The One Glass Problem

Picture a room with one glass of water. Into this room you put about a hundred people. Over time, the people get thirsty. They fight. They cheat. They steal for that glass of water. Every day one more glass of water is put into that room. No more. Over time, the weak are weeded out. The most ruthless, deceptive, or powerful survive. Some days one person gets the water. Other days someone else. Some conspire to team up and divide little sips for themselves at the expense of the others. But the few who are left have learned that survival depends upon being cruel and selfish.

This goes on for decades.

One day that same group of people wake up and there’s 100 glasses of water. More than enough for the hard scrabble group still alive. How will they behave? Will they be grateful? Will they smile and relax and say to themselves “Thank God! Now there’s enough for everyone.” ? No. They will behave the same way they always have. It’s how they are now conditioned to respond.

In a condition of abundance, they will behave as if there is scarcity.

To some extent, this is what we’ve been seeing for the last 20 years with old media reacting to digital realities of abundance with a scarcity mentality, be it artificial scarcity imposed via store front frameworks that treat digital goods like physical goods (to a point) or intellectual property plays like digital rights management meant to scare consumers into behaving as if there is one glass in the room.

This is as much a personality thing as anything else. Alpha male behavior like one-upsmanship and lack of cooperation and whoever dies with the most toys wins mentalities are rewarded in the one glass room. They are unecessary, anti-social, and counterproductive in the 100 glass room. But there are learned values at stake. It is offensive, heretical, and downright suicidal to cooperate or give in the one glass room.

The old world is about maximizing profit. The new one is about maximizing satisfaction. Because with 100 glasses in the room you can focus on things like user experience and thick value and still come out ahead.

The profit margins aren’t the same for 100 glasses, but the room is a lot less bloody.

Originally published at on May 8, 2014.

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