Sunday, July 08, 2007

Readings: Commons, Digital Games as Art

The commons: One of the most interesting discussions going on in Boston art circles is the idea of “the commons.” The idea of voting as a commons – with alleged negative consequences – is briefly discussed in Louis Menand’s review of Bryan Caplan’s book “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Politics” in the July 9 New Yorker:
“Caplan thinks that democracy as it is now practiced cannot be salvaged, and his position is based on a simple observation: “Democracy is a commons, not a market.” A commons is an unregulated public resource—in the classic example, in Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968), it is literally a commons, a public pasture on which anyone may graze his cattle. It is in the interest of each herdsman to graze as many of his own cattle as he can, since the resource is free, but too many cattle will result in overgrazing and the destruction of the pasture. So the pursuit of individual self-interest leads to a loss for everyone. …

Caplan rejects the assumption that voters pay no attention to politics and have no real views. He thinks that voters do have views, and that they are, basically, prejudices. He calls these views “irrational,” because, once they are translated into policy, they make everyone worse off. People not only hold irrational views, he thinks; they like their irrational views. In the language of economics, they have “demand for irrationality” curves: they will give up y amount of wealth in order to consume x amount of irrationality. Since voting carries no cost, people are free to be as irrational as they like. They can ignore the consequences, just as the herdsman can ignore the consequences of putting one more cow on the public pasture. “Voting is not a slight variation on shopping,” as Caplan puts it. “Shoppers have incentives to be rational. Voters do not.”
Digital games as art: I wrote in March about a proposal, that continues to work its way through the Library of Congress, to set up a fledgling archive of a digital game canon – including a couple of landmark games that came out of Massachusetts. The digital game canon proposal is a paradigm shift – from seeing games as raw entertainment to innovative art. It’s a shift that mimics the acknowledgement of film and comics as art.

In the July 8 New York Times, Seth Schiesel profiles John Riccitiello, the new head of top video game publisher Electronic Arts, and discusses where he aims to take the company. It’s a rather dull essay, reading more like a corporate press release than an incisive piece of journalism. But Riccitiello touches on the digital-games-as-art stuff (and makes it sound like marketing bluster) when he tells Schiesel about his goal to make games that are easier to operate and with broader appeal:
“We’re starting to be an art form and can have a massive cultural impact globally similar to television in the ’50s. But we could also become ham radio. We could go down the path where we’re just reinforcing what we’ve done in the past, and we need to reinvent ourselves.”


Blogger Mr. J. Cook said...

I have read neither the review nor the book but I'm a bit confused as to how it is that the herdsman doesn't have an incentive to be rational. Doesn't the herdsman lose a resource when the green commons becomes barren? Doesn't he therefore have an incentive not to overgraze? And, more importantly, doesn't he have an incentive to organize with other herdsmen to prevent the commons from becoming barren?

Admittedly voting is different. I often talk to my students about the danger of conflating "voting" with "democracy". But without getting into it too much--I'm on a tutoring break at the moment--I see the herdsmen-commons scenario as inviting at least the possibility of rational discourse and consensus.

Of course, fishermen did little to prevent the commons-of-the-ocean from becoming barren but have we fared any better ecologically on private land? Have we, as owners of private property, been any more rational in terms of the long term effects of our behavior?

Say the herdsmen divide up the commons into private property or privatize--a corporation running it more, ahem, efficiently--then when an owner decides the land is more valuable for dumping the byproducts of tanning, etc. the other herdsmen, who might be affected by the decision--run-off onto their land, etc.--and a herdsman who foresees the future effects of the dumping lose standing.

The town could enact laws preventing the dumping even on private land but w/ the Lockean respect for private property woven deep into the fabric of our worldview such a law would be far more difficult to enact than the alternative: citizens apporaching each other on common land using the logic of the common good. Of course what is the common good will be debated as will the best way to achieve the common good. This--not mere voting--is democracy.

So I guess it offends my sensibility to see use of the commons and behavior in the commons associated with the ills of democracy as opposed to its virtues.

All along I've also been thinking about fishermen & their commons of the ocean. Of course this didn't work out leading to an irrational depletion that echoes the overgrazing on the commons. There's a lot that might be said here--fishermen do not live on the ocean as a herdsmen lives on, or by, the commons; the ocean then is more like a national park than like a village green--but the time for exploring the implications of all of this has lapsed for me today.

Off I go.

July 12, 2007 at 10:53 AM  
Blogger Mr. J. Cook said...

To add to what I've written already--another minute has come my way--I guess I object to the characterization of the traditional commons as "unregulated". Behavior on the public greens of the past might not have been regulated by law but behavior was certainly influenced by social norms and the influence of peers. And that such norms might more likely reflect a common good than do the norms observed by rational private land owners.

& I hereby repend to read as much as I can of all this commons debate...

July 12, 2007 at 10:58 AM  
Blogger studiojane said...

This notion of an unregulated commons is antithetical to my sense of how commons work as well. Social morays of course are the primary regulator of all commons, but is even more interesting is how responsive they are to changes in the collective culture. So as new technologies are introduced, the collective adjusts its understanding of the commons, similarly as notions of taboo change, or physical changes in the environment or built world transform how we move, see, think, and feel, the ways in which the commons is quietly and informally regulated change. This regulation, which exists by common agreement, is what underpinned the strength of the commons. Has the replacement of collective necessary societal self regulation by legal and governmental regulation been the thing that is weakening the commons? Apologies for talking so generally here, as most commons are quite specific in their means of regulation.

July 16, 2007 at 9:50 AM  

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