Air, Water, and Unlimited Bandwidth

How Garrett Hardin predicted the Internet’s ruin.

This piece was originally published in October of 2014, Because many of these issues since have resurfaced, I’ve been revisiting earlier writing in lieu of the recent clusterf*ck that is America 2017.

The Internet is a complex universal infrastructure that has no single owner or origin. Though ISPs may argue otherwise, we can’t trace its birthplace, nor have we ever crowned an inventor. (Claude Shannon? Tim Berners-Lee? Al Gore?)

“Cable ISPs have long held that consumers and business should have unfettered access to the Internet,” NCTA director John Solit writes in July, arguing that the case for net neutrality has been skewed by the nature of the debate. In an attempt to assure readers that telecoms hold themselves accountable, Solit continues: “I worry many people aren’t connecting [its] growth to the regulatory model Internet companies have been working from.” (John Oliver also discusses this in his 5th episode, which went viral back in 2014)

As the title of Solit’s article suggests, no one person or agency — public or private — has the power to control something they can’t possibly understand. In trying to make sense of this immense technological infrastructure, he emphasizes:

“When systems become complex, the only way we can advance it is if we support deep specializations and rely on shared development. To expand, we build almost entirely on collective knowledge.”

This leads to a common domain where residents fight those who pollute it, fighting agencies who limit users’ right to pollute as they please. Simply stated, lots of people are extremely protective a free, unfettered Internet access. “While this sort of communal innovation has lead to incredible progress in communications technology,” Solit continues, “it also means we have to accept that most of us will never understand what have become the fundamental pieces of our lives.”

Had he lived for another decade, the Internet would have been Garrett Hardin’s worst nightmare.

Originally published in 1968, Garret Hardin’s ecological argument for strict population control may seem obscene, or at least very radical. However, peeling back the layers of Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons reveals a similar debate about the finite nature of virtual information.

Grounded in philosophical rhetoric, Hardin suggests that our shared consumption of natural resources would “greatly increase human misery if we do not assume that the world available to the terrestrial human population is finite.” Metaphysicians may argue over whether we’re faced with an infinite universe, Hardin’s grandiose statements about the human condition (“Freedom of the commons brings ruin to all,” “Freedom to Breed is Intolerable!”) can be used to support a fair number of “intolerable” cases, such as the need for gun control, or legislative web regulation.

Like the natural resources Hardin mentions — water, air, etc — it’s widely assumed that information needs to readily accessible for survival in developed nations. President Obama has publicly supported net neutrality, citing preservation of an Open Internet as “vital not just to the free flow of information, but also to promoting innovation and economic productivity.”

This exchange of information over this seemingly incomprehensible series of wires has gone unregulated for nearly twenty years, largely because no one can agree on how to set limits on a shared resource. But as personal security and national safety is continuously being compromised, the need to secure information is as important as the need to preserve it.

The modern conundrum is that while the Internet is technically “free,” privacy is a valuable commodity. Despite the widespread availability of information available for public consumption, browsing the web is an intensely personal activity. We worry about the government tracking information on our phones, yet we can’t comprehend what kind of laws protect the infrastructure, much less our own privacy.

“The laws of our society follow the pattern of ancient ethics,” writes Hardin, “and therefore are poorly suited to governing a complex, crowded, changeable world.”

This comes back to morality: I can’t legally be punished for creeping on someone’s phone over their shoulder any more than I could be punished for taking a screenshot and posting it on Tumblr. Would users pay premiums for more secure connections? We’ll never know, because according to the FCC this would not be deemed commercially reasonable, and in the digital realm, there seems to be little legislation that protecting our privacy.

Ethics grow increasingly murky as storage and bandwidth approach $0.00. Whether it’s a politician whose salacious text messages are leaked to the press, or a celebrity with a small army of stalkers, each person will suffer from their own personal tragedy if we continue to use the Internet as shared hunting ground.

While it’s easy to see smog or oil in our oceans, Americans have various opinions on what kinds of information “pollutes” the Internet. But just as natural resources were in the late 60’s, the Internet seems to have a limitless capacity: we don’t have to provide an argument or understand how the system works in order to take advantage of its abundance.


Debbie Saslaw is an award-winning producer with a dangerous Internet addiction. Her work has been featured in Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, Jezebel, and others. She writes about web culture, media, technology, and our behavior. Follow her on Twitter, and all the things.