Technological Tragedy of the Commons

In 1968 Garrett Hardin wrote an essay about how free access to a common resource leads to destruction of that resource. Possibly the best known part of that essay is the description of a pasture that is freely available to a number of cattle owners. Because there is no cost for using the pasture, the owners continue to increase the number of cattle they put out to graze. According to Hardin, "Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit - in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons."

We see a similar situation today in use of the Internet. Despite enormous increases in capacity and speed, growth of Internet use - estimated at 100% per year - will soon degrade performance to the point that it will lose the usefulness we have come to expect.

Beginning in 1969 with four computers, there are now over 200,000,000 computers connected to the Internet. The number of web servers experienced similar growth until the last couple of years, when the number actually decreased. At first glance this seem contradictory, but a single web server can host more than one website.

Telephone systems have not grown at the same pace as the Internet; if we installed new wire to keep up with increases in Internet traffic, telephone poles would collapse under the weight. Fortunately, improvements in hardware and software have raised system capacity by increasing speed and by using compression and other tricks. But, left unchecked, it is quite possible that continued growth will soon overwhelm the system.

Demand for capacity has increased even more dramatically than the graph indicates. The reason is that at least two things are happening to increase demand. First, there is the tremendous increase in users, as illustrated. Beyond that, users expect more from the Internet as software developers find new ways to use it. Early use was limited to moving text, but it soon became possible to send pictures, then to interact with programs, and more recently to listen to radio broadcasts, to watch television, and to play virtual reality games with other users in real time.

The blessing - and the curse - of the Internet was the decision to make it freely available. Had there been an access charge, far fewer companies and individuals would have been willing to pay for the use of the service. With less demand, there would have been less incentive to develop equipment and software to use the system, and we might today be where we were five or more years ago.

On the other hand, it has been the lack of any charge or limit that has allowed the Internet to develop the porn cesspools and apparently limitless spam we now see. As the old saying goes, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." We have enjoyed free use of the Internet for several years, and now it's time to pay for it.

While there are obvious analogies between e-mail and snail mail, there is an obvious disconnect when it comes to junk mail. We all complain about unwanted ads in our mailboxes, but there isn't really all that much of it, and very little is aimed at businesses. The reason, of course, is that advertisers have to pay to send the mail. The rate is much lower than that for letters, but it is still sufficient to prevent any company from sending ten copies of an ad to you every day of the week. It might be argued that junk mail actually helps us by paying some of the cost of the mail system.

Another difference is that there are strict rules about what can be delivered to your mailbox. Unless you specifically ordered it, you have probably never seen porn in your mail. For whatever reason, the government refused to establish any meaningful restrictions on e-mail, and we can look forward to ever-increasing amounts of garbage e-mail.

Is there a way to reverse the trend, or are we condemned to sorting through our e-mail every day to delete the fifty - or one hundred or two hundred - unwanted messages? Although things look dismal at the moment, there are at least two ways to regain control of the Internet.

One is by force. Assuming the government could find a way to limit access or control content, it could put spam and porn sites out of business. But with all of the Internet servers that are in other countries, that is not likely to happen. The other way is by establishing a second parallel Internet with protocols that permit strict control of traffic. Such a system might be free, but it is also possible that it would be set up by private companies who would charge for the service.

Until then, perhaps we should all find the e-mail addresses of our state and federal elected officials, and forward our spam to them every morning.

2003 Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA,
on the web at 

For an extensive history of the Internet, look on the web for Hobbes' Internet Timeline by Robert H Zakon.

Read Garrett Hardin's work at

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