Friday, March 25, 2011

Tragedy of the Revolutionary Commons

With so many breaking events across the Middle East, it's become increasingly hard to keep up, even for those like myself who consider it their job. Quite simply, my attention and time are limited resources, and I have to choose how to best allocate them. In the process, things fall through the cracks.

The international media face the same problem. Even with a 24 hour news cycle, they can only cover so much. There are simply not enough correspondents and foreign bureaus. Nor is there enough attention span amongst the public. They can only absorb so much information at once. Bandwidth is limited.

International resources are limited too. Our overworked staffers in DC can work only so many hours in a day. Our coffers can afford only so many economic packages. Our diplomats can host only so many meetings. While our military could enforce more no-fly zones, our political will can only stomach so much.

This problem reminds me of Garrett Hardin's article on "The Tragedy of the Commons." Writing about limited environmental resources, he describes the dilemma of cows grazing on common pastures. Every farmer has the individual incentive to graze his cows as much as possible. But if every farmer acts in such a self-interested way, all the combined cows will overgraze the pasture and the community will collectively suffer.

International attention to the Arab revolutions presents its own version of Hardin's tragedy. Citizens in every individual country have an incentive to protest now while the momentum is in democracy's favor and their leaders have lost their balance. But if every Arab population acts for their own interest, international media and resources can only focus on so much.

While international media and resources will not determine the outcome of these revolutions, they can undeniably shift the balance in democracy's favor by supporting efforts on the ground. Yet with every Arab country in revolt, attention is necessarily split, its effect on any given case diminished. Some countries may not get any attention at all.

What can be done then?

The traditional solution to Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons is privatization. If every farmer gets his own little parcel of pasture, then he will protect its sustainability out of self-interest. He will only graze as many cows as his land can support.

This is where the analogy to the Arab revolutions breaks down somewhat. We cannot actually "privatize" international attention to the Arab revolutions. But what Arabs can and have done is take the issue in their own hands. They have done so with social media and diaspora networks.

Social media "privatizes" international media by placing the production and dissemination of news in the hands of the people. If I had relied on the international media today, I would not have known about the protests in Jordan today. But thanks to Hafsa Halawa on Twitter, I know all about it.

Diaspora networks "privatize" international attention by providing an alternative source of economic, political, and technical support to the revolutions. For example, at a recent conference called "Together for a New Egypt," Egyptian-Americans joined together to discuss how they can contribute to the revolution in their homeland. The conference harnessed their resurgent pride in their home country and channeled it into productive avenues for action.

While these social media and diaspora efforts will not replace international media and resources, they can and will play an essential role in helping turn the Tragedy of the Revolutionary Commons into a historic victory only dictators will find tragic.

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