Tragedy of the commons

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In which the curmudgeonly old sod puts the world to rights.
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The dilemma of a communally-owned, limited resource where users are incentivised to over-use the resource (because if they don’t, someone else will) leading to depletion of the shared resource through their collective action, despite that being in no-one’s best interest. British economist William Forster Lloyd coined the term in an essay in 1833 in which he cited the effects of unregulated grazing on common land. Garrett Hardin popularised the concept as the “tragedy of the commons” in an article he wrote more than a century later in 1968.

It is of a piece with game theory and the (single round) prisoner’s dilemma, whereby, whilst it is in both parties common interest to co-operate, because of the skewed pay-offs if they don’t, both are incentivised to defect.

In the modern world there is a view that the digital commons, being effectively unlimited, is not affected by the dilemma, so we can all tweet as many hot takes as we like without ruining anyone else’s ability to tweet their own hot-takes.

This does not stop grifters trying to flummox the unwary into chasing — and therefore paying for — artificial digital scarcity in the shape of domain names, non-fungible tokens, physical spaces in the metaverse and exclusive beachfront properties on Crypto Island.[1]

Very good, thoughtful books about it are Lawrence Lessig’s Code: Version 2.0 and Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks.

See also


  1. What? Crypto Island is a physical island? Oh, come on!