The Tragedy of the Google

In 1833 the Victorian economist William Forster Lloyd published Two Lectures on the Checks to Population, which introduced an idea we later understood as the Tragedy of the Commons. The example used was of a common grazing area and how the interests of the people using this “free” public land would inevitably work at odds with one another in maintaining the public land. Everyone had an incentive to take as much as they could, as quickly as they could, but no one had an incentive to put back.

Today this is best understood in the management of fisheries. You can’t own parcels of the ocean and even if you can assign areas to particular fishermen, the fish don’t pay attention to these boundaries. The fisherman has no incentive to limit his cod harvest because the fish he does not catch will simply swim over to the next guy, who will catch them. In order to maintain the fishery, the state comes in and puts limits on the overall catch and what each fisherman can catch each season.

This fairly well known example is used by certain ideologues to demand socialization of all private property. Environmentalists will claim that the three-toed elephant slug is a common resource so it must be protected by the state. Therefore, anything that impacts the slug, requires permission from the state. That means if you want to mow your lawn or put up a tool shed, you have to file an environmental impact study and spend a bazillion dollars bribing environmental groups. It’s why we can’t build anything of consequence anymore.

Even though the idea has been abused, it is a useful concept when thinking about something like this story in Breitbart. Musicians are quickly seeing their revenue from music sales disappear. Newspapers all over America are near collapse because their content is distributed free on-line. Those that try to charge a fee just see the news given away by someone else, so their efforts to create property lines on-line always fail. Even the pornography industry is being gutted by a flood of free porn.

Now, the music industry has adapted to the fact Google is essentially an open air contraband market. Big shot musicians have teams of lawyers to police this stuff. The small musicians make their money from live shows and selling their music at their events. But, others don’t have this avenue. Photographers, graphic artists and writers just accept that they no longer have property rights to their work. I often see my work posted on other sites and no one from those sites asks my permission. I always give it when asked, but few bother asking.

The big internet operators and their government ignore all of this because they have grown stupendously rich off this racket. Google is essentially operating an open air contraband market with YouTube. Try running a heroin market on your property and see what happens. But, you’re not a billionaire and you can’t afford to buy a government of your own so the rules apply to you. Even banks find they have to report large movements of cash in order to help the government catch drug dealers. Ross Ulbricht is doing life in prison for being the Google of illicit drugs.

When the robot historians look back at the collapse of the West, they may point to the Internet as an institution analogous to slavery in the Roman Republic. Some argue that the flood of slaves in Rome after the victories over Corinth and Carthage altered the economic balance of Roman society. Large farmers could afford to buy up lots of slaves, thus collapsing the market for labor. This also allowed them to crush their smaller competition. The result was the rise of a landed oligarchy at the expense of the small land owners.

The Internet has brought back something that we thought was dead and that is rentier capitalism. This is the economic practice of monopolizing access to any kind of property, and gaining significant amounts of profit without contribution to society. Cable operators are a good example. In my youth, TV was free. It made it’s money from commercials. Today, you pay the monopolist a fee to get access to TV shows, that still run ads. In fact, they run even more ads than when I was a kid. In the case of kid’s shows, the programs are just ads to sell toys.

The other institution is cost shifting. The paint company that dumps its old paint into the river because it is a cheap way to get rid of the waste is shifting some of its costs to the public. Passing laws to prevent it or taxes on the paint maker to pay for the cleanup, is an effort to end the practice of cost shifting. Even today, the smallest mechanical shop complies with environmental rules because the punishments are draconian. These costs show up in the invoice to the customer. When I get my oil changed, I see an entry for oil disposal on the invoice.

The modern Internet giants shift huge chunks of their business cost to the public via all sorts of schemes. The most obvious being the internet providers. In most of the country, technology and/or the law prevents the internet provider from implementing metered service. Everyone pays the same for their internet regardless of usage. That means the guy with three teenagers that spend all day watching YouTube pays the same as the local feminist, who only goes on-line to post pictures of her cats to Facebook.

