Friday, October 30, 2015

The Story of (dot) Us - Tragedy of Commons

Yesterday a friend emailed and asked about population control. This was in reference to the blog post I wrote on “The Story of (dot) Us.” I was confused. How did we get on that topic? This morning, my wife asked me what “tragedy of commons” is. After much discussion, I realized this is an important idea that has been largely ignored in some people’s minds. And for those who are remotely exposed to the concept from its history, it’s tied to some pretty controversial population control theories. So, now we have to set the record right:

First and foremost, the way I use “tragedy of commons” as a term is to denote a situation where independent actions based in self-interest behave contrary to the best interests of the whole group by depleting some common resource. I use the term this way because it is an easy way to describe the root of our sustainability problem. To me, it's a a form of meta-problem statement that can transcend context in economics, policy, psychology, anthropology, or combinations thereof. It’s in a sense applied philosophy. The applied philosophic methods I use are rooted in game theory (discussion below).

Second, as my wife informed me this morning, there may be a grave misunderstanding in reference to “tragedy of commons.” For those who are not familiar with its modern usage, it may be perceived as linked to some socialist propaganda about population control. This is because William Foster Lloyd and some other early European economists used the term “tragedy of commons” to advance their work in population control. Taken out of context, without a sense of modern movement in game theory, it would be easy to make the jump of inference. Me being Chinese, it easy to be seen as I am advancing some twisted population propaganda by also using this term.

Let’s be clear: the right to choice and life is with the individual and not some government or private effort to “control” population. This is why I became a citizen of this country, fought for this country, and will again. Because we have the freedom in the US to make an individual choice and be informed when we do make that choice. Population should be balanced with nature through the freedom of open information and allowing individuals to decide how many children they will have. Collectively, I hope we are smart enough to work out a plan without some government or religion or organization enforcing some agenda on us. But I know some will argue, even in this country, we are wasting our freedom, to which I do not disagree. It is also another matter to debate the pro-life and woman’s rights issues, and I leave that in the capable hands of politicians. Here, I am concerned with the topic of sustainability. So to remind ourselves again:

“Tragedy of commons” is about independent actions based in self-interest behaving contrary to the best interests of the whole group by depleting some common resource. 

I first came across the concept studying sustainability and game theory. Game theory is important. My interpretation of it is rooted in what little Wittgenstein I remember. Doing it injustice, it’s about seeing the world as interactions, and hypothetically as a game that we have some freewill to dictate what rules we want to play by. We set rules to language, for example, so we can talk to one another. We set rules to computer language, so computers can talk to one another around the world without barriers. The idea would be to set new rules about sustainability, so we can engage globally and solve our problems together. Anything is possible because we have the choice to rationalize our collaborative efforts, make things efficient and effective, exist with nature harmoniously, and explore the worlds beyond.

So this is really about individual freedom and choice to me, but is more importantly about individuals being informed and actively making responsible choices and contributions to the whole. So from this very general aspiration based in Wittgenstein philosophy, I see game theory developed to inspire a generation of mathematicians, economists, philosophers, psychologists, environmentalists, and many others. Scientists like John Nash and legal scholars like Robert Coase worked out the market efficiency and rationalist theory; from which empirical data are gathered by people like those working at the Harvard NASA Challenge Lab. They’ve been building momentum for this fundamental shift we are experiencing. Their inquiry revolves around how we can sustain human life on this planet reasonably. From this common core problem, and a new applied game theory approach combined with process based thinking to continuously improve, are we possibly seeing the next global enlightenment? One can only hope.

That’s why we see the trend today calling for more data driven impact measures. More recently, the United States called for open science and citizen participation (See Whitehouse Press Release 9/30/2015). This new policy direction is probably a direct reflection of the empirical work done at the Harvard NASA Lab. I’ve been tracking this trend for some time now. We believe the many smart people around this country also see the potential for using empirical data and game theory to help us better understand the tragedy of our commons and make sensible choices. We believe in the idea of enabling and empowering citizens to have the freedom to act. How population configures into that is only a small fraction, but unfortunately politicians are very good at distracting us from the real issues and focus on what divide us. We don’t have a whole lot of control over politicians or the media, so we will just focus on building our little corner of the world where we have higher aspirations for the commons. Call it "hope of commons" if you like. So again, that's the story of The Green Elephant and our new social company BrainBox ltd.

Cheers friends.


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