When A Humor Site Understands The Implications Of Abundance Better Than The 'Experts'…

from the nicely-done dept

A whole bunch of you* sent over the article from humor site Cracked, all about scarcity and abundance in economics. Wait, what? A humor site? Yeah, a humor site. Of course, they don’t officially claim it’s an article about scarcity and abundance in economics (though, they come close). Instead, in true linkbait-fashion it’s called “5 Reasons The Future Will Be Ruled By B.S.” Nicely done. Then, it focuses on the idea that the future can be described as FARTS: Forced ARTificial Scarcity.

That, of course, is the kind of thing we talk about all the time, and damn these Cracked guys, they actually make it funny:

Remember the debut of Sony’s futuristic Matrix-style virtual world, PlayStation Home? There was a striking moment when the guys at Penny Arcade logged in and found themselves in a virtual bowling alley… standing in line. Waiting for a lane to open up. In a virtual world where the bowling alley didn’t actually exist. It’s all just ones and zeros on a server–the bowling lanes should be effectively infinite, but where there should have been thousands of lanes for anybody who wanted one, there was only FARTS.

The key point, raised at the beginning of the article, which is the point we’ve been trying (and most likely, failing) to make for years, is that this isn’t just about music and movies. Issues of abundance where there used to be scarcity is going to impact all sorts of industries, even beyond what many people expect. Or, as the folks at Cracked explain:

Which brings me to an amusing story. In the last few decades, thousands of babies in Third World countries have died from contaminated baby formula. Wait, did I say amusing? I typed the wrong word there. Anyway, what happens is the mothers mix the baby formula with contaminated water, because sanitation is poor. So why the hell do the mothers feed their infants poison formula when they can just produce milk, for free, from their own bodies? The answer is that they do it because the manufacturer of the formula, Nestle, ran lots of ads telling them to.

If you want to know what the future looks like, there it is. The future is going to hang on whether or not businesses will be able to convince you to pay money for things you can otherwise get for free.

Some of you think I’m about to talk about file sharing and DRM and the evil record labels. But that’s just a teaser of what’s coming. The world has changed. All the rules we were trained to believe about society from birth until now are about to go out the window.

In other words, get ready to learn how to “compete with free.” Of course, it turns out that it’s really not that difficult. They also do a bang up job walking through the basic thought process that goes into the steps down the road of abundance:

An ebook sold to a library will thus delete itself out of existence after a year, or after X number of times it had been lent out. This is a big source of controversy between publishers and public libraries, maybe because both of them know they’ve found the loose thread that can unravel all of society. After all: A. Why can’t the library just buy as many digital copies as are needed for the customers, and keep them forever, if they don’t naturally degrade?

B. Wait a second. It’s just a digital file. Why not just buy one copy, and just copy and paste it for every customer who wants to read it?

C. Wait a second. Why do you need the library at all? Why can’t a customer just buy a copy from the publisher and “lend” copies to all of his friends?

D. Wait a second. If no printing and binding needs to be done, why do you need the publisher? Just buy it directly from the author.

E. Waaaaait a second. Why buy it? Once the author makes one copy available, why can’t everyone just grab it for free?

So, the article’s author, David Wong, concludes, the future of pretty much all commerce is going to be about marketers trying to convince you to buy stuff that you can get for free anyway, and when he notes that you probably think you’re too smart to fall for that, he points out that you probably have already, and goes about listing just a couple of examples on his own desk, such as bottled water, Windows on his computer and Excedrin pain medication.

Now, I recognize that it’s a humor piece, and not meant to be taken that seriously, but since it makes some good points in a humorous manner, I do want to push back (not in a humorous manner) on some of the points made in the article. First up, I’d argue that what he’s talking about isn’t really “forced artificial scarcity” at all. Forced artificial scarcity is when the laws are set up to artificially create the barriers that leave you little choice to buy. What he’s talking about isn’t forced, but voluntary — and that’s cool. And it’s also not artificial. The reason people buy things, even when there are free alternatives is because of some very real scarcities, such as convenience, trust, reputation and patronage. So, for example, when he talks about buying Excedrin over the generic, he’s paying for a real, not artificial scarcity (and certainly not forced). He’s paying extra for the very real scarcity of brand comfort and trust.

