Monday, August 16, 2010

Internet Broadband and "The Tragedy of the Commons"

I read for the first time Garrett Hardin's excellent 1968 article, "The Tragedy of the Commons", after someone brought it up on the ngc4lib discussion list in reference to the Google-Verizon broadband proposal. While Hardin speaks as an expert in biology, I like his use of philosophy in building his argument. For example, he invokes A.N. Whitehead's definition of 'tragedy': "The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things ... This inevitableness of destiny can only be illustrated in terms of human life by incidents which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by them that the futility of escape can be made evident in the drama". (p. 1244f.);  and quotes Charles Frankel on 'Responsibility', i.e., "the product of definite social arrangements" (1247), which is to say that it depends on context. While hard to summarize, Hardin's essay can be said to frame human overpopulation (along with consequences such as air pollution and other species' extinction), as a classic 'tragedy of the commons', and argues that neither appeals to conscience (as per Jeremy Bentham) nor enlightened self-interest (as per Adam Smith), but only mutually-agreed-upon behavior modification (e.g., coercive laws, tax disincentives), can save us from our current (as of 1968 at least) out-of-control procreation.

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