Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Scarcity versus Abundance

I was wrestling the other day about which is better: scarcity or abundance.

On one hand, scarcity can lead people to value something highly and conserve it, whether it's water, electricity, gold, or something else. When something is scarce, its value typically increases, especially if there is demand for the item - we're talking basic economics here.

On the other hand, with abundance, people tend to value things less and waste them more often, or at least not be as cautious about their use. Where I grew up in California, every year there were discussions about water and droughts. In the northeast, we rarely hear much about droughts, watering our lawns too much, washing our cars too often, or reservoirs running dry.

This column is not about economics or even the environment for that matter, but my mind was working on how the availability of technology can change how society functions.

Take for example how fast computers are.

When there's a scarcity of computational horsepower, only highly valued tasks and functions are done. Specifically, when mainframes were all the computers that we had, only large projects that would speed up processing of things -- like airline reservations and business accounting functions - were performed by these giant, expensive machines.

Back then, we as programmers spent large amounts of our time making efficient use of programming and databases.

As the cost of computer power has dropped dramatically, there's an abundance of computing power available to everyone, in the form of a personal computer, mobile phone, calculator, automobile, etc. We've taken what was a very expensive resource and made it so cheap that these little computers are seemingly everywhere.

And because the computers are so cheap, we can afford to let them sit idle much, if not most, of the time.

For example, most personal computers are idle 90 percent of the time. They may be on, but while you're reading your e-mail, they're essentially sitting idle. The same is true with the GPS in your car, the mobile phone in your pocket and just about every device you own.

The significant drop in the power of computing has allowed many more people to use the power of computers. Because computing power is not reserved solely for people who can afford expensive resources, it allows many more people to use and benefit from technology.

Unlike other resources that may be wasted, such as gasoline, food and water, computing power has a very small pollution footprint. Yes, there's energy that's required to power a computer.

Due to the decrease of computational power, many software developers spend more time creating new applications rather than focusing on squeezing every bit of computational horsepower out of a processor.

I think the new focus on new applications is great for everyone. We benefit from more and more applications that help us in our daily lives and the technology becomes easier and easier to use.

Similarly, bandwidth is a resource that continues to benefit everyone.

The days of dial-up modems prevented us from doing much of anything (at least as compared to today) -- things like making free or cheap long distance or international phone calls, watching a television show or movie, or downloading music were all things that were simply not possible.

Now we take them for granted.

The best part about these technologies is that there is essentially an endless supply. We can always make more computers that will inevitably be faster than the previous generation. We can also make more bandwidth that will let us use the Internet and other technologies for purposes we can't even conceive today.

So while sometimes scarcity brings creativity and efficiency, I also believe that abundance can bring even more creativity and efficiency.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 14 April 2010.
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