Tragedy of the Digital Commons

The seminal work by Garret Hardin nearly 40 years ago on the “Tragedy of the Commons” clearly resonates within the Information Communication Technology (ICT) community today. Opinion pieces in the Communications of the ACM and IEEE Spectrum have focused on the tragedies’ “scarcity of resources” paradigm and its implications for the Internet and Web. Cerf concludes that this shared environment must be protected for the benefit of all users before it becomes too unsafe for reliable use. Lucky, more pragmatically, highlights online social behavior being incompatible with “courteously” designed Internet protocols. In essence, the tragedy is still with us, alive and kicking.

Hardin’s original work also discussed an issue that has become more relevant to our society. He describes the “no technical solution problem.” That is, how can we solve something that cannot just be solved by technical means? This drives people to make decisions that are usually always in-compatible with society (hence, the tragedy). He gives the innocuous example of cheating in a tic-tac-toe game to the more contentious control of the overpopulation of the world (hence, the scarce resources problem).

This conclusion is the same found by Toyama in “Technology is not the Answer” . He found that technology was an “amplifier” of human capacity, but did not help in any way to address our deficiencies. In fact, technology was good at amplifying human intent – both bad and good. When technology is utilized and human decisions are made for societal benefit, then the outcome is generally an improvement. But humans can also utilize technology not only for personal gain, but to intensify their own position over others, with detrimental effect. Toyama’s “law of amplification” probably should now be more widely quoted with other formative laws of technology. He calls on the immense influence that the technology community has to engage beyond our professional comfort zone, and to challenge inequality, politics, and social forces in humanity’s favor.

Read the full article in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine