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?

1 comment:

Miranda said...

You asked:
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?

Yochai Benkler (in "Sharing Nicely") says that goods suitable for sharing are ones which
are "lumpy", meaning you have to buy at least a minimum capacity, so if you use less than the minimum you have to pay for it anyway, and "midgrained", meaning that private ownership of these goods is widespread and these privately owned goods tend to have spare capacity.
Here are some other characteristics that you may need.
- Commonality of interest. To share a good you need a group of people who are interested in the same good. For instance, a group of friends with completely different literary tastes probably won't find it useful to share books.
- Non-rivalrous use. If others' use of my spare capacity may adversely affect my ability to
use the main capacity, then I'm less likely to share my good. For instance, I don't let anyone else drive my car, because if I did I would have to pay more in car insurance.
- Weak control by sellers. It may be in the interest of the sellers of the goods, and their shareholders, to prevent sharing. (So the "tragedy of the anti-commons" may not be a tragedy for them.) For instance if you change your travel plans after buying an air ticket, the airline won't allow you to give the ticket to a friend or sell it at a discount to a stranger. This restriction was introduced not for security reasons, but to support the price of air tickets.

I expect there are some other characteristics as well. Perhaps the frequency of use and the likelihood of a user to want the same type of resource in the future are relevant?

Cheers, Miranda
HP Labs Bristol