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The Tragedy of the Commons (TOTC) is the idea that a shared community resource will get abused even though it is in the best interest of all to keep it in good shape. If you have ever had housemates or tried to use a public restroom, you know TOTC is real. The general concept also applies to financial markets, public parks, the environment, government, and everything else about humans living with each other.
If you know that TOTC exists, is there a way to set up structures such that it is difficult for TOTC to manifest itself? This is one argument people use for privatization but in general, this doesn’t seem to help. We’ve only seen privatization lead to worse abuses of common resources(ie ENRON).
There are a couple notable examples of TOTC free structures and I think Wikipedia is the best. Wikipedia, because it is digital rather than physical, can immediately correct vandalism. An inherent property of a wiki is that it saves all previous versions of itself and can immediately switch back to a previous version. This means that if someone deletes the entry for The Tragedy of the Commons and replaces it with mumbo jumbo, the next visitor can see that it changed and immediately change it back to it’s previous state with the click of a button. The work require to restore the commons is less than the work required to deface it. What other public systems could we design to have such properties? Figuring out how to do this well is the job of government and it is incredibly difficult. We should be spending more of our research budget on this instead of on space, military or hi tech. But it’s important to note that the internet now makes a lot of evenness possible and that was not known at the time of development. The shotgun is an effective tool when you can’t see your target.
I recommend Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody” for a more indepth discussion of Wikipedia, other online communities, and more about the tragedy of the commons. On the blog for his book he also has his great talk about cognitive surplus and the gin that is the sitcom.
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