The Tragedy of the Commons is a distraction

Last updated on July 24th, 2018 at 08:19 pm

Many believe that technical debt arises, in part, because of a phenomenon known as the Tragedy of the Commons [Hardin 1968], which is an allegory that purports to demonstrate that the user communities associated with shared resources inevitably degrade those resources until they’re depleted. The allegory supposedly supports the thesis that only monocratic control of an asset can provide the strict regulation that prevents its inevitable degradation as a result of shared use. Advocates of this approach to limiting the degradation arising from the expansion of technical debt hold that assigning sole ownership of resources, resource by resource, is the only effective method of controlling technical debt.

A map of the Boston Common and Public Garden, circa 1890. This is the kind of “common” referred to in the tragedy of the commons.
A map of the Boston Common and Public Garden, circa 1890. By that time it was basically a park. But as late as 1830 it was still being used as a cow pasture. They didn’t have refrigeration at the home scale then, except by ice blocks, and the best way to get fresh dairy products was to have a cow. In the very early days, 1633-1640, anyone could graze on the Common, but as wealthy people acquired more animals, the common became overgrazed, and a 70-cow limit was imposed. That limit stood until 1830. It’s an example of a method for managing a shared resource. This map is from an atlas of Boston published by G.W. Bromley & Co.,, courtesy Wikimedia Commons
The resources in question here are the assets that tend to accumulate, or are accumulating, or have accumulated, technical debt. Adherents of the theory would impose order by dividing each technological asset into one or more sectors, sometimes called development silos, with only one organizational unit designated as the “owner,” empowered to develop, maintain, or extend that sector [Bossavit 2013] [Morris 2012]. Irreconcilable disagreements about the direction or purpose of a particular sector of the asset presumably would be resolved by branching.

Ironically, such an approach would — and demonstrably does — produce significant technical debt in the form of duplication of artifacts and services. Moreover, it elevates costs relative to a truly shared asset, by reducing sharing, and increasing the need for testing. We can regard such an approach as dysfunctional conflict avoidance [Brenner 2016b].

Although at one time the Tragedy of the Commons was regarded as a universally valid concept in political economics, subsequent research has demonstrated that the principle it describes is not generally applicable. Hardin first described the Tragedy of the Commons in 1968, in the form of an allegory [Hardin 1968]. In his words:

Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?”

Hardin then explains that each herdsman is compelled by the logic of the situation to exploit the shared resource to the maximum. Each herdsman puts his own interests ahead of the welfare of the resource.

And so it goes, supposedly, with technical debt. Each user of the shared asset expends resources on development, maintenance, and enhancement only to the extent that the expenditure is justified by immediate need. Retiring any legacy technical debt, or any technical debt accumulated in the course of meeting those immediate needs, is regarded as low priority. Because resources for debt retirement are rarely if ever sufficient to meet the need, technical debt grows inexorably. Eventually, the shared asset becomes unmaintainable and must be abandoned.

However, careful research shows that Hardin’s Commons allegory is not applicable to every situation involving shared resources. That same research casts doubt on the validity of the assertion that development silos are necessary in any approach to technical debt management.

Certainly there are many examples of shared resources degrading along the lines outlined by Hardin, such as the collapse of the Northwest Atlantic cod fishery [Frank 2005], but many counterexamples exist. Research by the late political economist Elinor Ostrom uncovered numerous examples of complex social schemes for maintaining common resources efficiently and sustainably [Ostrom 2009] [Ostrom 1990]. Ostrom studied and reported on systems that successfully managed shared resources over long terms — in some cases, centuries. For this work, she received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009.

As Ostrom’s research demonstrated, the problem with Hardin’s allegory is that it applies only to shared resources that are open to use by all without regulation. The misapplication of the Tragedy of the Commons is clearly described in a World Bank Discussion Paper by Bromley and Cernea [Bromley 1989]:

For some time now, Hardin’s allegory of the “tragedy” has had remarkable currency among researchers and development practitioners. Not only has it become the dominant paradigm within which social scientists assess natural resource issues, but it appears explicitly and implicitly in the formulation of many programs and projects and in other beliefs and prejudices derived from it. Unfortunately, its power as a metaphor is not matched by its capacity for aiding our understanding of resource management regimes. By confusing an open access regime (a free-for-all) with a common property regime (in which group size and behavioral rules are specified) the metaphor denies the very possibility for resource users to act together and institute checks and balances, rules and sanctions, for their own interaction within a given environment.

