Thursday, August 21, 2008

Appropriate Technology and the Commons

This is the fifth in a series of postings giving examples of different kinds of Appropriate Technologies according to the typology above. The prior postings were:
In this posting I want to think about goods or services that are both non-excludable and rivalrous. This is the quadrant of the square above that Garrett Hardin was concerned about when he wrote "The Tragedy of the Commons". He was concerned that in these situations in which each user of a commons could obtain temporary advantage by exploiting more than his/her fair share, then the commons will not be used sustainably.

Hardin later recognized that often people have institutionalized methods to assure that each uses only his/her fair share. Think about an oil field, or an underground aquifer. To maximize the production from such a resource, it is both important to have the proper technology to understand and monitor the resource base, and to use appropriate extraction technologies. Thus the nature of the common resource base and of the institutions for its management would seem to determine the technology appropriate for its exploitation.

In addition to such common tangible assets, David Bollier writes of an intangible asset commons:
The commons also consists of intangible assets that are not as readily identified as belonging to the public. Such commons include the creative works and public knowledge not privatized under copyright law. This large expanse of cultural resources is sometimes known as the public domain or—as electronic networking increases its scope and intensity—"the information commons." In addition, our society has dozens of "cultural spaces" provided by communications media, public education, and nonprofit institutions. Another large realm of intangible assets consists of scientific and academic research, much of which is supported by the public through government funding. The character of these spaces changes dramatically when they are governed as markets rather than as commons.
Are then areas of appropriate technology that are both non-excludable and subtractable? Certainly, there are lots of technologies that can be used by anyone who knows that they exist, with perhaps only the observation of someone also using the technology. The question is whether there are technologies within this set which become less useful for others because they are used by some, or overused by some. An example might be a productive technology which should be used in moderation lest the amount produced results in an excess supply in the market, and reduces total income to the producers. It has been suggested that the training of physicians in diagnostic and prescriptive skills has been limited in just such an effort to maximize the incomes of individual physicians and of the medical profession. So too, we have programs to pay farmers not to use the commonly available technology to grow common crops, lest the total production exceeds that which can profitably be sold on the market.

Technological knowledge depreciates with time. The appropriate technology to be used with a given resource base and specific factor prices, within a given technological system, need no longer be appropriate when those conditions change. We can think of buggy whips and trolley cars as illustrating technologies that were once important, but which are no longer. It seems likely that there are circumstances in which overuse of a technology, even intangible technological knowledge, would result in too rapid a depreciation of that technology. If you can think of an example, describe it in a comment, please!

Perhaps one might be the overproduction of free and open source software. On the one hand, there are economies of having software products that interconnect and which are interchangeable from the point of view of the users. On the other hand, there is a limited number of software programmers, and spreading their efforts over too large a set of open source projects may be detrimental to the quality and maintenance of the best of the resulting products, and thus to the user community.

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