact many of our problems are quite the opposite: problems of excess.

Scarcity means that we do not have enough to get by. Excess means that we have too much, and that somehow distracts us. There is a third quantity, abundance, which means we have enough of a resource not to be troubled by it.

I suppose nobody can argue against abundance. In fact, this should probably be the goal of the human race: how to distribute resources so that they are abundant for every person on the planet. But in aiming for abundance, we have at several places erred on the side of excess.

Western countries already have a huge excess of food. This creates the weird global paradox: half of the world is starving to death, the other half eating themselves to death.

We also have an excess of unwanted byproducts of our culture, such as pollution. Chinese factories, or Fukushima, have produced an excess of such material that we are troubled by.

But what is the most pressing problem with the advance and constantly accelerating development of technology is the excess of information. We are bombarded to death with information, while our conscious minds can only process about three or four things at a time.

Yet a few decades ago, areas of life such as research and product development suffered from a scarcity of information. Sometimes you had to go to the other side of the world to get the information you wanted. I remember contacting the British Library to photocopy and fax me a research paper I could not find anywhere else in the world.

Now it’s all online, and the problem is the opposite. We have now an excess of information, and discovering the information that you need right now is sometimes even harder than before.

The solution to the problem of excess is focus. Focus on the essential; on what really counts at each given moment.

We need to focus on what we eat – that we get the nutrients that we really need, and not let our lizard brain guide us to chomping up on calories that serve no purpose in our daily lives.

We need to focus on what to produce – that we get hardware that we really need and not let our need to placate our stressed selves send us into a spending spree, cramming our houses full of useless clutter.

And we need to focus on what we really need to know. To zone in on those pieces of information that really count – and ignore the rest.

The problem is, all this is easier said than done. Everybody knows we should eat less than we consume. Yet almost nobody does this.

This is why we need tools.

For balancing diets, the wearable tech revolution that we are witnessing right now may for the first time give us a universal toolkit for managing dietary inputs and outputs. Check out, for example, the amazing lineup from Fitbit to see where we’re at right now.

For consuming, algorithms employed by e.g. Amazon help us zoom in better on what really makes us feel great and consume more of that stuff, as compared to picking up whatever’s stocked on the store shelves.

As for cognition, services such as Simplenote or help us really focus better on what’s going on in our everyday lives, not to speak of Google, whose search algorithms are getting more amazing by the day.

There is a really cool passage in the Sherlock Holmes short story “Five Orange Pips”, where Sherlock tells Watson: “a man should keep his little brain-attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it.”

So should we. In suffering with the daily excess of information, we should eliminate those sources of information and interruptions that do not serve a real function, and focus on the ones that do.

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While excess may be as bad a source of illbeing as scarcity, it has one upside going for it.

If we cut down from excess, we will eventually end up with abundance.