New York, by Denys Nevozhai, Unsplash

on overabundance

This is the seventh and penultimate chapter in a series of pieces about our modern relationship with time and the future. Titled Hourglass, It’s an exploration into how our abstract view of time has changed in modernity, how it has met (or has yet to meet) the needs of the present, and what we can do to better prepare ourselves for what’s to come.

First Chapter / Previous Chapter / Next Chapter (next week)

For the past few centuries, we’ve lauded abundance, singing the tune of more is better. More information, more goods, more trade. What could be wrong with that? And for the most part, we’ve been right. By almost every metric, the modern world is a better place and time to be alive than any time in prior history. Global life expectancy has doubled since 1900¹. In the same time, global GDP has skyrocketed from $3.42 trillion to well-over $100 trillion today². Within the last generation, more than a billion people were freed from extreme poverty³. The global literacy rate has increased from 42% in 1960 to 86% in 201⁵⁴. I could go on. In short, we did good. Today’s people can live longer, eat better, and afford more than they’ve ever been able to before. But this sudden influx of abundance poses increasing challenges in the modern age, particularly in developed countries who have reaped the benefits of abundance for decades. At what point does abundance become overabundance, and how do we grapple with the consequences? Is there even such a thing as too much of a good thing? And, notably, what happens when we fight over the most scarce of resources — time?

Selling Air

Imagine for a second that you owned a business that sold air. How would you sell it, and for how much? Would people buy it?

The challenge lies in the fact that air is a public good — it’s both nonrivalrous, meaning it isn’t limited in supply through consumption, and non-excludable, meaning you can’t prevent people from sharing it⁵. The behavior of public goods diverges from your typical supply and demand; their behavior can be surprisingly non-convergent in practice due to the game-theoretic situations they elicit⁶. The behavior of public goods is complicated by the fact that scarcity in supply is no longer a limiting factor — the supply curve goes completely slack, and the bottleneck is a combination of a person’s willingness to pay and their capacity to consume. In simple terms, public goods are hard to deal with because they don’t fit neatly into simple market dynamics dictated by your typical introductory microeconomics course. And it’s most unfortunate that they are so finicky, because as it turns out, the most valuable commodity happens to be one of them. That’s right, information is a public good⁷.

In the data-driven economy, there’s a saying that has been used so many times it has become almost a cliche: “If you’re not paying, you’re the product.” So the theory goes, if I watch a video on YouTube, I’m not the consumer — rather, my attention is forwarded to an advertisement, whose company pays YouTube and keeps the lights on, so to speak. So long as YouTube supplies a sufficient number of eyeballs glued to a screen and some company demands their attention, the world goes on its merry way. This is a common diatribe from people who are discontented with the way that companies dehumanize their end-users. If we’re the product, we don’t have agency. If we don’t have agency, we don’t matter. We might as well just be inanimate objects, pieces of plastic moving in a giant conveyor belt. But here’s the problem. I don’t have to choose YouTube.

If YouTube were, say, an apple orchard, it could grow apples and sell them to a customer. Nowhere in that equation can the apple grow a pair of legs and scurry off, to, say, a competitor orchard. In that sense, an apple orchard’s value isn’t determined by how much the apples want to be in the orchard. At the end of the day YouTube still provides content to me — and everyone else — in an effectively unlimited way. The better the content, the more value to me, but the supply still remains more or less the same. As long as YouTube’s servers are running, everyone can, in theory, have access to YouTube, and the only bottleneck to an infinite consumption of the stuff is our willingness or ability to keep watching. This creates another relationship between the users and these companies, resulting in a heavily asymmetrical two-sided market where one end of the market behaves almost like a public good⁸. If you’ve ever interacted with Uber, Amazon, or Netflix, you’ve been a player in a two-sided market.

