On the manufacturing of scarcity…

12/04/2002

I really want to write a proper response to this piece on randomchaos.com which discusses the ethics of ‘manufacturing scarcity’. But I’ve been meaning to write something thorough and intellectually satisfying for days, and nothing’s coming. So I’m just going to concentrate on a couple of key points…

Scott says: “Difficulty should never be created. All work should increase ease (in a general sense, work should be self-destructive). I say this because this is the only path toward what seems to me to be an obvious ideal of work being optional.” I think I’d have trouble arguing with the sentiment – but there are problems with relating it directly to these circumstances. Take the use of the word ‘difficulty’ – if making one thing harder really does make many hundreds of thousands of other things easier (in the case of e-mail for example), then collectively the weight of ‘difficulty’ on the community is lowered. We make it hard for people to burn down their houses by fitting smoke alarms and using flame-retardant foam in furniture. This makes it easier for people to live without burning their houses down. We make it hard for people to have their debit/credit card PINs stolen, by making a decision not to print them on each and every connected piece of paper connected with banking. All around us are products and services dripping with usability decisions based around making certain uses easy by making others harder…

Scott also says: When Tom says the lack of scarcity of avatars is a consistent problem for community spaces, he is wrong. The inability to associate avatars with real people is the problem, and Tom is wrongly assuming that scarcity is the only way to create this association. Actually that’s also a profoundly interesting question. One of the things that the internet was particularly celebrated for when it first went mainstream was this ability to shed your identity – to be more anonymous. By forcing people to directly associate identity with avatar, then privacy becomes a huge issue and people find themselves unable to talk freely or honestly. I believe the function of the online community-builder is to locate the particular and unique benefits of online communication and celebrate them – while at the same time not assuming that every aspect of online communication is of benefit. When I talk of scarcity, I’m actually talking about the labour of maintaining them – an identity should be an effort to use. That effort should be negligible for the maintenance of one identity, but substantial for the maintenance of more than one.

Example time… Take for example the simple interaction of logging-in and logging-out of a site. Let’s assume that a computer will have only one browser on it and that only one user can be logged into the site from that computer at any one time. Imagine a circumstance where the process of logging-in is extremely time-consuming, but the user that is logged on will remain logged on indefinitely afterwards. The cost of maintenance here is a one of transaction of ‘logging-in’. But if that user is trying to maintain two identities, that ‘effort’ increases dramatically. Each time he or she wishes to switch identities they have to go through the whole logging-in process. If the process took an hour then a user with one account will spend one hour logging in. Ever. A user with two will spend one initial hour logging in and then an additional hour each time they wanted to change identity. Make it so that you have to post once a week or your account expires, and you add one hour of work each and every week for each account that a user has. Immediately, it’s just much easier to maintain one…