#153: Incunabula

Right now, artificial scarcity is everywhere, and as it flourishes (can scarcity flourish?) it’s harder than ever to distinguish from real scarcity, which suggests that maybe it’s all artificial, or all real. One product of that gray area is The Drunken Canal, a print-only newspaper that two friends started publishing in New York last summer, a hyperlocalized publication documenting a specific part of downtown Manhattan that is a meme as much as a geographic location, prompting the author of this interview with the editors to question whether that place really even exists. The newspaper itself may not exist, for that matter—I’ve never seen a physical copy. I live across the river and would have to make a special trip to get one, which I don’t, which is the whole point. I’m excluded from the audience the old-fashioned way. I imagine many internet people will find this insufferable, but I think it’s great, even though the format makes the publication less accessible to me. The Drunken Canal exposes the fallacy that all content needs to be online, and reminds us that geography is a time-honored mechanism for filtering information. Robin Sloan has described social media as a perspective-free “orthographic camera” that results in “the standardization of all events, no matter how big or small, delightful or traumatic, to fit the same mashed-together timeline.” Spatial constraints are one way to disentangle that. The most appealing future I can imagine involves a better synthesis of the physical and digital worlds than their current uneasy coexistence, and this is a step forward.

Nonetheless, to print something instead of posting it is to make it scarce. Analog distribution was still surprisingly common as late as the ‘00s, a time when the internet was maturing rapidly but old media consumption habits and preferences hadn’t yet caught up, so printing a stack of papers and leaving it at a coffee shop still felt like a good idea. That was still real scarcity—we could post everything on blogs but couldn’t yet assume that many people would actually read them. Doing the exact same thing in 2021, when the potential online audience for writing massively dwarfs that of any alternative, is a much different statement. It is artificial scarcity, but calling it that feels like a disservice to the project. It’s just prioritizing a specific audience, like everything else does and always has. During the height of the 2018 electric scooter craze, I wrote about how the scooters were a “tech” product that inverted the logic of ridesharing: You didn’t need to use an app to find a scooter because there were so many of them piled up on every street corner; cheap hardware was the enabling factor, as this article explained: “Chinese hardware production has been steadily and rapidly introducing new physical products to the world, influencing our physical environments in much the same way that internet memes have influenced our digital ones.” When everything is abundant, nothing is, and mass-produced objects suddenly became a better channel for a certain type of customer acquisition than waiting for people to open yet another app.

In other words, the distinction between physical scarcity and digital abundance is less rigid than we like to imagine. Manufacturing has advanced to the point where physical limitations are frequently as artificial as digital ones, and sometimes cost itself isn’t even a constraint, as many companies choose to sell their product at a loss in order to gain market share. In his 2015 book The Stack, Benjamin Bratton writes, “If nothing else, Bitcoin has made money into a general design problem, as it should be.” Now that we spend larger and larger shares of waking life within designed environments, we can expect scarcity to be a conscious decision when we encounter it—a product of design or politics more than the underlying physical reality. It’s been abundantly clear for a while, and especially this year, that many of our society’s most urgent privations—the physical scarcity that the internet supposedly transcends—are political first and technological second. When the money printer goes brrrr, it doesn’t make everyone richer, it just redistributes the claims upon the underlying value. As the internet reorients itself around the realization that digital space isn’t an escape from the limitations we encounter elsewhere in the world, we might paradoxically learn how arbitrary those limitations frequently are.

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  • This week I wrote about the concept of community and why we need a new word for the digital version.

  • Last week I wrote about NIMBYism and Montana’s housing crisis.

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