Beki Grinter

Computing at the Margins

In C@tM, computer science, discipline, empirical, HCI, ICT4D on March 17, 2010 at 5:43 pm

Recently, C.Shirky made the following observation during a talk.

Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does.  Society knows how to react to scarcity.

I don’t think I agree.

I understand where he’s coming from. I can even see examples of how that is true. At some point the abundance of things that people want to connect to the Internet is going to exceed the capacity we have to give them an address. An argument for IPv6 I believe. I think we see this with information. Google can sort it and help us find it, but it can’t actually help us read it all.

But, I am not sure I agree that society knows how to react to scarcity.

After the end of the Second World War, Britain remained on rationing for years afterwards. They were coping with all sorts of shortages. Reacting by coping I suppose.

Perhaps what niggles me here is that the latter statement seems to suggest that there aren’t problems worthy of attention in scarcity. If society is coping with scarcity but failing with abundance that’s a strong prioritization of the problems of abundance over the problems of scarcity.

One area where I think scarcity really matters is also known as “the digital divide.” I don’t think I am alone, but I think the persistence of the digital divide (it has persisted despite attempts to increase access to the same technologies for everyone) means that “one size fits all” just won’t work. Lots of reasons why. Culture, values, needs, literacies, and so forth. And it is things like that, and many more, that suggest to me that a global-facing Computer Science has to develop a more global science to address these problems. The science of human-built and human-used machines has so far, largely favoured ourselves.

Abundance is the set of problems that we have made, largely for ourselves.

Scarcity is the set of problems that we have made, largely for others.

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