While two-sided markets are well-studied, a variant of modern two-sided markets pose a challenge. First, they are deeply asymmetric — it’s trivial for Netflix to provide content to a new user, but a new user needs to spend a non-trivial amount of time committing to consume that content. Second, some of these networks decouple revenue generation and their value proposition. In Uber, for example, the value generation is in providing more drivers, and the more drivers there are, the more the riders want to join in on the service (so-called “Network Effects”⁹). But take an example like YouTube — if the content is better, that’s a direct benefit to the viewer. But the viewer doesn’t pay the bills, advertisers do. Hence, the decoupling. And the problem gets worse from here.

As technology progresses, more and more industries are being shifted towards markets where the bottleneck is not the ability to supply a good, but the ability to consume it. Technological innovation also enables highly non-linear growth, where the change in marginal revenue outpaces the change in marginal costs — a process we define as scaling¹⁰. The economic challenges of scaling are rife with nonlinear processes, which for the time being we won’t go into too much detail. Suffice it to say that the behavior of businesses that scale through tech is, by its very definition, nonlinear, and that such nonlinearities are far from intuitive.

Let’s use Facebook as an example. Facebook’s ability to provide the offering for the user gets easier and easier the more users there are. At the same time, the user is constrained by a number of factors — their schedule, their commitments, their boredom — on how much time they’re able to commit to scrolling through Facebook (the aforementioned asymmetry). This means that in order for Facebook to acquire new users, it needs to compete with other offerings for their time. And since each additional user provides more value to the company, Facebook will continue to try harder and harder to get their attention.

Not all businesses will experience all of these phenomena at once — asymmetry, decoupling, and scaling — but many of them, especially those that are heavily involved in gathering and disseminating information, will experience a combination of these factors throughout its lifecycle.

This is what some people miss when they describe companies like Facebook and Google as advertising companies — the idea that the user is the product glosses over the fact that these companies are still competing for your attention, the consequences of which play out in the public sphere. They’re not just shuffling you off to advertisers, they’re competing for your time — the bottleneck in the pipeline. And the nature of this time-based competition has important ethical consequences, which we shall see shortly. The laws of scaling, two-sided-markets, and quasi-public goods will come to define the modern age, not just in information and data-driven fields, but a wide variety of other markets as well.

If you were fortunate enough to take a college course on scaling, little of this would be news to you. But most introductory economics courses gloss over public goods, two-sided markets, and scaling, despite the fact that increasingly large players are operating according to those laws. This is a problem because, like it or not, these kinds of markets are here to stay. And they’re here to win.

Buying Time

I should note that the competition for your time extends beyond companies like Google or Facebook, but also to content providers, such as news networks.

In Ezra Klein’s fantastic book, Why We’re Polarized, he explores the systemic changes that have led to greater polarization in the United States. As the chief-editor of Vox, he’s incredibly familiar with how modern economics has shaped the political landscape. In a telling section of his book, he explains:

We can’t rely on people to read us out of duty; we have to compete with literally everything else for their attention. Rachel Maddow is at war with reruns of The Big Bang Theory. Vox’s YouTube channel competes with Xbox games. Time spent reading this book [Why We’re Polarized] is time not spent listening to the podcast Serial. The logic of this extend to the very edges of our conscious life and beyond. Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings famously said his biggest competitor is sleep. This is the context in which modern political journalism is produced and absorbed: an all-out war for the time of an audience that has more choices than at any point in history.

— Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized [11]

In short, news companies aren’t just competing with other news companies. They’re competing with Netflix, Instagram, and the Superbowl Halftime Show — all for a slice, a tiny fraction, of your time and attention. He goes on to talk about how the modern era of content-saturation has led to the pursuit of virality, exemplified by Buzzfeed articles that cater to core identities of their viewer base.

By this logic, it should come as little surprise that polarization is taking place in the United States and elsewhere around the globe (though, it should be said, at a more moderate pace). Content providers, of all sorts, are driven to provide content that their viewers enjoy, that speak to the underlying principles and identities that their viewers feel attached to. News organizations are no different¹¹.

Polarization extends beyond news organizations into political institutions themselves. Gerrymandering and the existence of party primaries have been proposed as drivers of institutionalized polarization¹², although the evidence for these associations are rather weak¹³ and require further investigation. Klein points to two other institutional norms, the filibuster and the debt-ceiling, among others, as possible sources of polarization within political institutions. One thing is clear: political polarization in political institutions is getting worse¹³, and it’s likely here to stay¹¹.