Separately, he exaggerates (yes, yes, I know, it’s a comedy piece, and exaggerating is how comedy works, but I’m the idiot trying to pretend there are real lessons in it, so hear me out) the jobs “lost” due to these changes. The jobs change, certainly, but they’re not necessarily lost. And that’s because with each abundance, all kinds of new scarcities are created as well. Historically, as industries defined by scarcity move to abundance, the new scarcities tend to create even more new jobs. Now, it’s true that it’s not always easy for those in the old jobs to make the switch to the new ones, but almost always other new jobs do open up (which were often more lucrative than the old jobs). Remember when automated phone switching was going to put all those operators out of work? Except, yeah, that didn’t happen. Instead, automated switching created tons of new jobs, such as call centers, and led to new innovations (like the internet) that created even more new jobs.

But, yeah, those are finer points to nitpick in an otherwise quite enjoyable piece on the economics of scarcity and abundance. And, now, I’m left wondering why I don’t go out and hire someone who’s actually funny to write about the various important issues we like to cover on this site…

* And despite so many of you sending it in, we already knew about it by the time you did. That’s because hidden in the middle of the article there, Cracked links to our story about libraries fighting with publishers over ebooks. And, despite the fact that this is the sort of link in the middle of a long story that people normally ignore, Cracked appears to get more traffic than Google and Facebook combined, and so even when an infinitesimally small number of those readers chose to click on that obscure, boring-sounding link in the middle of such an article, it shows up prominently in our log files, making me wonder who cracked Cracked to add a link to Techdirt and what could I ever do to get that sort of traffic to an article on the economics of abundance and scarcity?

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Comments on “When A Humor Site Understands The Implications Of Abundance Better Than The 'Experts'…”

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Marcus Carab (profile) says:

David Wong (the man behind this particular article) is the editor of Cracked and a very insightful writer. I strongly recommend checking out some of his other work – not all of it is as applicable to Techdirt, but he’s very good at making a variety of topics informative and hilarious at the same time:

– On online anonymity
– On behavioral-psychology based games like Farmville
– On advertising and “brainwashing” techniques

Cracked, by the way, has some pretty cool takes on the whole CwF side of things – they crowdsource a lot of their content with contests and open submissions, and the main site is really bolstered by the highly active forums full of dedicated fans. Admittedly I haven’t seen much RtB from them, which is a shame because I think it would be very effective.

R. Miles (profile) says:

Long time Cracked reader here.

I find many of the articles on Cracked, though humorously written, contain considerable factual information, and this is quite pleasing to read. Nothing like learning while laughing.

Now, Mike, don’t get jealous and certainly don’t copy. Both are bad, remember? 😉

Keep TD the way it is. I like the bland, non-humorous delivery of stories. Easy to read and I’m not distracted with pictures of breasts.

Though, to be fair to Cracked, their image captions are often funnier than the articles.

It’s just good to have both sites bookmarked.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

World of abundance

First off I found a new site, thanks!!

“That’s what ACTA is about. This massive worldwide treaty would bring the hammer down on anyone violating intellectual property laws. Everyone on the Internet hates it because we know it
1) would have to be incredibly invasive, to the point of basically peering into everyone’s hard drive at any moment for signs of contraband, and
2) is futile. It’s a leaking ship trying to stay afloat by threatening the ocean with its cannons.”

We as a society are going to have to come to terms with the fact that the cost of all things are going to approach zero over time. That artificial scarcities like content, food, energy, etc are going to go away. What do we do then ??

Shawn (profile) says:


I was Interested and a little excited when I learned that our local library card granted me access to Over Drive.. tons of down-loadable audiobooks yippie!! Oh wait the selection is limited to a fraction of all titles based on your local Library (ok I can see that) oh wait… All copies of that audio book are currently checked out… would you like to join the waiting list? WTF FARTS indeed!

