The Comedy of the Trusted Commons

Last week, The Economist had an interesting piece (pdf) on the tragedy of the commons.

  • In 1968 Garrett Hardin, a professor of biology, published an article in the journal Science that explained “The Tragedy of the Commons”. He suggested that, from the point of view of efficiency, the commons should be replaced by systems of public or personal ownership. However, when economists began to look at how systems of commonly managed resources actually worked, they found to their surprise that they often worked quite well. Though there were failures, too, it seemed as if good management could stave off the tragedy. Before he died, Hardin admitted he should have called his article “The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons”. In “Governing the Commons”, which was published in 1990, Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University described the rules needed to keep a commons going. She showed that there are almost always elaborate conventions over who can use resources and when.

It is all about en-powering people who use the common resource. Case in point from my  past (luckily!) research life: people who are willing to share their Internet connections face the problem (tragedy) of free-riders – individuals who exploit the bandwidth of others without providing an adequate return. To isolate free-riders, people run trust models on their computers (pdf). A trust model is a piece of software that keeps track of who shares her connection and who doesn’t. By managing the common, trust models turn the tragedy into “The Comedy of the Managed Commons” ;-)

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