If the guy with the three kids had to pay for his usage, his bill would be five times that of the local feminist. He would also sharply limit his usage. Google and the other video providers would see their customer base shrink to the point where it may no longer make sense to exist in some cases. My first broadband bill was $12.95 per month. The cheapest in my area is now $69.95 plus a long list of fees and taxes. The service is marginally better, but not five times better. The additional cost is about me subsidizing my neighbors for the profit of the Internet companies.

Similarly, if the suppliers were charged for use of the public roadways, like we tax motorists and trucking companies, they would have to charge vastly more for their product. Instead, those costs end up in your tax bill, because, the government gives tax breaks to the internet providers. If Facebook had to build out a network to supply you their product, the cost would be prohibitive. Instead those costs end up in your cable bill, even if you have no use for Facebook. The internet economy is all about socializing the costs and privatizing the profits.

I’m going long here so let me wrap it up by summarizing a bit. We have created this virtual commons, but we have not come up with a way to manage it like a park or fishery. Further, we have permitted the development of rentiers, who skim from the public good, but contribute very little to it. Worse yet, we have massive cost shifting with the profits going to expand and perpetuate a system that works against the interests of the people. When a firm that made its money from cat videos can dictate terms to the US government, we’re well past the tragedy of the commons and into techno-feudalism.

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51 Comments on "The Tragedy of the Google"

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Guest
Off topic: On another blog i vented about Penn Jillette and Gary Johnson, where i quoted your master quote “Libertarians will never go over the top and will, once in a while, turn their weapons on their comrades. You just can’t trust them to fight.” To which i added: “Gary Johnson truly is friendly fire this time around.” So that’s the post suggestion or request: “Libertarian friendly fire”, because those wannabe intellectual libertarians are almost mirror images of enlightened liberals. And while experts can get Trump up to speed on anything in one hour, at least according to Scott Adams,… Read more »
Notsothoreau
Guest
The ISP I work for did meter usage in the dial up days. You had a basic plan with 10 hours a month and an unlimited plan. (And, FYI, we still have dialup customers. Rural users don’t have a lot of options). Satellite internet is also metered. Would be interesting to see what happens if we went to that model. Streaming movies over the Internet is a dumb idea when you think of it. I have folks complain that they can’t do their banking when the service is down. They’ve forgotten that they can call the bank. And of course… Read more »
Joan of Argghh!
Guest

If it’s free, YOU are the product. Soylent Google. It’s made from people.

Chiron
Guest

Google should be called Jewgle, the elite is Jewish.

Severian
Guest
What’s so bad about techno-feudalism? Seriously; I’m not trolling (I hope I’ve commented here enough to avoid a troll ban). I find myself thinking about that kind of thing a lot these days. Ditto “perpetuate a system that works against the interests of the people.” What if these simply ARE the interests of “the people?” I try to remind myself of Karl Marx, who really thought the proles wanted to work in the factory in the morning, grow crops in the afternoon, and write poetry at night, and only the Iron Law of Wages was stopping them. I tend to… Read more »
Member

The worry I have with techno feudalism, is that unlike its rustic predecessor, its peasants have no value. The villeins had a value to their lords. They produced staple crops that fed the manor house and maybe could be sold to the town for a little profit.

Techno peasants are surplus population. How will a materialistic elite deal with them? When the ruling class already considers themselves well along the road to transhumanity, probably not well.

james wilson
Guest

Perhaps I misinterpret you. Democracy is what got us into this state, and good riddance to it.

Member

It wasn’t democracy, it was universal suffrage.

notsothoreau
Guest

The difference is that feudalism hired people. Techno-feudalism doesn’t and the folks with the money lead hard left.

Member
I don’t think the so-called Tragedy of the Commons works very well as an analytical tool for understanding the distribution of “intellectual” property like musical performances or news stories (or, in my case, books I’ve written) over the internet in violation of copyright. The whole point of the ‘commons’ is that these are independently existing natural entities that nobody owns. Therefore, it’s in nobody’s personal interest to maintain the entity and it gets ruined through overharvesting, with everybody trying to get something out of the ‘common’ before it’s all used up. That’s not at all the same phenomenon as taking… Read more »
notsothoreau
Guest

Here’s the other consideration: Music is usually owned by the song publisher, not the artist. If you pay them for rights to use a song, then you have the right to use it. We have all these leftie musicians that bitch every time a Repub uses their song, even though they were compensated for it. No one is stupid enough to think that using a song means that artist endorses that person or group. I lose a lot of sympathy for these musicians.

