Opinion

A modern take on the Jevons Paradox

My thanks to Slashdot.org for highlighting this interesting observation by Peter Ulander, vice president for Open Source Solutions at Citrix, regarding software-defined data centres (SDC) in this article.

While acknowledging that users are gaining more control with IT services delivered on demand via self-service and arguing that enterprises that don’t invest in virtual data centres are “throwing money away”, Ulander makes no bones about the fact that cost savings are unlikely to be a big benefit of SDCs.

To back up his argument, he cites an old economic theory, known as the Jevons Paradox, which says that if you make a resource easier to use, consumption of that resource will increase. So if enterprises invest in SDCs and users don’t have to wait for the IT department before they can use it, they will use it more and consumption will increase.

This won’t come as anything new to anyone who has been using technology (any type of technology) for a while. Invariably, improvements in technology are accompanied by significant increases in consumption. Pretty much anything you can think of such as the internet, broadband, iPods and MP3s, storage, operating systems, applications have led to massive increases in consumption.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? Not if it means people are getting more out of the technology. The question is, are they? Think about iPods and MP3s for example. For many people, they made their entire music libraries portable. But by shrinking the size of the format of the music, many believe they seem to have also shrunk the music as well. Music has moved from something that moves us for aesthetic or artistic reasons to something we consume.

As with so many things, the more we can have with technology, the more we have. To meet those increased capacities, we generate more content. Again, with music, where once an LP or cassette was limited to a maximum of around 45/50 or so minutes of music, the CD format increased that capacity to 70 minutes. Many artists felt they needed to pad out those extra 25/20 minutes with songs that would never have made the cut for an LP.

Which brings us back to data centres and Jevons. One of the potential benefits of SDCs will be to make it easier and more flexible for businesses to allocate and boost storage resources as they struggle to keep pace with huge increases in data volumes. If Jevons were alive to see that today, he would probably conclude that the guiding principle behind so much modern innovation is not a paradox at all but could be more suitably described as “if you make more space, people will fill it”.

This was first published in July 2013

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