Trish says:

You're hilarious

Perhaps I am easily impressed but I have always come here for the humor. I am not in the industry, I knew nothing about the stuff you talk about before coming to Techdirt, and I have laughed many times. How could you not laugh at the stupidity you call people out on sometimes? I like your style Mike, don’t hire someone else to do this!
PS: I am a wee bit nerdy though so perhaps it’s not a humor for everyone 😉

R. Miles (profile) says:

Re: Pshh...

“It’s like you don’t even see me standing here….”
The old phrase about a white elephant entered my mind just now.

That’s before the pink elephants took over.

As for your issue, I would probably guess that large, ominous dark helmet is like a black hole. We know it’s there, we just can’t see until the items around it start moving their way to a singularity.

Silver lining: by your very nature, you’re attractive and we can’t escape that fact.

Anonymous Coward says:

“…listing just a couple of examples on his own desk, such as bottled water, Windows on his computer and Excedrin pain medication.”

His desk?! That’s MY desk he’s sitting at!

Re: lost jobs – when jobs are lost, it’s terrible, sure. But those jobs are actually people, and they are (hopefully) not stacked up like cordwood in some hidden warehouse, they’re out getting other work. The whole lost jobs thing is a cudgel wielded to instill fear and maintain a status quo that isn’t benefiting anyone but the entrenched. This is the anvil corps hold over pols, despite the history of corps axing workforce first to prop up profits. They do it all the time withOUT the paranoia of new models, why is it suddenly a tragedy that must be forestalled with pointless legislation when they do it *because* of paranoia?

A truer issue is worker skillsets when jobs are eliminated, the outmoded or needed skillsets, as Mike alludes.

Free Capitalist (profile) says:

Ugly... but ....

what could I ever do to get that sort of traffic to an article on the economics of abundance and scarcity?

You may have overstated the traffic Cracked.com gets by a smidge, but that is a very good question to pose to yourselves.

Here are my own opinions on the popularity disparity:
1) Humor is a very, very broad market. Perhaps especially in hard times people need to break up the worry, stress and for many monotony of survival. Additionally, Cracked does have a lot of subjects they rip on, which might increase the incidental discoveries people make when they see something linked that they are personally interested in.

2) Intellectually, Cracked is a “little” less challenging than Techdirt. I’m not going to hit this one too hard, but lots of people don’t want to learn, and many others are too beleaguered to think of anything outside of their own worries… see #1. You also have a somewhat acerbic keyboard, while many people are looking for the Absurdic angle.

3) IMO, the site is a long way from its long past glory, but there seems to be a Fark – Digg connection. When you get Farked every day, more people seem to start Digging you. This may seem illogical, as Cracked seems to get way more traffic than Fark, but I think the visitor behavior at Fark has something to do with it. Either way, Cracked gets linked in more places in large part due to #1. Humor is viral by its genetics, and always has been.

4) Politics can be really, really stupid. We have a flooded market of commentary, and with all this information, lots of people want to pick a ticket and stick with it, rather than have to digest new information or make critical analyses of things they thought they had figured out. It’s the reason political entertainment like Glen Beck and Snookie is so popular today.

OK TL;DR or edit myself.

Mike, on the whole I really like what you are doing. You are in a fairly different market than Cracked. Do not go and change the tenants of what you are trying to accomplish. Maybe a drop-in humorist would be an enjoyable thing, but stay focused. We need it.

Go get Farked or buy the NY Times or something.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Ugly... but ....

Mike, on the whole I really like what you are doing. You are in a fairly different market than Cracked. Do not go and change the tenants of what you are trying to accomplish. Maybe a drop-in humorist would be an enjoyable thing, but stay focused. We need it.

Heh, and thus, proving my point. My crack about trying to get that kind of traffic to articles about economics of scarcity and abundance was meant to be a joke itself. But apparently, I’m humor-impaired.

Go get Farked or buy the NY Times or something.

Would happy to get Farked more regularly if folks want to submit us. Love Fark. If there are any regular Fark users, feel free to submit our stories. 🙂

Free Capitalist (profile) says:

Re: Re: Ugly... but ....

