Wednesday, 13 April 2011

from tragedy to joy - the real story of the commons

some thoughts and thanks to Alan Dix - as is so often the case there seems to be synchronicity in the atmosphere :-)
I'm doing some background work for a paper we have on the stocks just now and was doing a bit of tidying and reference chasing and context setting.
Southampton Common Frosty Morning: Su White

Sunrise - a frosty morning on Southampton Common
in the process I came across a short but compelling post from Alan Dix on "the *real* tragedy of the commons"
I’ve just been reviewing a paper that mentions the “tragedy of the commons”1 and whenever I read or hear the phrase I feel the hackles on the back of my neck rise.
Of course the real tragedy of the commons was not free-riding and depletion by common use, but the rape of the land under mass eviction or enclosure movements when they ceased to be commons.  The real tragedy of “the tragedy of the commons” as a catch phrase is that it is often used to promote the very same practices of centralisation.  Where common land has survived today, just as in the time before enclosures and clearances, it is still managed in a collaborative way both for the people now and the for the sake of future generations.  Indeed on Tiree, where I live, there are large tracts of common grazing land managed in just such a way.
It is good to see that the Wikipedia article of “Tragedy of the Commons” does give a rounded view on the topic including reference to an historical and political critique by “Ian Angus”2
The paper I was reading was not alone in uncritically using the phrase.  Indeed in “A Framework for Web Science”3 we read:
In a decentralised and growing Web, where there are no “owners” as such, can we be sure that decisions that make sense for an individual do not damage the interests of users as a whole? Such a situation, known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’, happens in many social systems that eschew property rights and centralised institutions once the number of users becomes too large to coordinate using peer pressure and moral principles.
In fact I do have some sympathy with this as the web involves a vast number of physically dispersed users who are perhaps “too large to coordinate using peer pressure and moral principles”.  However, what is strange is that the web has raised so many modern counter examples to the tragedy of the commons, not least Wikipedia itself.  In many open source projects people work as effectively a form of gift economy, where, if there is any reward, it is in the form of community or individual respect.
Clearly, there are examples in the world today where many individual decisions (often for short term gain) lead to larger scale collective loss.  This is most clearly evident in the environment, but also the recent banking crisis, which was fuelled by the desire for large mortgages and general debt-led lives.  However, these are exactly the opposite of the values surrounding traditional common goods.
It may be that the problem is not so much that large numbers of people dilute social and moral pressure, but that the impact of our actions becomes too diffuse to be able to appreciate when we make our individual life choices.  The counter-culture of many parts of the web may reflect, in part, the way in which aspects of the web can make the impact of small individual actions more clear to the individual and more accountable to others.
  1. Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons”Science, Vol. 162, No. 3859 (December 13, 1968), pp. 1243-1248. … and here is the danger of citation counting as a quality metric, I am citing it because I disagree with it! [back]
  2. Ian Angus. The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons. Socialist Voice, August 24, 2008 [back]
  3. Berners-Lee, T., Hall, W., Hendler, J. A., O’Hara, K., Shadbolt, N. and Weitzner, D. J. (2006) A Framework for Web Science. Foundations and Trends in Web Science, 1 (1). pp. 1-130. [back]

There are some dimensions to this argument which I am in the process of clarifying in my head, so I thought it timely - another synchronicity, Alan Dix had just been the external examiner to one of our star EngD/PhD students Clare Hooper (supervised by another worthy blogster and academic Dave Millard)

Like Alan, I have some personal experience of commons.

My own common at home, when I am not on sabbatical in Montpellier is a fine local open space, site of scientific interest and well used place for thought and play. We are fortunate in Southampton of having many parks and open spaces, and I probably do some of my best thinking there.
As an academic in the University of Southampton, based in ECS we live breathe and eat the commons. We share our academic publications through eprints, our learning resources through EdShare, and are among those at the bleeding edge of open and linked data through activities such as

Our research in Web Science is concerned in its interdisciplinary manner in not only the Technology, Engineering and Analytics of the Web but also to the web as a 'social machine'. This latter aspect is to my mind most interesting (and thus most important)  in the interactions between the social and the technological, the affordances which emerge and the artefacts associated with those affordances.
Understanding the power of the social, and having the skills, knowledge and understanding to engineer the tools of the web had enabled Southampton to realise small contributions such as the open data projects and its predecessors such as  eprints and edshare. It has enabled us to make our own contributions to the commons; we have put our wealth into the common ground, and we have turned our thoughts to why this should be done, and what beneftis accrue. We are lucky to attract scholars (who are also practitioners) like Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Stevan Harnad who make their own forceful contributions and who engage those in power with discussion on the way forward for the common good.

Here in Montpellier, there are open spaces and a socialist local government who are consciously endeavouring to engineer the city for the greater good. We see public transport subsidised and well used, large scale social programmes and experience the vibrancy of a young city which at its heart hums to the sound of human discussion rather than choking in car fumes.  Trying to understand this social entrerprise (and using the engines we have on the web) enabled me to find a fine wiki - wikisara which seems to have a collection of GPS routes of public transport networks from across France, and a resource which is far more useful than the static map, conscientiously produced by the good burgers of this fine town. it is a general observation that public mapping is one interesting social manifestation of the web, and projects like open street map and open cycle map are testimony to the fact these are not merely french phenomena (far from it)

At the same time as I appreciate the social use of wikis in france, I also experience the hegemony of the french publishing industry - observing the differences in online publishing models between france and the UK - and the extent to which you have to pay for stuff in france! I also note that the french take on web sites (reflected in much of southern europe) is far less concerned with form and function, but more often a frustrating content free showcase which seeks to limit the visitor's experience rather than offering them open information to explore and use.

I want to find out more about these differences in manifestations and web artefacts, and I want to begin to understand what causes some of these differences.

Here, the points made by Alan Dix citing Ian Angus have real strength. A simple shorthand - history is about power, and if we have commons as a part of our history, we also have the heritage of the forces of power and hegemony.
Some thoughts about the common land
  • Common Land when cleared was more useful to a single powerful person than to many less powerful individuals.
  • The powerful individuals changed the commons for their own specialised use
  • There was a finite supply of land which could be usefully converted from common land to personal use
Alan gives wikipedia as an example of commons emerging, and I have a PhD student doing some very interesting work looking at trust and the growth of wikis in different cultures.
hmmm... there is more to do and say, and I will be doing some more thinking about this one - thanks Alan, very useful :-)

    1 comment:

    ailsa said...

    I like your post, it made me think a little more critically about how the tragedy of the commons gets situated within a pro centrist stance, so thanks for that.