Severian
Guest

OT, Sauron, but I’m making my way through your Malleus Malificarum now. That must’ve been a blast to translate, though I can’t imagine the work involved in running down the references….

Member

Why do you think Sauron has a Lazy Eye? 🙂 Anyway, it’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it!

Severian
Guest

Dirty work is right! I would’ve trained as an Early Modernist, but don’t have the IQ points to master all the languages (not to mention palaeography)….. I just wanted to give you an attaboy — nice work!

colin
Guest

Internet access isn’t one way. Facebook does have to build out a network, and they pay for their internet access, as well. Plus the costs of their CDN’s and what not.

When you download/view an image on facebook, from their perspective, that’s an upload that they have to pay for.

Karl Horst (Germany)
Guest
Todays Second Machine Age* is actually what’s moving us out of our modern feudal system just as the first industrial age took us out of an agrarian age which was limited by horse and oxen power. And thank goodness! Where a single monarch once controlled the gold and the law, now corporations control the gold and government controls the laws. But the techo-robot future is going to change both of these two organizations in ways they can’t possibly understand. Even today, look around at the technically ignorant people in charge who can barely operate a Blackberry or manage an email… Read more »
Member
I wholeheartedly agree with everything you’ve said here. But there is one big thing that worries me. Yes, people can share their ideas freely (and they do). But they no longer have incentive if it’s free, except for altruism. By relying on altruism, you restrict a great deal of the talent market. Take, for example, Elon Musk. He didn’t share his Tesla designs for free. He doesn’t crowdsource rocket designs. He did share his massive government spending proposal for high speed tube transport for free, mostly as a publicity stunt because he knew he would never profit from it. Other… Read more »
Karl Horst (Germany)
Guest
Elon Musk is an industrialist, pure and simple. So of course he’s in it for the money – I don’t have a problem with what he does or how he is able to use tax money to further science or engineering. The money is better spent attempting something that can contribute to many, rather than perpetually funding people who contribute nothing. But look at what a private person, and some highly motivated people did that NASA couldn’t. The SpaceX program is one the best example of how private companies, not government, can accomplish great things using science and technology. Of… Read more »
Notsothoreau
Guest

The geezers are the ones that created this stuff. And I’ve talked to folks that gave their kids computers in the early days. They learned to program, because that’s how you got it to do what you wanted. Yes young people program but it’s built on the work before. Too many young people just know how to play games.

Karl Horst (Germany)
Guest
Of course everything we know today was built on things we learned in the past. That’s how we got from the iron age to space travel. Sure, many kids play games. But don’t over look the thousands who are developing programs beyond entertainment. What do you think runs your microwave, your refrigerator, car, CD player, coffee maker and your digital camera? It’s all hardware controlled by software. And it’s not old geezers who are writing the programs that run them. And then think about heavy industry – power plants, manufacturing plants, waste water plants – more and more programming –… Read more »
notsothoreau
Guest
Yeah, computers that run things. We have a pickup. It has a computer that regulates the gas flow. Despite putting out about $900 to get it to start when we turn the key, it still chokes off the gas flow. I have to use starting fluid every time we go anywhere. In the old days, even with beat up old pickups, they started without all this fuss and expense.I hate microwaves. I’ve spent at least 10 years of my life without electricity, although I am probably it’s biggest fan. Here: http://www.wired.com/1999/01/amish/ I don’t know how many times I’ve posted a… Read more »
Karl Horst (Germany)
Guest

@ notsothoreau – I agree. Some technology hasn’t been all that beneficial. Nuclear energy is the first one that comes to mind. But it’s a bit silly to blame smart phones for poor table manners, irresponsible parenting skills and socially unacceptable behavior. There are any number of things I would prefer were still analog too, but that’s not the future. As romantic as it may be the Amish lifestyle isn’t the future.

