Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Tragedy of the Commons

Yorkshire pasture (photo: Tony Grist)
The economist William Forster Lloyd coined the term “tragedy of the commons” back in 1833. This phenomenon occurs when a commonly used resource is spoiled due to the activities of a select few. Social networks, like Facebook, conveniently label themselves as utilities when they try to explain away intrusions like those of the Russians during the past election cycle by saying, “we only provide the pipes.” This is obviously a complex issue also involving the concept of net  neutrality, which is in the process of being compromised by the actions of the new F.C.C chair Ajit Pai. Isn’t the right of anyone to use the information highway a form of free speech? But like the famous Oliver Wendell Holmes decision in Schenck (1919), there are many sides to the story. However, let’s get down to brass tax or pipes as it were. Let’s says someone clogs his drain and puts stuff down the toilet that shouldn’t be there. You run the risk of a flood which will seep down destroying the ceiling and potentially other things in the apartment below. Maybe basic plumbing issues will help resolve some of the quandaries faced by  the internet. Viscosity caused by a plethora of items trying to occupy a relatively small space is one thing that plumbers and highway designers have to deal with. Yet what goes on in an internet situation is not a question of how much traffic, rather the kind (for instance avatars planted to usurp an election). It’s a little like what happens when someone leaves a noxious odor after having a bowel movement in a public bathroom. When you stink up the place, or cause toilets to overflow, no one is going to be able to use them.

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