beanz Magazine

The Tragedy of the Commons

Oaktor Photography on Flickr

How we manage limited resources and share costs is an important question far beyond software development.

Imagine all of us own sheep and we send them out to a pasture we share in common. None of us own the pasture but we agree to share it. Our common interest is in having enough pasture to feed all our sheep. However, our individual interest is to maximize our use of the pasture to meet our needs.

If I decide to buy ten more sheep and send them out, then you buy twenty more sheep, and our neighbors do the same, at some point there is no common pasture for us to share. The grass will be eaten and no longer able to support our sheep. Whoever uses the shared pasture the most gains at the expense of others whose sheep can no longer eat from the pasture.

This problem of a shared resource with limits is called the tragedy of the commons. First described by British economist William Foster Lloyd in a pamphlet published in 1833, and also described by Aristotle earlier in history, the phrase became common when ecologist Garrett Hardin published an essay in Science magazine in 1968 with the same title.

You might wonder what sheep and pastures and ancient history have to do with software.

Developers encounter the tragedy of the commons often in their careers. Software libraries, for example, are used in common by many developers with updates lightly co-ordinated with all users or not co-ordinated at all. And large teams of developers have to manage their common code in ways to minimize technical complexity, dependencies, and other problems.

The tragedy of the commons problem also share similar elements with the Prisoner’s Dilemma and other interesting social problems. The simplest solution to the tragedy of the commons is either to split up the pasture into private plots, one plot for each of us, or create a force greater than any one individual who shares the common.

However, these simple solutions don’t begin to expose the complexities and opportunities of the tragedy of the commons.


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