Irony. And some musings on the “Tragedy of the Digital Commons.”

During a hunt for literature on something, I came across an article I wanted to read on the Internet as a Public Commons.  Thought I’d share what I found:  see the screenshot below.  Oh the irony of it all…

Actually, the “Tragedy of the Commons” theme has been in my mind recently.  We read that article for our most recent book club (you’ll notice that as it took us a year to finish one book, we’ve taken a break from books and have moved to articles).  Mostly out book club discussed population control as does the article, because, I think, we’re mostly comprised of people in medical fields.

But I kept thinking about the digital commons.  What’s the tragedy there?  Using resources in the digital commons does not prohibit or inhibit others from using those resources (unlike in the physical commons described in the paper).  The tragedy of the digital commons involves access:  the technology affords this possibility and promise of universal access but our laws act to deny this.

As an aside, one recent opinion (in Nature ironically) argued that not only do we need to allow for open access to resources, our laws need to enable making use of the resources in creative ways:

…free access is not enough. To maximize the value of the public good and the return on investment, research outputs must be reusable. That does not just mean making data or papers available on the Internet, but ensuring that innovators can manipulate the material, including mining, translating or expressing it in imaginative ways or for new audiences.

I, largely, agree with this vision (even if it WAS in Nature).  And I think it’s something people need to consider when advocating for changes to our current IP laws.

But, back to the tragedy of the digital commons:  Hypothetically, if our laws could be opened up, I could see the tragedy shifting to be around description and metadata:  the resources are there but you can’t find what you’re looking for, and you can’t use what you can’t find.

If that were solved, what would the next tragedy be?

I suppose, underlying this all, the tragedy of the digital commons, too, is that as many affordances the digital, networked world allows, it is still a material world.  Physical stuff is needed to build the hardware of our devices (computers, servers, wires, satellites).  And the process of building these materials has huge, horrid implications for the environment and the people living near mining sites (not to mention the people involved in the factories which build our sleek machines).

So, not to get all “Ready Player One” on you, but, maybe the Tragedy of the Digital Commons is a Tragedy of the Commons issue all along.

Soundtrack for this post (can you tell what decade I grew up in?!):

  1. Ironic – Alanis Morissette
  2. Material Girl – Madonna
  3. Satellite – DaveMatthewsBand
  4. It’s the End of the World as We Know It – REM
  5. Tragic Kingdom – No Doubt

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