But apparently, I’m humor-impaired.

Not so quick there… I really cannot be the judge of that, as the record here by a wide margin shows I’m the one who is humor impaired (Just ask DH). And a bit … well… obvious.

For real, though, I feel I’ve learned quite a few things here thanks to you and the better portion of the community around your site. Thanks!

packrat (profile) says:

Re: Ugly... but ....

where do I start?
Humor is suprise, synethsis or cultural supernormal stimualtion. take my wife… please.

it is ALSO (sex, violence, humor) the highest inteltectual function most people are capible of.

the crowd courcing done at cracked is’you do it, I keep all the money’ THEN you try to cash in on a reputation (names mean traffic, right?)

I regard most acta, current copyright etc as a the biggest landgrab in history and use the net for (my) practice.

the 2008 leakcook winner (from podcast to national award, no publisher) repeats an old programmering lesson.

never release junk it’ll NEVER go away.


out_of_the_blue says:

And now back to the dark side:

“So why the hell do the mothers feed their infants poison formula when they can just produce milk, for free, from their own bodies? The answer is that they do it because the manufacturer of the formula, Nestle, ran lots of ads telling them to.” — Nestle knows full well, because I do, that their formula isn’t as good as mother’s milk, and that with the water, leads to infant deaths. This is the fundamental evil of capitalism: profits above all moral concerns.

Yet worse is that the Cracked write and most people just gloss over the implications. Indeed, such matter-of-fact, light-hearted statements about ghastly facts are one reason I avoid Cracked; like television and video games, it de-sensitizes to horrors by *mixed* messages: mentions death, then goes for a giggle. It’s a propaganda technique, relentlessly used. — Anyway, at best: doesn’t affect their easy lives, for one thing, and they don’t have the big picture that if world famous Nestle knowingly promotes a product that leads to deaths, then other corporations will similarly try to make a profit on products that lead to your death. You, having been molded into consumer culture, are of course already trying to find wiggle room so you won’t have to admit that sheer fact.

marak (profile) says:

Great article, ive emailed that to a few mates of mine(ok and half a dozen people who will probably roll their eyes and go “why is this guy on my mailing list?”).

But i think as interesting as it is to ponder, were not really going to know how things will turn out – until we get there. But id vote farts is probably the way we will go, and its not necessarily a bad thing… but could be (i think ive borked my brain) – artificial scarcity can be good, but if its a life saving item, then its going to be bad.

I do wonder what a solution is though.


Anonymous Coward says:

Re bottled water vs free tap water

I live I. Kuwait, I have to buy drinking water because the tap water is delivered in dirty trucks and handled by dirty pakastanis.

The water is so bad that I had to remove the bubbler from the faucets because they were full of sand. Sometimes the water is brown after a sandstorm because someone forgot to close the lid of the water tank on the roof.

Bottled water is necessity here.

Ps in the Philippines, bottled water is cheaper than buying a home water filtration machine.

Patrick Durusau (profile) says:

Abundance and Libraries

Sad to see even a humor site repeating the canard about “who needs libraries” in an online world.

Libraries are repositories of physical objects known as books. More importantly, they are the locus of professionals who organize information and assist others in finding information.

When was the last time a librarian handed you 100,000+ “hits” and said, “…the most relevant result to your question is somewhere in these 100,000 resources.”?

That’s what I thought, but we accept that sort of GG (Google Glut) as a “useful answer” to a search query.

Let’s not pander to the ignorance of elected officials who see the Internet as an alternative to libraries. Even for a laugh.


Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Abundance and Libraries

Sure, research libraries and trained librarians definitely still have lots of useful service to offer. They will absolutely still be around – although I think the precise nature of their work is going to be in flux for awhile.

I think the point is more that, as a place to go and pick up casual reading material, they are losing their clout. It’s the community library, not the research library, that is becoming somewhat obsolete. Of course, if those libraries focus on the things they offer that still have scarce value – namely community and a shared space – they may well flourish.

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