The end of scarcity and the economics of everything (including knowledge)

Earlier today I read an interesting piece by James L. McQuivey on titled Why the End of Scarcity Will Change the Economics of Everything [OPINION]. In it, he asks:

what happens if the economics of scarcity are exchanged for the economics of plenty? For those industries that provide information or experience as a primary good, scarcity is rapidly evaporating. The media business is undergoing a similar change with the rise of citizen journalists, bloggers, and YouTube performers — all of which circumvent the traditional systems that once dictated production norms and processes. Most of these companies have sought to restore order by reinstating scarcity rather than celebrating its passing. It’s not a good sign of things to come.

McQuivey argues that companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter have staked their territories online precisely because they have given their product away. By creating unlimited potential for people to become invested in the product, these companies are renegotiating the rules on the economics of plenty. As he writes, “In their world, the costs to exploit scale revert to zero. The best ideas, no matter how small or underfunded, have the largest potential impact, and a company that gives its value away may stand to gain more value in return.”

Following on from this, McQuivey delivers a fairly bleak outlook for those industries like education that deal primarily in information in the context of an economy of plenty (emphasis added):

Education reformers have long predicted a world where top professors spread their knowledge across the globe through electronic tools. But the knowledge students need is not only located in those few professors’ minds. Once we digitize not just the distribution of knowledge but the production of it, the existing university system loses its raison d’etre. Why would people come to a single physical location at higher and higher costs when the knowledge it houses is no longer scarce?

Now, whether McQuivey’s predictions on the growing economy of plenty come to pass in the way he is imagining or not, it’s still something we should be considering as online museums in the twenty first century. Why would someone visit the Louvre’s website to find out about the Mona Lisa, when they could just click on the first link to pop up in Google? Even assuming they knew that the Mona Lisa was at the Louvre, what would compel them to invest time in learning how an unfamiliar site works, instead of just visiting Wikipedia?

Legona Lisa

In other words, what are we offering to our digital visitors that they can’t get elsewhere on the web? Is it expertise (or access to expertise)? Is it the curation of culture? In an economy that relies on scarcity, museums in their current format make a lot of sense. But what about one that doesn’t?

Examining the Rosetta Stone

As I was writing this post, Jasper Visser from the Dutch Museum of National History sent me a copy of the museum’s vision. The opening page simply states: THE NATIONAL HISTORY MUSEUM STIRS THE HISTORICAL IMAGINATION. Now that’s a pretty awesome goal, and might be just the sort of thinking that can translate to compelling digital content and context in the online museum. Maybe the goal of the digital museum in a content of plenty is not simply to provide content and information – which can indeed be gathered from almost everywhere – but to stir the historical (or scientific or artistic) imagination. Maybe rather than relying on the scarcity of their product, museums online can find a way to do what arguably they have always done extraordinarily well and get people to ask questions, instead of seeking simply to provide answers.

Addendum: I was thinking about this on the cycle home, and I started wondering about whether any museums do include information about what is still unknown about their collections, as well as providing known information. What I mean is, surely there are works of art or objects in the museum that still raise questions. And if so, would providing those questions in context with the work and the associated text give people a compelling reason to invest in museum collection websites? I am guessing that one reason Wikipedia became so popular is that it asked of investment of people’s knowledge, and gave them opportunity to contribute to the collected intelligence of the world. Maybe museums need to do a bit more of the same. Rather than simply allowing people to tag works of art etc, we should actively seek new expertise by opening up about the gaps in our collections, and in our knowledge. Solving puzzles is a pretty addictive thing to do. No doubt that’s why Google have just started their A Google A Day page… The difference is the puzzles on their pages have known answers. Maybe one of the sweet things about museums is that the answers to our puzzles have not yet been found. Just a thought…

5 thoughts on “The end of scarcity and the economics of everything (including knowledge)

  1. Your thoughts are right on target with many things swimming around in my head lately (and, through these many fantastic museum-tech conferences of late, many others too, I’m sure!) but it’s really great to see them articulated so clearly. I’ve been very interested in how museums and other cultural sector experts should be sharing their content, in Wikipedia and elsewhere, and what that means for their websites. I’d love to chat more about this – I’ll be writing a more substantial article about the future of museum collections & Wikipedia starting in September. Happy to find your blog! 🙂 hstryqt (@) gmail (.) com.

    1. Sounds great Lori! You should absolutely stay in touch. I’d love to hear more about your Wikipedia work, and to keep in the loop when you are writing your article about the future of museum collections and Wikipedia. Sounds right up my alley, and I think there will be some interesting thoughts and discussions come out of it.
      An interesting article that you might like to read is Christian Pentzold’s Fixing the floating gap: The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia as a global memory place. I’ve linked you to the abstract here, but let me know if you can’t get to it yourself through your uni library or something (are you still a grad student?).

      1. Thanks so much for the link, that article is great! I have a Wikipedia bibliography that I’d be happy to share with you; I’ve been compiling it for about a year but hadn’t come upon that article, so thank you! I also keep track of all of our museum-Wikipedia news here:

        Yes I’m still in grad school so shouldn’t have trouble accessing the full article. I have one more year left. Not going for the PhD, I think my husband might freak out 🙂 after one half-finished masters of Education and then this! But I’m very much looking forward to my research this fall. A preliminary abstract is similar to my for the Wikimania conference this year.

        I have a proposal in for MCN2011 – I hope to see you there! I went last year and it’s what made me want to refocus on museum technology. Very inspiring!

      2. Ah ha! I’ve read your Museums & Wikipedia: The Future of Collaboration and Accessibility post – now it all comes clear! I’ll keep an eye out for any other articles that I come across that might be relevant to you as well 🙂

        I don’t know whether I will be able to make it to MCN2011. The student budget is pretty tight, and with one international conference under my belt already for the year, I might be pushing it for a second. But I will see what I can do. I gained so much from MW2011, so getting to MCN in the same year would just be amazing. Not to mention, it would be a chance to explore a bit more of your lovely country. I was surprised by just how much I loved the States when I was there… so getting back would be awesome – particularly with so many new people to meet.

        I am going to be volunteering to help out with the conference from here however, so you have to let me know if your proposal gets approved.

  2. Yep that’s me!

    I can add you to my Wiki-in-Museums-and-Education bibliography if you shoot me an email (or pass along yours – sorry if I missed it somewhere!) It’s in a Google Doc.

    Great to (virtually) meet you & I’ll definitely be in touch! Lots of fun coming this summer & fall and I’m sure you’ll be having a blast at Powerhouse 🙂

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