It should come as no surprise that as a whole, the electorate is more polarized than ever before. In a process known as partisan sorting, voters self-sort themselves ideologically into the partisan system. Increasingly, voters have come to expect their own views, and the views of others around them, to fall into one of two ideological camps¹³, further exacerbating the issue of polarization in the news and in government. This vicious cycle of polarization is one that is unlikely to end in the near future, and it is up to us to come to grips with how to mitigate its nastiest consequences.

Political polarization is a multi-faceted issue that can be viewed through a wide variety of lenses. But one informative lens is that of overabundance, and the ways we have been left to cope with its implications. Political institutions, slow and bureaucratic by nature, are poorly equipped to deal with diverse and rapidly-changing choice sets — consequently, the polarization of the voter base can be seen as a reactionary consolidation of the electorate’s set of identities, collapsing a multidimensional voter base into one of two camps. Simultaneously, the polarization of the news can be seen as a reaction to the sudden explosion of content — one that motivates news organizations to put out content that is more sensational, eye-grabbing, and identity-enforcing in order to compete for viewer time and attention. These forces illustrate how today’s institutions and systems struggle to grapple with the problem of too much — too many choices, too many identities, all wanting more.

As it turns out, political systems aren’t the only ones grappling with this problem of overabundance. There are other systems, much closer to home, that struggle with it too.

Death by Lifestyle

In 2011, an interesting milestone in human history was passed. For the first time, more people globally died from non-communicable diseases like heart failure, stroke, and diabetes than from all infectious diseases combined. We live in an age in which we are killed, more often than not, by lifestyle.

— Bill Bryson, The Body: A Guide for Occupants [14]

As far as animals go, humans have had a pretty great run, particularly in the last century or so. Today, there are more of us than ever before, and we’re leading longer lives, as well. As of 2020, the human population approaches 7.6 billion¹⁵, and the average human life expectancy is 73 years old¹⁶. While these two figures are a great achievement, they also have significant repercussions in the modern world.

First, on life expectancy. Humans, seemingly, have never had it so good. Yet, as Bill Bryson aptly points out in The Body: A Guide for Occupants, we may have reached a point of diminishing returns. In his own words, “we have become much better at extending life, but not necessarily better at extending quality of life¹⁴.” Despite living longer, a good portion of their later lives are spent in nursing homes and hospitals, away from their loved ones. Not to mention the fact that retirement is a chronically underfunded pursuit in developed countries, a surefire way to ensure that the elderly live a lower quality of life as time goes on. As people age, the quality of their life declines, and we are reaching a point where we are simply keeping folks alive without regard for what kind of life they will be living. As a result, we have approached diminishing marginal returns on how long we live¹⁴.

Slowly, our lifestyle catches up to us, in one way or another — whether it be through heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. Our extended lifetimes are pushing us to the brink of lifestyle-related diseases, ones that have prolonged consequences and lead to a slow and drawn-out deterioration of life-quality¹⁴. And overabundance certainly isn’t helping. The availability of simple pleasures that have reduced our need to leave the home and stay on our feet has taken its toll. As of 2012, obesity and obesity-related illnesses accounted for three times as many deaths as malnutrition and hunger¹⁷. The human body wasn’t built to deal with overabundance; for the past hundreds of thousands of years, food was scarce, and you’d be wise to eat as much as possible while you could. Not so in the modern age. The tragedy of the common age lies in the fact that our biological vessels are unprepared to live in an age where calories are in abundance, and we are the ones who suffer for it.

But suppose you aren’t yet old and senile, and that you’re not overweight or underweight. Life is better for you, right? Not necessarily. If you’re poor and you get sick, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to afford healthcare. A good 1 in 6 Americans report at least one financial barrier to paying for healthcare¹⁸. Beyond the immediate adverse effects on the patient, this can lead to worse conditions down the line — one notable example is in the prescription of antibiotics; low-income patients are much more likely to under-dose on antibiotics, which not only fails to adequately cure the disease, but collectively drives up rates of antibiotic resistance¹⁹.

