Surfing Your Own Wave: plenty, Netflix, and the creation of managed scarcity

Eric_surfingThis man’s name is Eric Hayes.  He is co-founder and Vice President of research and development at Attensa.

I met him at the Corante/Berkman social software event.  He was standing there at the cocktail hour with a video iPod.  It showed a clip of him surfing behind a motor boat…for a really long time.  Clearly, Eric had found the endless wave.

For those who would like to try this at home, Eric gave me the specs.

2003 MasterCraft X2 (with 2,000 lbs of water ballast on the one side) 20.8’ long 310hp GM Vortec V8, decked out with 17 speakers (10 on the tower) 1700 watts of power (so you can hear it while surfing or wake boarding), and an ipod mini playing the blues.  The surfboard was a 5.5’ Hyperlite “LandLoc” wake surfer. The river was the Upper Willamette  in Portland, Oregon. 

Now you know. 

The other thing that was wrong with this picture was Eric himself.  Really friendly.  Really happy.  Not at all like every other surfer I have met. 

I have long believed that surfers are not by nature surly, ill mannered as*holes.  No, I think it’s surfing that makes them so.  Surfing is the original scarcity enterprise.  There are relatively few places where surfing is possible.  Even here, really good waves are scarce.  And even these waves, the really good ones, last a relatively short time.  This is why surfers are so mean spirited.  (Ironically, bad temper spread from them to skaters from whom scarcity is not nearly the same problem.  Evidentally, this was a matter of style, not praxis.)

Eric is a happy human being for many reasons, I’m sure.  But one of the reasons is this:  as long as he’s got his 2003 MasterCraft X2 and a body of water, he can surf till he can’t stand up.  In fact, he told me this was one of the problems with surfing behind a motor boat.  If you remain upright, the wave will always last longer than your abilities to ride it.   (This puts me in mind of that old English dance hall joke: "Can you play the Maple Leaf Forever?"  "No, sir, eventually my arms get tired.")

Now, it is not revelational to say that the new media and the new technologies, variously enabled by the new economies, have blunted the force of scarcity as an aribiter of value.  Now the problem for some consumers, the lucky ones anyhow, is how to choose when scarcity no longer does most of the work of choice for them.   

I did a project for the Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA) on file sharing (KaZaa, etc.).  Some of my respondents now had many thousands upon thousands of tracks on their hard drive.  And it was harder and harder for them to savor any one of these songs.  That time honored institution of choosing favorites" (key, in the old world, to group affiliation and self definition) was now under challenge.  Limitless music was a problem.  (Scarcity was apparently playing a role even in identity formation.)

And this brings me to the genius of NetFlix.  I have been trying to figure out what’s so charming about the model.  (I have only been signed up for a couple of months.  Thanks to Tom Guarriello   for getting me started.)  Partly, it is the sheer pleasure of getting a "surprise in the mail."  Partly, it is the sheer convenience of filling the " Q" at my leisure and having them fill orders at theirs.  Partly, it’s the blessing of assisted choice and those, sometimes cunning, recommendations.  (Was there anything so depressing as going to a video store to stare at the containers of really bad movies in order to find the one you wanted.) 

But mostly the power of Netflix comes from it’s creation of "access constrained by interval" and the recreation of a kind of scarcity (a "managed scarcity").  With Netflix, I have access to just about all the movies in the world.  But, given my subscription model,  they come to me only 2 at a time. 

Two movies are not a lot.  In a world of nearly limitless access, this should be irksome.  But it ain’t, of course, because these are almost always exactly the movies that interest me.  Two movies has a deeper virtue.  "Two movies" is an elimination of all the movies that might otherwise bid for my attention, damaging my sense of value and, God knows, even my identity formation.  (And there’s been quite enough of that, already.)

The fulfillment model is especially clever.  I can speed up the interval at which I receive new movies.  I do so merely by returning the old ones.  This is an interval I do not choose or need to dwell upon.  It is set in train naturally when I finish watching my present movies.  In effect, I am setting my own wave.  I am managing access.  I am mediating plenty in a post-scarcity world.  I am, to this extent, restoring a sense of value.  (The Tarantino picture I own outright on DVD may be diminished by its ubiguity.  The same picture come to me from Netflix is precious because it’s engagement, as we used to say, is limited.)

Furthermore, the fulfillment model feels like an act of generosity on Netflix’s part.  ("Finished those first two?  Here have some more.  No, you don’t have to pay extra!")  This eliminates the cell phone user’s anxiety, "how many minutes (movies) do I have left this month?"  And it restores the feeling of living in a universe untroubled by scarcity.

In sum, Netflix has found a sweet spot.  It has found a way to create the generosity of a post scarcity economy while relieving us of the costs and penalties thereof. And to think that they did so by harnessing the intervals established by the US Mail, an off line institution almost as old as the nation!  (Bricks, clicks and letter carriers!)  The mind goggles.


Thanks to Eric Hayes for consenting to this coverage.  See his interesting enterprise and useful search software here

Thanks to Andy Macaulay at ZIG for the CRIA assignment.

Thanks again to Tom Guarriello at True Talk  for the head’s up.  (See his recent posts on "both/and" as an example of post-scarcity logics.) 


8 thoughts on “Surfing Your Own Wave: plenty, Netflix, and the creation of managed scarcity

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  5. Matt Fulvio

    Where have you been that you have met so many surly surfers!?

    I’m not a surfer, but my own personal experience – a few decades up and down the coasts of California – there have certainly been a couple individuals who weren’t so nice. And in the early 1980’s, there was some sort of ‘punk surf gangs’ that the evening news worried about- I never saw them. Generally it’s quite the opposite. There are a few places in Southern California, and a few groups that aren’t so nice, but otherwise they are many of the nicest people about. I’ve also known several surfers from the East Coast- Virginia, Florida and such – they’re even nicer.

    Skating on the other hand is a somewhat vandalous act, and in face of prohibitions has grown to be somewhat anti-establishment in nature. (btw- have you seen these!?- <>)

    But as a whole, I think your reasoning about surfers to be wrong. Surfers do like the ‘secret spot’ and they sometimes see ‘tourists’ and spoiling a place. “Locals Only” is the motto then. Certainly waves have been fought over in some crowded spots. But it’s also a sport where strident individualism turn dangerous situations into deadly situations. Toward each other at minimum – they are loyal.

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