The Tragedy of the Commons -- 04/01/02

In medieval England the residents of tiny scattered rural villages shared common land for grazing. This worked fine as long as populations remained relatively sparse and families placed more-or-less equal demands on the commons. However, the route to improved living conditions for any given family would be to maximize their livestock holdings. More cows meant more milk, more cheese, more meat, more wealth -- and a greater chance of survival. This quickly led to over-grazing. If any given family held back, grazed fewer animals on the commons, they were hurting themselves economically and others would continue to overgraze and prosper... until the overgrazing led to the destruction of the commons.

This same problem extends to many other areas. One of these is fishing -- it may be in the immediate interest of any given fishman -- or fishing fleet -- or nation -- to maximize their current harvest of fish for their current economic benefit -- despite the damage to the future -- because if they alone curb their fishing, they will suffer immediate economic loss and others will continue to overfish anyway until the fish population crashes. I live in an area where many people still depend on commercial fishing (and lobstering, etc.) for their living and this is a constant topic of concern.

This "tragedy of the commons" concept has become a standard part of games theory and has been applied to many circumstances. Some recent Internet occurances have caused me to think that it is applicable to the web as well.

The specific series of incidents that prompted these thoughts was a series of obnoxious guestbook entries a certain weirdo made in John Bailey's guestbook (along with, apparently, a string of nasty email as well)... until these entries became so vile that the Old Grey Poet felt he had no choice other than to remove his guestbook. Wendy posted an entry about this where she summarized a long running series of emails exchanged with this same jerk; she had apparently hoped (in vain) that his correspondence with her would distract him from his vandalism of Mr. Bailey's guestbook.

I suppose that this is somewhat akin to those cretins who delight in painting grafitti everywhere. (I won't even attempt to express my distain for those pompous pseudointellectuals who purport to have such highly refined aesthetic senses that they see great beauty and worth in this vandalism.)

In the "Viewpoint" column of the latest (April, 2002) issue of the Communications of the ACM, David Davenport has an opinion piece titled "Anonymiity on the Internet: Why the Price May Be Too High" in which he argues that allowing anonymous communication on the Internet puts the very fabric of our society at risk. He claims that social justice requires accountability and states that free speech may be a fundamental aspect of the democratic tradition but that this free speech must not be allowed to be anonymous.

I must say that I cannot agree with his argument. *sigh* Yes, even though that means that vandals like those who fill guestbooks with obscene babbling can continue to defile the web with their digital grafitti. Over the past several years I have seen more than one bulletin board and discussion group destroyed by the garbage postings and obscenity ladden flaming from a tiny percentage of users. Despite that, I cannot see forcing people to attach some digital proof of identity to anything they say on the web... that might save an occasional guestbook or online forum, but it would provide governments of the world with a powerful tool to block free speech and crush political dissent.

Sorry, this is just an entry talking about a problem... no solutions offered today.

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