Dear Mr Anderson…

(Flickr user "The Rusty Projector")

Read why C. Anderson says we should be like dandelions (Flickr user "The Rusty Projector").

The following is copied from a letter I sent to the editor of Wired, Chris Anderson. In his recent article, he argued that computing power is now abundant and that we need to change our business models and mindset accordingly. While I think he’s to some extent right with that, he (and wired.com in general) like to forget about all of those who don’t keep up with the latest innovations and technologies.*

Dear Mr Anderson

let me first say that I am some sort of fan of yours. You are one of the most articulate proponents of the view that technology will radically change business models and markets to empower the customer and satisfy previously unknown demands. Whatever limitations there might be to this view – I was convinced by, and enjoyed reading, many of your arguments.

However, as I came across your latest essay on wired.com – “Tech Is Too Cheap to Meter: It’s Time to Manage for Abundance, Not Scarcity” – I couldn’t help but voice come critique. This is not to refute your argument entirely, but rather to introduce some balancing perspectives.

Not everything about computing power and its use is abundant. And although a lot of things may seem like they are, we must not forget the scarcities. I will just touch upon a few of them here, hoping that these points will find more mentioning in your future work.

Computers in every home?

I personally cannot imagine life without a computing device somewhere near me. Yet, for many people this is still the case. Just to give one example, the General Household Survey 2007 in the UK found that “only” 71% of all households had a home computer (disregarding for now that those without might still be using a public one).

So my first objection to perfect abundance is that we do not “have computers in every home—and in every pocket and car and practically everywhere else”, as you suggest.

One of the reasons why we don’t is still cost. Without being too fussy, long distance calls on cell phones are not entirely free on cell phones, as you suggest. They require a cell phone to begin with and at least some form of contractual agreement with a service carrier. And while most of us have some form of cell phone today, only a small minority enjoys the services of a smart phone. The same goes for sufficient broadband bandwidth to enjoy the the internet to its full potential.

The regular folks

I also had to stop for a second when you said that “we changed the world by finding applications for [computers] that the technologists had never dreamed of” (original emphasis). Who is “we”? Who are those “regular folks [who] found new ways to use computers”?

I believe it is open to debate how many of those with access to computing technology are actively driving the development of new applications. Admittedly, this share seems to be increasing in times of the App Store and open source software development.

But from a more sober point of view, those “regular folks” don’t seem to be that regular after all. It seems that many of us are still trying to catch up with everyday desktop software when your website is already praising the latest cloud computing service. The skills to use these services, or even to become “a filmmaker”, are unevenly distributed.

Paying the bill

To be fair, the points I mentioned so far might be irrelevant to somebody who’s business or publication targets the large share of the population with sufficient access and skills to enjoy a bit of abundance. Inevitably, innovation will always leave some people behind.

But maybe businesses find it difficult as well to fully embrace the abundance narrative. Is it really “artificial scarcity” when a cell phone company restricts the size of my voicemail inbox? Or does voicemail traffic actually drive the fixed cost on their balance sheet?

I wonder how many businesses – especially in their early stages – can afford to go through “a lot of fruitless minima” before they hit the jackpot. Youtube, as the classic example, has spent several years and billions of dollars, only to be loss-making until today. Without subsidies from Google, such a financial record would be the end of any other business.

Scarce filters

Finally, I would like to pick up on a point that you stressed in The Long Tail – the incredible importance of content filters and aggregators. These are crucial to sift through the abundance of web content out there.

The problem with them is obvious: there is only a few of them which control a massive share of the market. A few companies and their websites control the mechanisms and algorithms that help us find what we’re looking for. You may be right that they help us explore the end of the Long Tail, but how they do it is largely unknown.

And so…

As I said before, the points I tried to make do not serve the purpose of rejecting your argument completely. I believe you provide a nice description of some of the transitions that are currently going on.

What I’m getting at is that a lot of stuff related to computing powers is not abundant. As you are responsible for driving and reporting many of the advancements in technology, it is important to keep that in mind.

* For all of you who’ve studying at LSE with me, the arguments of this post will sound pretty familiar. Please comment if you like to add anything.

3 responses to “Dear Mr Anderson…

  1. We may have an abundance of technology but it’s not just about the computer itself, it’s also about what happen after you get it one. From my point of view property of the ‘artifact’ doesn’t mean that there is no scarcity of skills to get the best out of it. They are highly intuitive and pretty comprehensible but social and cultural capital still matters and they are not in abundance. I’m aware -as you Seb- that this is not a popular opinion because ‘only’ 30% of the population at UK may face this reality (just mentioned those without the PC at home) but not because there is abundance of computers we have automatically scarcity of digital divide, may be in the other way around.

  2. I would support Mr Anderson when he talks about applications and technologists, after all ‘streets find its own use of things’ (William Gibson).
    But there is also a very strong question of historicity. Where are computers being used? Are they ‘breaking’ old patterns of politics and economy? How is technology and society being coproduced?
    My favourite example is India: ‘The new IT superpower’. The only reasons why India has become a an IT hub is because of cheap labour. That has more to do with colonialism that ubiquitous computing.

  3. Hi Sebastian,

    Thanks for your link on my blog. You certainly make some interesting points. One of the main things I like about Chris Anderson’s work is he is looking at the medium and then at the business model to follow – not just trying to squeeze an existing business model onto a new medium. I think that at this stage this is what we need, more thoughts about possibilities and from that a ‘Google’ solution, for want of a better phrase, will eventually emerge.
    Renee

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