Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Anticommons

The New Yorker's Financial Page has an interesting article: The Permission Problem by James Surowiecki (the author of Wisdom of Crowds).

James Surowiecki discusses the notion of anticommons as presented by Professor Michael Heller (The Gridlock Economy).

To illustrate the point, Surowiecki points out two extreme scenarios of the resource sharing problem -- i) common good model: the resource is deemed public and it is shared among individuals without the notion of individual ownership over the shared resource; ii) private property model: the notion of unlimited property, where the resource is owned by a subset of individuals, who may charge other individuals that want to consume units of that resource.

The article says that, on the one hand, common goods may lead to the well-known tragedy of the commons: overuse. On the other hand, unlimited property rights may lead to the exactly opposite: waste of resources (or the Tragedy of the anticommons.

The article has nice examples:

The commons leads to overuse and destruction; the anticommons leads to underuse and waste. In the cultural sphere, ever tighter restrictions on copyright and fair use limit artists’ abilities to sample and build on older works of art. In biotechnology, the explosion of patenting over the past twenty-five years—particularly efforts to patent things like gene fragments—may be retarding drug development, by making it hard to create a new drug without licensing myriad previous patents. Even divided land ownership can have unforeseen consequences. Wind power, for instance, could reliably supply up to twenty per cent of America’s energy needs—but only if new transmission lines were built, allowing the efficient movement of power from the places where it’s generated to the places where it’s consumed. Don’t count on that happening anytime soon. Most of the land that the grid would pass through is owned by individuals, and nobody wants power lines running through his back yard.

It seems to me that certain computational environments present an interesting middle ground between these two extremes discussed above. For example, Nazareno pointed out a while ago to a Large-scale commons-based Wi-fi: users, who own an Internet connection, may share the spare capacity in exchange for either using the spare capacity of others later or being paid for it. The wonderful insight of this resource sharing model is that people buy more Internet bandwidth (as many other computational goods -- if I can name it like this) than they are able to use. Hence, resources are mostly underutilized. So, why not sharing it (the spare capacity)in exchange for access to others spare capacity in the future?

Finally, a question comes to my mind: besides the fact that certain resource units bear an extra capacity by definition (e.g. often my CPU is 99% idle), does any other intrinsic resource characteristic play a role in suggesting which model is suitable for the sharing of that resource?