Innovation and technology should lead to abundance not scarcity

To appear in IETE Technical Review, Jan-Feb 2015.

How did economies start? In olden days, after meeting our requirements, we shared the surplus with neighbours and relatives. This also helped us bridge relationships necessary for a healthy society. However, when we started using money as a primary medium of transaction, the producer and the consumer became separate entities and began to increasingly exchange scarce man-made goods. As a result, we moved from a situation of abundance (of labour, goodwill, and renewable resources) to scarcity. This problem is compounded by the advent of science and technological innovations [1].

In 1934, Stuart Chase, in The Economy of Abundance, suggested to  imagine the life of people who lived 100 years ago [1], [2]. They were using far less energy than we are using now. They found means of deriving energy from the easily available and renewable resources such as wood, water, wind and animal labour. It was a hard life, nonetheless, socially rewarding and personally satisfying. Nearly two centuries later, we use several hundreds of times more energy than those people. A typical US lifestyle requires ~11 kW/person and in Europe, it is ~3.5 -5.5 kW/person. India and China manage with about 1 kW/person. The world average nowadays is about 2 kW/person. If our energy requirements continue to increase at today’s rate, in future we may require, on an average, no less than 4 kW/person. This translates into about 40 TW for a 10 billion people world [3]. That is mind boggling!

In spite of technological advances and increased consumption of energy, modern life has become very complex and is not any happier than it was a couple of centuries ago. We have become self-centered and devoid of any social concerns. A behavioural neuroscientist would describe us today as curiosity driven and pleasure seeking human animals. Our striving for immediate gratifications and insatiable desires is addictive. This deprives us of the opportunity to be self-aware and prudent and does not let us work towards building an equitable and sustainable society using science and technology as instruments [4].

The basis for being a scientist is rational thinking. Unfortunately, when we are rational, it snatches away from us the neutral values such as love, compassion and sharing which are the foundations for a happy living. Therefore, a rational person becomes a self-interested person. It is a time-honoured fact that a self-interested person cannot contribute to the common good of the society [5].

With the advent of science (and hence, rational thinking) together with money as our medium of transaction, we moved from a situation of abundance to scarcity because wealth accumulation has become our primary focus. Greed (an unwillingness to share) is the shadow of scarcity. Creating scarcity fuels competition. To be competitive, we use innovation and withhold knowledge [1]. Legal restrictions on knowledge lead to monopoly and exploitation by those who hold the knowledge. Hence, we drifted from a position of exchange of surplus to exchange of scarcity idolizing profit driven innovators as the primary vehicles of development. “Abundance has been appropriated by some and squandered by most of us” leading to the mess that we are in [2]. In this situation, those who are rich become richer at the cost of those who are marginal. We seem to have forgotten what Andrew Carnegie, a great philanthropist, once wrote: ‘A man who dies rich dies disgraced’.

A rational and sustainable world is possible only if there is abundance. For innovators to be able to build a sustainable world, we need to create an environment where passion, intrinsic motivation and willingness to share knowledge become core values to the psychology of young innovators. Innovation and technology should be used to make our lives fulfilling and cooperative. We should not let innovation and technology make us more anxious, addictive, fearful, competitive and greedy than ever.

I think we need to sensitize our young innovators to revisit our economic models and strive to build economies of abundance rather than scarcity.

References:

  1. A. Fricker, “Economies of abundance”, Futures, vol.31, pp.271–280, 1999.
  2. S. Chase, The economy of abundance, New York: MacMillan, 1934.
  3. D. Cahen and I. Lubomirsky, “Energy, the global challenge, and materials”, Materials Today, vol.11, no.12, pp.116-120, December 2008.
  4. P. C. Whybrow, “Dangerously addictive: Why we are biologically ill-suited to the riches of modern America”, Neuropsychiatria i Neuropsychologia, vol.4, issue no.3-4, pp.111-115, 2009.
  5. M. Olson, The logic of collective action, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965.
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6 Responses to Innovation and technology should lead to abundance not scarcity

  1. N Kannan says:

    Sir,
    Thanks for sharing this perspective. Makes me step back and think again on how I want to lead my life. If we look at our own culture, there was a great emphasis on societal interaction as well as sharing (Danam). Human Beings got together and formed society for the greater good thereby ensuring that the indvidual is much better off than he was without the community. But now in trying to be in a constant competition, we are going into ever expanding circles of individulism and disruption in community living. We are turning on it’s head the entire basis of society that helped us come so far. As always underlined by the philosophy of our civilisation that things go in cycles; we are probably in a state of unraveling the societal thread only to re-build it later.

    Thanks
    Kannan

  2. Kushal Shah says:

    Thanks for raising such an important topic! I think one of the main reasons for this situation is our own education system. Right from childhood till graduation, students are learning that sharing is bad. Our examination system strongly rewards individual performance. And whether a student gets 90% or 85% makes a huge difference to his/her future admission prospects! One solution to this could be that a significant portion of the total marks be kept for group tasks.

    I think there is also a fundamental flaw in the ‘lecturing’ mode of taking classes. Here again the student has an individualised experience of taking down notes and may be asking a couple of questions only to the teacher. Instead, if we have the class in a discussion mode, where the discussion is also between students, it naturally leads them towards sharing knowledge with each other. This is known as the Socratic Method:
    http://thomasaquinas.edu/a-liberating-education/why-discussion-socratic-method

    In fact, many of our ancient scriptures also have been written in the discussion format! Thus, it was very much a part of the Indian tradition too at some point of time.

    Best,
    Kushal.

  3. M.R. Ravi says:

    Well said, Jagadesh. Good thought provoking article which calls a spade a spade, without hurting. Keep up the good work..

  4. ojaswini says:

    Thank you so much sir, for such an inspiring and a thoughtprovoking article. It is difficult to decide whether “technology is leading to scarcity'” but yes definitely It has made everyone individualistic .For example when there was no mobilephone one landline phone could serve every member of the family , there was no concept of” privacy”. Now if there are four members in a family there have to be four mobiles,

    secondly, it is sad that we do not want to share the abundance with ou friends and relatives. well i do not want to blame the education system or anyone for this. All I can say is these days people prefere to sell the ” extra, outgrowns, abundance in OLX.com, Quicker.com for extra money.

  5. Samrat Mukhopadhyay says:

    Well conveyed… the concept of abundance has now shifted only to big houses and cars – more sad in a country like India which used to be known for her spiritual abundance…. Perhaps sharing thoughts like these convey what abundance is not all about.. what material wealth, power and indulgence should not be confused with…

  6. Aditya says:

    “A behavioural neuroscientist would describe us today as curiosity driven and pleasure seeking human animals” …. So true !!
    In order to turn around this situation, the new generation of engineers/doctors/entrepreneurs/innovators/inventors/etc should start leading by example.
    I will try my best !!

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