Missing Elinor Ostrom

In Governing the Commons (1990), Elinor Ostrom says Hardin???s argument is not new:

Aristotle long ago observed that ???what is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Everyone thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest??? (Politics Book II, ch. 3). Hobbes???s parable of man in a state of nature is a prototype of the tragedy of the commons: Men see their own good and end up fighting one another???[1]

She goes on to cite a long list of other sources, the growing sum of which have long since snowballed into a single widely held conclusion: ???Much of the world is dependent on resources that are subject to the possibility of a tragedy of the commons.???[2]

Yet Hardin???s model, she explains, is an argument of one very narrow kind: a prisoner???s dilemma, ???conceptualized as a noncooperative game in which all players possess complete information ??? When both players choose their dominant strategy??? they produce an equlibrium that is the third-best result for both.??? The game is fascinating for scholars because ???The paradox that individually rational strategies lead to collectively irrational outcomes seems to challenge the fundamental faith that rational beings can achieve rational results.??? She adds, ???The deep attraction of the dilemma is further illustrated by the number of articles written about it. At one count, 15 years ago, more than 2,000 papers had been devoted to the prisoner???s dilemma game (Grofman and Pool 1975).???[3]

The “Tragedy of the Commons” is one of the lamest assessments of humans I know. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is equally bogus. Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, now we’re talking interesting.

The telecoms industry and a dual-dilemma problem

Thinking about this more today, I’ve realised that my view can be explained quite simply. The telecom industry is (as far as I can tell) the first to face two classical “dilemmas” simultaneously:

  • The Innovator’s Dilemma: The title of Clayton Christensen’s seminal book on disruptive innovation (from which I take a great deal of inspiration, including my company name). It refers to well-managed, profitable companies watching disaster unfold, as they ignore a low-cost / low-profit new technology because it targets only adjacent markets, and would threaten cannibalisation if applied to their own. But it improves over time, gaining strength and scale, and eventually kills them anyway, as it expands from adjacencies to core.
  • The Prisoner’s Dilemma: This is a famous thought-experiment applying “game theory” to collaboration and cooperation. Do two prisoners remain silent & complicit – both receiving short sentences – or does one frame the other, going free while the other languishes in jail? Or, if both try to betray each other, they both get long sentences. (Edit: Martin Geddes has pointed out the different game if you change the apostophe to prisoners’ dilemma)