But suppose you’re wealthy and living in a developed country where access to antibiotics is not an issue. Life is good, right? Herein lies another dark side to overabundance: overprescription and overtreatment. Recent studies show that up to 20% of medical treatment may be unnecessary²⁰. At the outset, an abundance of tests, prescriptions, and treatments might not seem insidious, until you consider that almost all of these procedures carry with them some risk of harm to the patient. In particular, the drug industry has been adamant in pushing out as many prescriptions as possible — often to people who don’t need them²¹. The result is a framework shift in the paradigm of treatment, not as a passive effort but as an active one (“ask your doctor if you have the following symptoms”). In every waking moment, we’re trying to find something, anything wrong with us, and in the same blink of an eye, there are people waiting to give us an answer.

This is not to say that doctors or medical providers have insidious intent. On the whole, the vast majority of them are trying to do the most good possible and heal patients as quickly as possible. But the problem is that this attitude of healing people before they are even sick can have disastrous consequences¹⁴. The modern age has given us a vast array of pills, prescriptions, and tests, which have helped extend and uplift the lives of many. At the same time, we have expanded the definition of what it means to be sick. Feel some pain? Take some ibuprofen. Can’t fall asleep? Ambien might help. Got a headache? Why not ask your doctor if this headache drug is right for you?

To paraphrase Bryson, we’ve reached a stage where we’ve got better medicine than ever before but we’re sick more of the time¹⁴. One wonders if the tradeoff was worth it, after all.

The Rest

As I mentioned earlier, humans now have approximately 7.6 billion members in their ranks, and before long, we’ll welcome the 8 billionth member of the Homo Sapiens fan club. A notable achievement. Unfortunately, this population is exerting an undue burden on society and the natural ecosystem of the planet.

The ecological impact of each modern human is measured in a unit called a global hectare (gha), a measure of biological and ecological productivity. In 2012, the planet’s biocapacity stood at 12.2 billion GHA, roughly 1.7 gha per person²². The ecological per-capita footprint of the U.S. was 8.6 gha as of 2017, meaning if everyone lived the life of a typical American, we would need 5 earths²³. As a reminder to the reader, we only have one.

The unwieldy demands of the modern economy and lifestyle have contributed to one of the most pressing issues of our time: climate change. Since the late 19th century, global temperatures have risen by 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 Celcius)²⁴, and are projected to rise by another 3.2 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.8 and 4.0 Celcius) by the end of the century²⁵. While this change seems insignificant on paper, the severity of climate change has been unevenly distributed, leading to higher volatility in many areas of the globe. The scientific consensus is clear: the impacts of climate change are due to human intervention. Our modern practices have led us to the very brink of ecological collapse. These impacts include but are not limited to: ocean acidification, melting ice caps, increased severity of natural disasters, and sea level rise²⁴, all of which have extended and unintended consequences for humans, which, I remind the reader, also live on Earth.

So pervasive is our ecological disruption that many scientists have deemed this era a precursor to the sixth mass extinction event for biological life on our planet²⁶. Even without the official diagnosis, conservative estimates indicate that around 200 to 2000 species are headed to the chopping block every year, never to return, with high-end estimates around 10,000 to 100,00⁰²⁷. The sad truth is, we don’t know how many species are out there; it’s very possible that the havoc we wreak will be upon species that have never been discovered, and never will be. Other species at risk, largely due to the impacts of climate change include some fan-favorites: the common clownfish, the emperor penguin, the arctic fox, the monarch butterfly, and the koala, just to name a few²⁸. What a lonely place it will be without their company.

Beyond the impact to the ecosystem, climate change has an undeniable impact on the human inhabitants of Earth as well. In the U.S. alone, the destruction associated with extreme weather and health costs total up to $360 billion annually²⁹. The health costs of climate change are likely to be even worse as rising temperatures exacerbate the spread of disease³⁰, something the world seems uniquely unprepared to deal with. The problem of overabundance has, therefore, dealt us a double-blow: the increasing population has a dual contribution to the spread of disease and ecological collapse, both issues that are likely to get worse in the coming decades without proper mitigation strategies.

