The tragedy of the commons is a situation where multiple individuals behave rationally in their own self-interest and ultimately destroy a useful shared resource, even when it is perfectly clear that it is not in the best interests of the group as a whole for this to happen. So, if a ‘common’ can support grazing for 50 sheep and 5 people put 10 sheep each on it then all is well. However, if 1 person puts 11 sheep on the common, this starts an arms race where each individual then feels compelled to match this. Ultimately, the common is over-grazed and destroyed.
To handle this problem, we have invented regulators who are supposed to stop individual behaviour that threatens the good of the whole (although it didn’t work too well with the banks).
The analogy with email is striking. Email in the 1990s was a fantastically useful tool for supporting distributed working. It appeared to be a cheap and effective way of distributing information to lots of people. However, as it became universal, more and more information was distributed by email to the extent that, in many jobs, it has become impossible to manage the amount of electronic information received. Email is easy – adding one more recipient takes very little effort – and it stimulates responses – even if these are automatically generated responses saying that the receiver is out of the office. We have also placed the burden on the receiver to read their mail – all too often we are told when something hasn’t been done that we have received an email about this.
We have created a situation where a shared, incredibly useful resource, has been degraded to the extent that its value is now questionable in many situations. Charging does not help – this might reduce spam but wouldn’t reduce the volume of email generated within an organisation. Social media (blogs, wikis, social networks) have the capability to improve things but the lack of standards, the image of these systems as ‘unprofessional’ and sometimes clunky interfaces don’t help. Organisations really need to rethink their policies and approach to information dissemination and, instead of just relying on email, provide a range of mechanisms through which people can communicate and share information.
And maybe we also need organisational e-mail regulators to make sure that everyone complies with these policies.