Conceptualizing the Internet

Yousuf Dhamee

In order to fully exploit the unlimited possibilities that the Internet provides it is necessary to first understand this entity on a conceptual level. The Net, because of its antispatial and non-material nature, differs from other economic resources that mankind has henceforth utilized. This idea has been lost on many individuals who comment on the Web and has lead to a great deal of misunderstanding regarding what must be done in order to make the most of this resource. In a memo on "Ethics and the Internet" the Network Working Group comments,

As is true of other common infrastructures (e.g., roads, water reservoirs and delivery systems, and the power generation and distribution network), there is widespread dependence on the Internet by its users for the support of day-to-day research activities.

This tendancy to treat the Web like a natural resource paves the way for an American Bar Association essay which attempts to warn the cyber-community that, unless it is careful, the Internet could become overcrowded and worthless.

The Internet is an international community of people who police themselves and orient new members to the rules of using a shared resource. No one owns it, but like grazing land, Radin said, the Internet could quickly become a "tragedy of the commons" where everybody grabs as much as she can as fast as she can, and the resource becomes crowded and useless.

The essay goes on to consider and reject the solution of turning all of cyberspace to a private enterprise which would prevent overuse in order to maximize efficiency and thus profit.

In economic texts the tragedy of the commons is described as a situation where a resource is jointly owned or provided free of use. Let us assume for the sake of argument that the resource is indeed a common, a common grazing land for sheep farmers. The land is provided free of charge or is unowned. Those who are able to use the land will consume as much of it as they can as fast as they can, knowing that A. It is free and B. That it will be used up quickly because everyone else plans to consume as much as possible also. Unfortunately, if this state of affairs persists the grazing land will quickly become barren. The farmers would all be better off if each consumes moderately, because then the grass will be allowed to reproduce itself. Unfortunately, no single farmer will stop immoderate consumption for fear that the others will take advantage of him by continuing to allow their sheep unlimited grazing. In this manner the green is destroyed prematurely. Similar arguments can be made regarding the environment (clean air/water) or machinery that wears down quickly (a jointly owned dishwasher). The traditional solution involves assigning the land (or what have you) to a private owner or implementing a series of tariffs and fines i.e. a pollution tax where industry pays for the right to emit a certain amount of pollution.

Invoking the image of the tarnished common is somewhat misleading in the case of the Internet. It is fundamentally different from roads, water reservoirs and the like. The problem of looking at the Net as if it was analogous to a traditional common is that Cyberspace, unlike "real space," remains unlimited. As Mitchell points out

The property metaphor [for cyberspace] can be misleading since digital artifacts (such as application software files, text files, and digital movies and audio files) differ from tangible property like land, buildings, automobiles, and printed books in several crucial ways. (136)

Net material can be copied easily and cheaply. It does not require a place to store the data. More importantly, any number of individuals can use a Web site simultaneously without wearing it out in any manner or preventing others from utilizing it at the same time. As Mitchell points out this removes from cyberspace the concept of scarcity, which is a necessary precondition for a "tragedy of the common" scenario. On the Web everyone can utilize the posted sources as much as (or more than) is necessary without the information becoming worthless.

In one sense, however, those concerned with the overcrowding of the Net make a valid point. Although there is enough room for an infinite amount of material on-line, there exists a danger that worthless "information" will flood the Net, making it difficult to pick through the debris and find the valuable bits. What is needed now is a method of structuring the anarchic mass of bits that is the Net. Current search engines do not go far enough in insuring that individuals will be able to find what they need. Mitchell's architecture metaphor is appropriate in this instance: what we need is some method of storing and classifying data. Another comparison likens the Net to a library. Unless the books are stored in some systematic manner, the information contained in a library is inaccessible and thus worthless. The problem that is inherent in attempting to catalog the Net is quite obvious, however. Anyone can post information at any time from anywhere in the world. There is no "librarian" or "architect" who could conceivably keep track of all the information or force individuals to place it in a certain place. Another problem with all of this is that the Net is a fluid entity. Information is constantly being added and removed, changed and relocated. Unlike books in a library or houses on a street, information on the Web is not fixed in place, making any sort of mapping an even greater headache.

As we have seen the Net is not similar to a physical resource and should not be treated as such. There is no danger of all of the cyberspace being used up. Real problems however could arise, however, if some method of dealing with all of the information is not devised. The Internet presents special problems which demand new and unique solutions. The first step to finding these solutions is understanding the true nature of this new medium.