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Re: The tragedy of the commons

[Jeff Lowery:]
> The success of XML in a wide variety of domains and
> purposes may have lulled some people into thinking
> that such astounding and unmitigated success is
> reproducible. As we build technologies on top of this
> achievement, it is becoming more apparent that such
> success is an exception rather than a rule.

We all stand to lose the value of the public asset that
is the Web.  I think we're losing it right now.  The
tragedy of the commons is inexorably devouring it.

As I understand it, the "tragedy of the commons" is a
concept from Economics: the tendency of individuals to
over-exploit publicly-owned assets.  The "commons" is
archetypically a grassy area held in common by an
entire village.  The commons loses all of its grass,
and all of its value, due to the tendency of everyone
to let their sheep graze there first, in preference to
exploiting their own private grasslands as grazing
areas.  Needless to say, this practice destroys the
commons; no grass can grow where everyone prefers their
sheep to graze.  Nothing prevents or inhibits the
destructive feeding frenzy of those who are in a
position to exploit the commons for personal gain at
everyone's expense; this is the "tragedy of the

The Web's leadership has thus far been characterized by
a laissez-faire attitude that lets many flowers bloom.
It is a development philosophy that relies on Darwinian
natural selection to decide which standards should
live, and which should be ignored.  In fact, however,
natural selection only makes the *less aggressive*
standards extinct, regardless of the lost benefits that
these overwhelmed standards are uniquely able to
provide.  The long-term result is that the aggressive
standards -- the weeds -- take over, while those
standards that respect the boundaries that have been
set for them are starved out of existence.

Successful, maximally-productive gardens are Planned.
They have Gardeners who decide which plants will grow,
and where they will grow.  They make distinctions
between weeds and non-weeds, and they act accordingly.

What kind of Web standard is a non-weed?  A non-weed
provides the benefit it was intended to provide, it
stays within its scope, and its scope establishes the
situations in which it is a non-weed.  Everywhere else,
by definition, it is a weed, potentially choking off
the ability of *other* non-weeds to provide the
benefits that they are intended to provide, within
their own scopes.

Web standards that violate modularity are weeds.
Instead of confining themselves to the particular
situations in which they provides benefit, they take
root elsewhere, and they deprive the standards that
were intended to grow there of the nourishment they
need in order to provide the benefits that they were
intended to provide.  The public suffers, because the
general availability of these benefits is curtailed.
The benefits (if any) provided by the weeds are often
accidental and specific; they sometimes turn out to be
windfalls for certain individuals and organizations --
windfalls whose cost to the public is far greater than
their value to their beneficiaries.  It's bad public
policy to allow weeds to thrive.

Among XML standards-making bodies, the widespread
attitude that "the standards organization that creates
the most aggressive, virulent standards wins" is simply
another expression of "the tragedy of the commons".
Under this viral philosophy, major opportunities for
human productivity enhancement are missed, everyone
loses, and the Web becomes a weedy mess that will
ultimately have to be plowed under.  The glowing
promise of the Web as a permanent public asset fades
away.  Eventually, it becomes axiomatic that some
private interest can do a much better job of being the
Gardener, so what was once held in common ultimately
becomes a private asset.  After all, the privatization
of high-maintenance public assets, especially ones
whose current business model is perceived as not
working and/or unworkable, is often a good thing.
Strong leadership -- a Gardener -- is preferable to
anarchy and confusion.  A Garden Plan is preferable to
No Garden Plan.

Still, I hold some small hope for the Web's survival as
a "commons".  For example, the microwave bandwidth that
is exploited by cellular telephone technology is an
example of a public asset.  (It's a "window in the air"
through which these electromagnetic frequencies can
pass; it can't be owned by anyone *but* the public.)
Cellphone technology, however, is gradually causing a
significant loss of individual privacy; if you keep
your cell phone with you 24 hours a day, your personal
location and movements can be known 24 hours a day.
Individuals must choose between (1) the ability to send
and receive personal communications wherever they are,
and (2) personal privacy -- which means leaving their
cell phones at home.  Once the public realizes the
extent of its loss of privacy, maybe the public will
exercise its rights of ownership of the microwave
window.  Maybe there will be strict
public-interest-driven laws governing the operations of
networks of cell phone transceiver stations, such that
cellphone network-based privacy invasion will become
expensive and impractical.

Given a more activist, informed public, maybe the Web's
meta-bandwidth can also be preserved from the tragedy
of the commons.  Public involvement is essential,
though, and nobody is paying the cost of educating the
public.  Who will pay for it, and why?

If, as I predict, no one is willing to pay for public
education, and the public remains predictably
apathetic, there is a big business opportunity here.

Here is an exercise for the reader: if you were
well-funded, and you wanted to begin to position
yourself as a Gardener to whom the public would turn in
desperation when the weediness of the Web becomes
totally intolerable, what would you do?


Steven R. Newcomb, Consultant

voice: +1 972 359 8160
fax:   +1 972 359 0270

1527 Northaven Drive
Allen, Texas 75002-1648 USA