Despite this imminent threat, governments have been hesitant to act. Most notably, in 2019 the United States formally indicated its intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement³¹, leaving it in the warm company of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Yemen (currently in conflict), Sudan (also in conflict), Libya, Angola, and Eritrea³². The lack of effort from the government in this regard can only be described as a reckless act of endangerment, not only to the citizens of the world, but the fragile ecological systems that provide them a home.

More is Less is More

For centuries we have touted abundance as progress — the idea that more is better was not only celebrated, it was gospel. In the pre-Industrialized world, these principles guided nations out of poverty and into an age where people lived more productive, healthier, and longer lives. In the modern age, however, we are beginning to realize the limitations of this seemingly unending growth. The abundance that we have created comes with a hidden dark side, and the strain under which it has placed our political, economic, and ecological systems is coming to a breaking point. The idea that the systems from which we reap such abundance can continue to support us forever is a fantasy. Someday, something is going to give.

Make no mistake: in no way am I suggesting we pull the plug on the economy, the markets, or the government. That would be just as bad, if not worse, than going ahead full speed. Rather, I am suggesting that more focus be put onto the mechanisms by which overabundance can have unintended consequences. The main idea here is to proceed with caution, and in the concluding chapter I will discuss how I think we can do so effectively. Many of our existing systems are well built for problems of scarcity; that’s the reason they were able to propel us this far into the modern age. But I’m afraid that we are woefully unprepared for an age where overabundance (and the expectation of plenty) isn’t the exception, it’s the norm. Ultimately, how we tackle these issues will determine our success as a society, as a species, and as stewards of this planet where we’re so fortunate to reside.

In the introduction to this series I promised you that I would bring you to the edge, the place where the present meets the future. Throughout this series we have shown how our concept of time and the future have changed, from a uniform, unchanging force to a fluid, relative one. Today, time is perhaps our most precious asset — the one thing that remains scarce in a world of overabundance. This is it. Welcome to the edge. One word of advice? Look before you leap.

Next Chapter (next week) →

[1] Roser, Max, et al. “Life Expectancy.” Our World in Data, 23 May 2013, ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy.

[2] “World GDP over the Last Two Millennia.” Our World in Data, ourworldindata.org/grapher/world-gdp-over-the-last-two-millennia.

[3] Roser, Max, and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina. “Global Extreme Poverty.” Our World in Data, 25 May 2013, ourworldindata.org/extreme-poverty.

[4] Roser, Max, and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina. “Literacy.” Our World in Data, 13 Aug. 2016, ourworldindata.org/literacy.

[5] Fernando, Jason. “Public Good Definition.” Investopedia, Investopedia, 24 July 2020, www.investopedia.com/terms/p/public-good.asp.

[6] “The Demand for Public Goods.” Mnmeconomics, 23 Oct. 2011, mnmeconomics.wordpress.com/2011/10/22/the-demand-for-public-goods/.

[7] Rolnik, Guy. “‘Information Is a Public Good.’” Pro Market, 15 May 2020, promarket.org/2017/06/30/information-public-good/.

[8] Kagan, Julia. “What Is a Two-Sided Market?” Investopedia, Investopedia, 6 Apr. 2020, www.investopedia.com/terms/t/two-sidedmarket.asp.

[9] Banton, Caroline. “Understanding the Network Effect.” Investopedia, Investopedia, 29 Jan. 2020, www.investopedia.com/terms/n/network-effect.asp.

[10] Katherine, Gustafson. “What Is Scaling in Business & How Is It Different Than Growth?” Lighter Capital, 17 Sept. 2019, www.lightercapital.com/blog/what-is-scaling-in-business/.

[11] Klein, Ezra. Why Were Polarized. Avid Reader Press, 2020.

[12] Nivola, Pietro S. “Thinking About Political Polarization.” Brookings, Brookings, 28 July 2016, www.brookings.edu/research/thinking-about-political-polarization/.

