Tragedy of the Commons, or: Fearing the Person of the Year


This is what the LA Times‘ Joel Stein has to say to you, the person of the year:

“DON’T E-MAIL me. … Here’s what my Internet-fearing editors have failed to understand: I don’t want to talk to you; I want to talk at you. A column is not my attempt to engage in a conversation with you. I have more than enough people to converse with. And I don’t listen to them either. That sound on the phone, Mom, is me typing.”

The full article is password protected, but it’s quite enlightening as a look at an old-school journalist attempting to bridge the generation gap and coming up woefully short. But I have to admit I know exactly how he feels.

image A week or so ago, I stumbled upon an interesting blog (via Mike Daisey) describing New York’s innovative Spring Street Art Project’s descent into chaos. Admittedly, one could argue that street art and graffiti are already mired in chaos, disturbing the tranquil existence of unsuspecting building facades, but that would be to miss the point. There are many who consider their contributions to the cityscape to be valuable artistic endeavors, freelance displays of artistic order in an otherwise aesthetically void domain. But there are also those who would use the art form as a weapon, as happened at Spring Street, painting over or mutilating the work of others out of spite or simply boredom gone bad.

This theoretical force at work here is called The Tragedy of the Commons and is, essentially, the arc of decay one witnesses when observing a public resource to which no cost for use has been assigned. If it’s available to all, the theory goes, all will use it, and the lower the cost, the lower the amount of respect paid.

On Spring Street, as Dobkin illustrates, there was no “cost” for using the blank canvas – no threat of capture or punishment, no fees – and therefore the use of it quickly degraded to base assaults on others’ works, and the value of the thing diminished.

Reading this reminded me of two gentlemen, who we will call Mike and Ike, with whom I had the pleasure to work not too long ago. Mike and Ike were, among other things, graffiti artists, and quite good at their craft. Good enough, in fact, to allow me a glimpse into their unique artistic perspective, and to teach me that one man’s nuisance is another’s artistic expression.

Many a morning working with these two characters began with a colorful discussion of the previous night’s adventures in tagging (many of which involved spirited flights from pursuing law officers and/or breaking and entering), to which I could only add the occasional “You’ll get arrested.” All the while feeling entirely too old and boring to be conversing with this brand of American youth.

Mike and Ike did, however, enlighten me on a number of points regarding tagging, the most important of which is that, while those who seek to stop it consider it a blight on the public landscape, those who actually tag buildings consider it art, and themselves artists, not vandals. I remember the day I came to this realization quite clearly, and the whole new vista of understanding and acceptance of both my young carpenters and their corresponding subset of American culture which opened before me. On that day, I suddenly saw the swirls of paint as life, but through a lens. It had simply been a lens through which I was previously unable to focus. It was like putting on glasses for the first time, and through that lens I saw color and light and humor and pain and longing and love. Albeit sprayed on the side of a wall.

As I continue to write and think about Web 2.0 and audience participation, I realize that that what I, and perhaps Mr. Stein (although I can’t presume to speak for him), fear most about the current trend toward “consumer-created” content on the internet is the Tragedy of the Commons, but not necessarily because such a thing could render folks like myself, who have spent our lives developing the skills with which we create, sift through, and outright tell you what’s quality entertainment, but that the signal may soon become so obliterated by noise as to render our efforts similarly meaningless. When everyone can do it, in other words, everyone will, and the inherent value of the thing will diminish. Everyone may create, but few can truly create well, and the tragedy is that so many don’t even seem to know the difference. Or care.

And yet, some truly great examples of vivid, enlightening and absolutely wonderful content have come to us out of the primordial soup of Web2.0, just as some of the greatest literary treasures of any generation have been created by relatively untrained auteurs. Kerouac, I’m looking at you. Perhaps I now know how my English teacher used to feel as she cracked open a case of red pens and proceeded to turn paper after paper bloody with corrections and accusations of drug use. And yet, I also recognize that some of us, myself included, may not yet be looking through the right lens at the teeming mass of user-created content, and that we may be unable, as of yet, to see all of the individual, lovingly-crafted trees through the thick, overgrown forest of entropy that you, my dear friends are currently growing in Web2.0. The more I think on it, the more I think the problem is ours.

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