Notsothoreau
Guest

No of course we are not going to turn Amish! I do think there is something to be said about evaluating technology. I have talked to people that decided they did not need a computer or the Internet. I know folks that don’t want a smart phone. I would certainly prefer a vehicle without a computer. Technology becomes obsolete in a short time frame. Nuclear energy powers submarines, so I’d say that it has its place. Are we really supposed to believe that Pokeman Go is the height of human creativity? /sarc

Uncola
Guest
It’s wild how time can twist language. Google used to mean “infinite number”. Now it means “Evil Corporation”. Yes, Google is corrupt and I, personally, have documented proof of them ripping off one of my businesses via Google Ad-words to the tune of 5 figures. I became aware of the problem during the first quarter of 2005, but I never pursued it because, like Hillary, I figured they are too big to jail. Then, over a year later, I read the following in the online edition of the New York Post regarding their Larceny: “July 27, 2006 — Google wants… Read more »
LetsPlay
Member

Not infinite. Googol was 1×10^100.

J Clivas
Guest

Didn’t Google start out as the brainchild of a gaggle of Stanford techies?

LetsPlay
Member

Yes, Brin and Page.

LetsPlay
Member
First it was a much, much better search algorithm/engine. Now, with the untold wealth the owners have accumulated, they have turned to the dark side using their power for crony capitalism and insinuating themselves in every nook & cranny of our society. Whether it is mindscaping, using tax payer money to buy land for green energy investments or doing back door development of security systems for personal, commercial and government sectors, they are putting their stamp on everything. And where in all this are the “regulators” when we really need them? I’m not usually a proponent of regulation but when… Read more »
Karl Horst (Germany)
Guest

If you don’t like Google, you can always try Duckduckgo or some other search engine.

LetsPlay
Member
As I mentioned, it goes much deeper than just the search engine and all that implies. Just look at the market share of G**gle vs. Edge or whatever MSWin10 is calling it these days or any other search engine. Everything else is very lacking although I do find IxQuick to be pretty good. However, it does depend on or integrate G**gle’s engine to some degree or other but is “supposed” to be more private. So their basic tech is fantastic. I even went back to GMail after looking for alternatives. Seems like others won’t/can’t make the effort to create something… Read more »
UKer
Guest

Agreed. DuckDuckGo is perfectly adequate for most tinterwebz tasks, and (they say) doesn’t track you like Gurgle.

UKer
Guest

Artists not getting requests from those using their pictures online?

I have drawn a few things, posted them online, and then come across someone who used one my drawings as their avatar. So it isn’t appearing once; my work has become their identity. As you may expect, I didn’t draw with them in mind — probably as I had no idea they existed.

Should I object? Possibly, but life’s too short. Anyway, I console myself it wasn’t much of a drawing.

Nathan
Guest

The Google email sounds more like a sales pitch to me. Do we have reason to think Google had an active interest in Syria policy, as opposed to shoehorn its way into an operation that the state initiated?

Member
Google surely indexes all the mail, and everything else they can gather on you, into their database, and then use it to advertise to you. They know every video you watched on YouTube. They know everywhere your phone has been to within 10′. They have your pictures, and they’re linked with your family’s pictures. They know everything you searched for in the past years. I joke that it is all stored on a govt. sponsored data farm in Draper, UT. It’s rather difficult to be private. In the extreme you’d have to use a USB bootable TAILS laptop constantly moving… Read more »
sam L.
Guest

Then there are those of us who could not get broadcast before and can’t get it now without either cable or satellite dish. Not to mention all the channels not on broadcast.

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Member
Interesting article about the financial power of ISPs and Google and how the FB not paying nearly it’s fair share commensurate with its use of the ‘commons.’ You made me think about the digital entities in such a different way. It is complicated, though, and hard to keep my grip on the concept. Another concept that haunts me is that of consolidated access through these ISP and search engines. I got my library degree back at the dawn of the Internet. It was quite an exciting thing, the black screen with the blinking curser and the live links, all in… Read more »
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