“Scarcity and Abundance” is the theme of this year’s Pop!Tech conference, and one can’t help but draw a parallel between the planet’s environmental resources and one of the most powerful capacities of its citizens: attention. Both are scarce. What is abundant, though, is the human need to communicate–and the vast number of channels a digital media society has for that purpose.
Something interesting is happening now that exposes the complex connection between these two scarce resources–nature and attention. With the emergence of micro-blogging services such as Twitter –- effectively filling the void between blogging and instant messaging -– a communication format is made scarce by design. Twitter allows users to post only Haiku-like short messages (140 characters or less) for their friends and followers. This “artificial scarcity” is a burgeoning marketing technique applied in other fields as well (from micro-dining to micro-brands to micro-literature to business-class only microjets to SMS to Radiohead’s “pay-as-you-will” release), but nowhere has it been more influential than with micro-blogging, which seems to have fostered an entirely new paradigm of human interaction. Twitter makes even blogging look antiquated; Wired in a recent article (“Kill Your Blog”) recommended blogging for “long-form content.” The regime of the short-form has gone mainstream.
This trend implicates consequences for cognitive processes, and it points at what might be an important underlying dichotomy of our time. Let’s call it Twitter vs. Al Gore. With accelerated news cycles, attention spans shrinking, and communications fragmented into 140 character “tweets,” instant gratification and presence seem to have become the predominant paradigms of online interaction. This immediacy stands in stark contrast to the equally popular concept of sustainability, and a tension between the rise of the short form and the call for long-term thinking is inevitable.
Micro-blogging diversifies meaning into myriad atoms of communication, a hyper-targeted in-the-moment form of looking at the world by expressing it in real-time. Sustainable stewardship of nature’s scarce resources requires the exact opposite: a holistic, systemic view on the world, and big-picture thinking beyond instant gratification and self-actualization – both of which based on the insight that the “Future” will not happen if we only think about the “Now.” Philosophically speaking, aren’t speed-dating and sustainability diametrically opposed? And practically speaking, if we’re serious about sustainable solutions in housing, infrastructure, product design, and other areas, don’t we have to start with our day-to-day communications? If “Now is Gone” (Geoff Livingston) – how will we ever secure the “The Long Now” (Alexander Rose)?
Of course you could flip the argument and argue that imposing strict structural constraints on communications (as micro-blogging does) can help us recognize and responsibly deal with the scarcity of environmental resources. But that’s only half the truth. The irony is that the more sliced down the content, the more abundant the channels of communication; the shorter the attention span, the more abundant the volume of micro-formats. So how do we as digital citizens stay focused on the future under the tyranny of permanent distraction? How can we pay attention to the big issues, if attention is becoming an ever more scarce resource in a flood of abundant, ubiquitous micro-communications? Or can we perhaps find a way to utilize both scarcity of attention and abundance of communication for managing natural resources?
You may find these questions quite a stretch, but communications and behavioral change are naturally intertwined. Micro-communications vs. systemic thinking and instant gratification vs. sustainability present two daunting conflicts. If we believe it is paramount to find a more human balance between “scarcity and abundance,” we should start right there.