Hardin himself later published an extension of the allegory that clarified the role of regulation [Hardin 1998], as had been observed much earlier by Lloyd [Lloyd 1833].

The real tragedy for technology managers would be their failure to learn from the past errors of social scientists and political economists, and to then repeat, in the context of technical debt management, this now well-understood confusion about the domain of applicability of Hardin’s allegory.

We can apply Ostrom’s result to the problem of managing technical debt if we identify the technical asset as the shared resource, and identify as the community exploiting the resource the stakeholders who employ, develop, maintain, cyber-defend, or extend that technical asset. Ostrom’s results tell us that sustainable exploitation is possible only if the community devises rules, customs, and sanctions that manage the technical debt. Kim and Wood [Kim 2011] provide an analysis that explains how regulation can avert depletion scenarios. Technology managers can apply these lessons to the problem of managing technical debt.

The Tragedy of the Commons is a distraction because technical debt isn’t an inevitable result of sharing assets when the organization adheres to a Principle of Sustainability. That principle is that sustainability is possible only if the community sharing the asset devises customs, rules, and sanctions that effectively control the level of technical debt. You just can’t have a free-for-all unregulated regime, as most organizations now do. Management and practitioners must collaborate to devise the customs, rules, and sanctions for managing the asset. And regular updating is probably necessary. Leadership in devising those customs, rules, and sanctions is a job for the policymaker.

References

[Bossavit 2013] Laurent Bossavit (@Morendil), “Zero Code Ownership will lead to a tragedy-of-the-commons situation, where everybody bemoans how ‘technical debt’ makes their job suck.”, a tweet published April 20, 2013.

Available: here; Retrieved December 29, 2016.

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[Brenner 2016b] Richard Brenner. “Some Causes of Scope Creep,” Point Lookout 2:36, September 4, 2002.

Available here; Retrieved December 30, 2016.

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[Bromley 1989] Daniel W. Bromley and Michael M. Cernea. “The Management of Common Property Natural Resources: Some Conceptual and Operational Fallacies.” World Bank Discussion Paper WDP-57. 1989.

Available here; Retrieved December 29, 2016.

Cited in:

[Frank 2005] Frank, Kenneth T., Brian Petrie, Jae S. Choi, William C. Leggett. "Trophic Cascades in a Formerly Cod-Dominated Ecosystem." Science. 308 (5728): 1621–1623. June 10, 2005.

Available here; Retrieved: March 10, 2017.

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[Hardin 1968] Garrett Hardin. “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, 162, 1243-1248 1968.

Available: here; Retrieved December 29, 2016.

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[Hardin 1968] Garrett Hardin. “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, 162, 1243-1248 1968.

Available: here; Retrieved December 29, 2016.

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[Hardin 1998] Garrett Hardin. “Extensions of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’,” Science, May 1, 1998: Vol. 280, Issue 5364, 682-683.

Available: here; Retrieved: July 30, 2017

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[Kim 2011] Daniel H. Kim and Virginia Anderson. Systems Archetype Basics: From Story to Structure, Waltham, Massachusetts: Pegasus Communications, Inc., 2011

Available: here; Retrieved: July 4, 2017 Order from Amazon

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[Lloyd 1833] Lloyd, W. F. Two Lectures on the Checks to Population, 1833.

Available: here; Retrieved: July 30, 2017

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[Morris 2012] Ben Morris. “How to manage down the payments on your technical debt,” Ben Morris Software Architecture blog, September 3, 2012.

Available here; Retrieved December 30, 2016. This blog entry contains an assertion that controlling formation of new technical debt requires only “diligence, ownership and governance.”

Cited in:

[Ostrom 1990] Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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[Ostrom 2009] Ostrom, Elinor. “Beyond the tragedy of commons,” Stockholm whiteboard seminars.

Video, 8:26 min. Apr 3, 2009. here; Retrieved December 29, 2016.

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