The social dilemma – otherwise known as the tragedy of the commons – is at the heart of many of the21st-centuryy challenges from overfishing and environmental degradation to social inequality and political discontent. Put simply social dilemmas are situations in which collective interests are at odds with private interests. Such situations arise when faced with prioritizing either short-term selfish interests or the long-term interests of a group, organization, or society. The classical example given of this is a small community that shares some common land upon which they can put their animals out to graze. As the negative externality of overgrazing by one individual’s animals(for which the individual will benefit) will be borne by the whole community, individuals are incentivised to overgraze and ultimately destroy the commons, and thus it is called a tragedy of the commons.
Historically we have employed two methods for solving this problem, in pre-modern (relatively small) community the social dilemma was regulated through face to face interaction and traditional cultures that all promote those individuals that show positive use of the commons and reprimand those that exploit the commons by stigmatizing and ostracizing them.
With the coming of the modern era and mass society, the disaggregation of traditional communities left a vacuum that became occupied by the nation state as guardian of the commons. This top-down method for managing the commons is today the primary vehicle used by societies around the world and even if expensive to maintain and sometimes dysfunctional (due to corruption) it has to date proved relatively successful. But nation states manage their own commons and with the coming of globalization they have proven inept at the management of the global commons, this may be due to their inherent limitations of being tied to a particular territory or the nature of top-down hierarchical management in general or the lack of global consensus due to cultural differences, likely it is a combination of all.
With the growth of information societies new forms of social organization enabled by IT systems are presenting a “third way” that shows the capacity to scale to the global level. IT is enabling the so-called “global village” phenomenon that overcomes many of the problems inherent in mass industrial society. Social networks are giving birth to new forms of collaboration and hold out the possibility of turning zero-sum games into positive-sum games. Key to this is recondition systems, rating systems and all kinds of feedback mechanism making people’s past actions more transparent both to themselves and other, thus enabling trust building and collaboration, but also information, communications, and globalization are to a certain extent taking way the anonymity of the masses, by bringing us into contact with the real people that our actions effect making it not so easy to avoid the consequences of our actions within the global commons. Ongoing research in game theory, behavioral economics among other areas, coupled with information technology and the new forms of organization that are being experimented with at the moment are all bringing us closer to understanding and trying to find better solutions to the tragedy of the commons that has become such a core issue in the age of sustainability, multiculturalism and globalization.