Which way to the information commons?

The temptation of insiders to “control and manipulate information” is open to challenge by an “inrush of outsiders”.

Leveson's proposals for statutory underpinning is resisted furiously by the newspapers and politicians [AP]
Leveson's proposals for statutory underpinning is resisted furiously by the newspapers and politicians [AP]

“In the most general sense, all institutional arrangements can be thought of as games in extensive form.” – Elinor Ostrom

In London, the controversy over press regulation looks set to continue long into 2013. The Leveson proposals for some form of statutory underpinning will be resisted furiously by the newspapers and by many politicians. The argument has an almost stylised quality. The champions of the regulatory state square off against the partisans for market forces. The noise drowns out other ways thinking about what JA Hobson once called “the avenues of intelligence”, the institutions on which we rely for information about the world beyond our direct experience.

In the real world, governments direct vast subsidies to publishers and broadcasters, on the grounds that accurate information and a diverse range of opinions are a kind of public good. The subsidies are most obvious in the case of the BBC. But the support is much more extensive and pervasive than you might think. Broadcasters in the United States, for example, are given their licences for a nominal fee, in return for their providing news and public service information. British newspapers enjoy a substantial zero VAT rating. This isn’t all. Politicians and civil servants go to great lengths to brief journalists. While this can be self-interested, sometimes it is about trying to ensure that coverage is accurate and useful to its audiences.

There is almost always something cheaper and more appealing than news about the schemes of our elected representatives, no matter how hard politics seeks to imitate show business. Films about road safety and similar subjects may save lives but they cost viewers. The market on its own will not provide people with the information they need if they are to remain adequately informed. So the state has always been heavily involved in shaping the information system. Yet the opposition between the state and the market continues to dominate our discussions of the media.

The Nobel Prize winner, Elinor Ostrom, found that markets and the state exercised a similar grip on the imagination of her colleagues. Faced with the situations in which individuals might over-exploit a common pool resource, researchers were quick to advocate either regulation by the state or some form of privatisation. Only in this way could the so-called “tragedy of the commons” be averted. But when Ostrom looked at how farming and fishing communities actually behave, she found that another approach was often successful. Rather than relying on markets or the government, “the participants themselves devise their own contracts … in light of the information they have to hand” and then commission an agent to enforce these contracts. In other words, the people who rely on the resource take responsibility for it in order to ensure that it remains viable. 

 Leveson recommends independent
UK press body

Information is not the same as a fishery or a forest. For one thing, we do not deplete the store of knowledge when we learn something. But this is not to say that information is an uncomplicated public good, like fresh air. Consider for a moment that I run a bakery. The more people know about my delicious cakes, the better for my business. The fewer people know the secret of my pastry recipe, the better for my business. Sometimes widespread awareness of something benefits those who already know about it. Sometimes silence or outright deception is a better strategy for those on the inside.

Our status as autonomous citizens depends on reliable information. But the central danger is not over-exploitation. It is containment – or outright contamination. At the moment, the state and private businesses together control the information system. They derive much of their power from that control. With it they can shape perceptions of everything of general concern, including the nature of the information system itself and their roles within it.

Perhaps, they can resist the temptations that come with that power. Perhaps, despite everything, executives driven by the desire for profit and politicians driven by the desire for glory can be trusted to manage the information on which we all rely. But the actual performance of the media over the last generation should give us grounds for caution. Besides, as Machiavelli once warned, “it is necessary for anyone who organises a republic and establishes laws in it to take for granted that all men are evil and that they will always act according to the wickedness of their nature whenever they have the opportunity”. At the moment politicians, journalists, executives and owners, not to mention other powerful groups, have ample opportunity to act in accordance with their nature.

What, then is to be done? If we can’t rely on some combination of the state and the private sector to manage matters on our behalf, we might want to re-imagine the sum of what is widely known as a special kind of shared resource. It does not spring out of the ground or spawn in the sea. It is a collective achievement, albeit one in which there is bound to be a division of labour. It is a resource that we all have to pay for, one way or another, directly or indirectly, sooner or later. It will always offer opportunities for corruption and abuse. The game is to minimise these opportunities.

We can do this by striving to make the system equally responsive to the demands of each person who relies on it. Given that most people are not professional journalists, this presents particular challenges. But they are not insurmountable. We could each pay an equal – quite modest – amount to fund a common pool of knowledge. We could then use various devices to ensure that this common pool provided information relevant to us as democratic subjects. These devices could be juries chosen by lot, elected agents or direct participation in the commissioning process. The main thing is to ensure that at every point the temptation of insiders to control and manipulate information is open to challenge by an inrush of outsiders.

All institutional arrangements can be thought of as games in extensive form, says Ostrom. If we want to ensure that the game doesn’t disqualify honest journalists or keep us ignorant of certain kinds of true description, we have to change the rules.

Dan Hind is the author of The Threat to Reason, The Return of the Public and Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly and the Future of Liberty. His most recent essay, Maximum Republic, is available as an e-book

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