The Internet: a Tragedy of the Commons?

I couldn’t help but wonder as I was reading “A Research Center for Augmenting” if Engelbart is truly satisfied with the evolution of his work.  In the introduction, the author writes that “computer interfaces should be optimized for expert use.”  That is what Engelbart had in mind at least.  After watching parts of the Bootstrap Seminar in 1992 and hearing him discuss the futility of training wheels in teaching a child how to ride a bike, I am curious as to how he feels about the highly “user-friendly” Internet we use today.  It seems that Engelbart envisioned a system of “creators” rather than “users” which may be evident in the highly complex description of the project.  If his goal was to truly to “allow people to work together to solve difficult problems more easily”  then he may be slightly disappointed if you ask me.  Frankly speaking, a lot of the “problems” discussed online through Yahoo! answers and various search engines are  reflections of laziness and a mere continuation of the learning style that we have been proactively criticizing in class and through our blog posts – someone seeking an answer simply types in the question and there is the answer.  Next step, skim over the description of how the said answer was reached (if a description is even provided) and just cut to the chase!  Then you can prove to your teacher in this graded homework assignment how well you know the material and of course, you will be rewarded with an A, right?

Maybe the Internet, this vastly helpful tool, was only meant for the experts.  If you think about it, the Internet is a public good, meaning we can’t eliminate those who will undoubtedly abuse it.  As with any public good, overconsumption is likely and then we have a “tragedy of the commons” on our hands.


Although we have “maximized the coverage of our documentation” as discussed in the essay, it seems we have done so to a point of overconsumption, is this whole thing just a means to an end – an end of complex, innovative thought?  An end to thinking for ourselves.  Not to tie in another economic term, but maybe this user-friendly interface has enabled the “free-rider problem.”  Now anyone can reap the benefits of a “free software movement,” not just the experts.  It all depends on the probability of abuse.


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27 Responses to The Internet: a Tragedy of the Commons?

  1. Site Admin.

    Very thoughtful and perceptive questions.

    In my one conversation with Doug, and in the many interviews I’ve read or listened to, he’s always expressed his disappointment with the current state-of-the-web, for all the reasons you describe. I think his greatest hope was that computers could bring all of humanity to a new level of expertise in conceptual expression and imagination, and thus equip us to handle large-scale problems that require ever-increasing collective intelligence. Some parts of the Internet and WWW are certainly like that. Others, as you point out, are not. The real heart of the matter, I think, lies in education, for here we can actually help learners to understand their own potential as well as the urgent needs that face us all as intellectual workers in an ever-more-complex world. The end of “Augmenting Human Intellect” (sadly, not in our book, but you can find it online) makes the case for urgency very clearly. My own goal is to start attacking the bootstrapping problem very early, in school, even in the early grades.

    Fascinating that you’d bring up the tragedy of the commons. This concept has generated a lot of thought in the Internet community. One deeply interesting response is a talk called “The Comedy of the Commons,” by Larry Lessig: There’s also a very optimistic book by Clay Shirky called “Cognitive Surplus” that argues along the same lines. Tragedy, or comedy? (Comedy in the sense of a happy ending, that is.) That’s the question about all civilization, yes? Stay tuned. 🙂 And thanks for your post.

  2. lisskane

    I find this a very interesting idea. I had not thought about it in that way. I assumed Englebart would be full of pride at how vastly the internet and computer has grown and how available it is to each individual person. But I can definitely see your point now. I feel the computer and internet, while being one of our most important resources, has been greatly abused. People are smart and learn how to manipulate things to their advantage. They know how to turn a tool into something that completely does a task for them. When I get stuck on my chemistry homework and google the topic, the exact question usually pops up in yahoo answers. Suggesting that someone in the past literally was too lazy to do any research and went for the straight answer. Another tool I see students taking advantage of it translators. Instead of doing their own work, they put full sentences into the computer to get their answers. These example are without a doubt abuse and I can see how Englebart would be upset, but I think looking at the big picture he has to be happy with the results. I feel that all great resources and tools in life are going to be manipulated and abused to some extent. That is just the way humans are, looking for faster and easier shortcuts. But in the case of the computer I would say that the pros, benefits and positive users far outweigh the the negatives.

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