[13] Mansbridge, Jane, and Cathie Jo Martin. “Negotiating Agreement in Politics.” Negotiating Agreement in Politics | Government Innovators Network, 29 Sept. 1970, www.innovations.harvard.edu/negotiating-agreement-politics.

[14] Bryson, Bill. The Body: a Guide for Occupants. Anchor Canada, 2020.

[15] Bureau, U.S. Census. “Estimated 7.58B People on Earth on World Population Day July 11.” The United States Census Bureau, 10 July 2019, www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/07/estimated-seven-point-five-eight-billion-people-world-population-day-2019.html.

[16] “Life Expectancy of the World Population.” Worldometer, www.worldometers.info/demographics/life-expectancy/.

[17] Adams, Stephen. “Obesity Killing Three Times as Many as Malnutrition.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 13 Dec. 2012, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/9742960/Obesity-killing-three-times-as-many-as-malnutrition.html.

[18] Weinick, Robin M et al. “Who can’t pay for health care?.” Journal of general internal medicine vol. 20,6 (2005): 504–9. doi:10.1111/j.1525–1497.2005.0087.x

[19] Barker, Anna K et al. “Social determinants of antibiotic misuse: a qualitative study of community members in Haryana, India.” BMC public health vol. 17,1 333. 19 Apr. 2017, doi:10.1186/s12889–017–4261–4

[20] Lyu, Heather et al. “Overtreatment in the United States.” PloS one vol. 12,9 e0181970. 6 Sep. 2017, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0181970

[21] Brownlee, Shannon, and Judith Garber. “Overprescribed: High Cost Isn’t America’s Only Drug Problem.” STAT, STAT, 1 Apr. 2019, www.statnews.com/2019/04/02/overprescribed-americas-other-drug-problem/.

[22] “Ecological Footprint.” WWF, wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/all_publications/ecological_footprint2/.

[23] “California Has the Same Size Ecological Footprint as France. How Do Other States and Countries Compare?” Global Footprint Network, www.footprintnetwork.org/2017/01/31/california-size-ecological-footprint-france-states-countries-compare/.

[24] “Climate Change Evidence: How Do We Know?” NASA, NASA, 27 May 2020, climate.nasa.gov/evidence/.

[25] “Predictions of Future Global Climate.” UCAR Center for Science Education, scied.ucar.edu/longcontent/predictions-future-global-climate.

[26] Greshko, Michael. “What Are Mass Extinctions, and What Causes Them?” Mass Extinction Facts and Information from National Geographic, 26 Sept. 2019, www.nationalgeographic.com./science/prehistoric-world/mass-extinction/.

[27] “How Many Species Are We Losing?” WWF, wwf.panda.org/our_work/our_focus/biodiversity/biodiversity/.

[28] “Animals at Risk from Climate Change — Animals At Risk from Climate Change.” The Global Education Project, www.theglobaleducationproject.org/climate-change/.

[29] Leahy, Stephen. “Hidden Costs of Climate Change Running Hundreds of Billions a Year.” National Geographic, 12 Dec. 2019, www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/09/climate-change-costs-us-economy-billions-report/.

[30] “Climate Change and Public Health — Climate Effects on Health.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 July 2020, www.cdc.gov/climateandhealth/effects/default.htm.

[31] Hersher, Rebecca. “U.S. Formally Begins To Leave The Paris Climate Agreement.” NPR, NPR, 4 Nov. 2019, www.npr.org/2019/11/04/773474657/u-s-formally-begins-to-leave-the-paris-climate-agreement.

[32] Apparicio, Soila, and Natalie Sauer. “Which Countries Have Not Ratified the Paris Climate Agreement?” Climate Home News, Climate Home, 13 Mar. 2020, www.climatechangenews.com/2020/03/01/countries-yet-ratify-paris-agreement/.

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Neuro x Machine Learning x Art. PhD Student in Neuroscience @ NYU. Penn M&T 2020. www.jordanlei.com

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Jordan Lei

Jordan Lei

Neuro x Machine Learning x Art. PhD Student in Neuroscience @ NYU. Penn M&T 2020. www.jordanlei.com