Is abundance a myth? The Original Affluent Society and Social Media

I stumbled upon the theme of “abundance” in the Toward a Literacy of Cooperation course (#cooplit) and the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) #Change11 (see previous posts on this blog about both courses) – and I have some issues with the underlying idea that our advanced societies and technology fundamentally alter the situation of humankind from problems of scarcity into issues regarding abundance. In the MOOC there is a discussion of A Pedagogy of Abundance, a meditation by education technology professor Martin Weller on how researchers and teachers are confronted with the avalanche of available content (and of course, this is something happening in many other activities such as news media, music industry etc). In the Social Media Classroom of the #cooplit Kathy Gill posted about Cooperation, Competition and Power:

At its core, however, I believe that zero-sum thinking reflects a dance for power in a world where resources are limited. But today’s economy is moving towards unlimited, not limited, resources. That’s what digitization does to information — it breaks the scarcity barrier. Pre-digital, if I wanted to read “the newspaper” — then you, my partner, could not read it at the same time (unless you read over my shoulder). That’s gone. Ditto for movies and music. And then there is the co-creation that Howard talked about today — wikipedia, SETI at home. Lots of examples in Tapscott’s Wikinomics. Perhaps cooperation is something that humans can achieve only when they have moved to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In the U.S., at least, systemic cooperation will require a major cultural shift inside and outside of institutions. And a new definition of “success” that does not rely on wielding “power” over others.

Of course, there is much truth in what Weller and Gill say. But still I’m not so sure we come from a situation defined by scarcity and move to an era of abundance, enabling us to freely cooperate and to stop fighting each other. Howard Rheingold in a comment on Gill’s post gives examples of zero-sum situations such as scarcity of water, but I think there is more. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins articulated the theory of the original affluent society, saying that hunter-gatherers often had far more leisure time than people in contemporary societies. It seems industrialized countries are very good in maintaining a feeling of scarcity, however rich they may be in absolute terms. The structure of desire and the never-ending game of shifting reputation signifiers cause scarcity and competition to stay very important aspects of these societies. This is true – I think – when we think about classical aspects of the consumption society, but maybe also when we think about social media production. What about the effects of shifting reputation signifiers on the competition on social networks? The emergence of new metrics such as the Klout influence index? The time people invest in polishing their online reputation and image, not to mention the work involved in dealing with the noise on the social networks? Which means that maybe, in order to change the nature of often destructive competitions, we’ll need to change the structure of the game. In very (too) general terms I suspect this is related with the production of meaning and with fundamental issues such as how we define what is means to have a good life. It means we should practice the capability of “letting go” of the stream of updates, blogposts and alerts. I guess this has to do what Douglas Rushkoff discusses in Program or be Programmed. He advocates programming, not just blogging in the boxes provided by the big corporations.

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About rolandlegrand

I'm a digital newsroom manager at Mediafin, the publisher of Belgium's leading business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. I have a special interest in the intersection of immersive media, business and philosophy.
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