Tragedy of the Commons emerging at Hack The Barbican #htb2013

The “tragedy of the commons” is a metaphor used to describe (according to Wikipedia) “the depletion of a shared resource by individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self-interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to the group’s long-term best interests”.

I noticed it creeping in at the Barbican yesterday for the first time.

The obvious shared resource at The Barbican Centre is space. And there’s loads of it. More than anyone could use. We don’t have a problem with fitting new stuff in when it comes to how much floorspace or airspace they might take up.

We also haven’t (yet) had anyone polluting the atmosphere enough to drive anyone out. I wasn’t sure whether it was Ian Willey’s Barbicoin experiment (contains ketchup!) that was getting a bit niffy yesterday or the lunch being served in the Lounge.

I’m not aware of anyone breaking the wifi so far. We should try harder.

No, the problem is the vibration of the atmosphere, in other words the soundspace, which is, in my view, being monopolised and exploited by a few to the exclusion of others. Yesterday, in the afternoon, and I expect the same today, there were three sound installations in different parts of the building all contributing to what the noise-lovers describe as “ambience”. I found it intolerably noisy, I couldn’t concentrate, hold conversations, read or write. I tried. I went outside and walked around a bit until I’d calmed down and went back in – I could just about sit there doing nothing but if I’m going to sit there doing nothing, I’d rather do it in the park.

I raised the question of reducing the number of noisy pieces on the mailing list. I received five responses, all basically saying: “no, I like the noise and I can work round it”.

I want to be clear, it’s not about not liking anything that was going on – individually I’ve enjoyed each of the works and I’m in no position to question their merit. Individually, I could have taken them, but exposed to them altogether I was no longer able to use the space. At the moment it seems as if most people don’t understand how depleting this resource is contrary to our long-term best interests. I recognise that I’m making assumptions about what our “long-term best interests” are. And given we’re 10 days into a four week project, the “long-term” is not very long! Yesterday I felt like I was saying “Global warming will have a long-term deleterious effect on biodiversity” and was told “Chill man, enjoy the sunshine like the rest of us”.

I may be unique, but I suspect that there are others who have found this difficult and who are deterred from sticking around because of it. There seems to be some evidence that tolerance of noise in spaces like this is related to introversion/extraversion – whatever the underlying factors we risk reducing the diversity of people taking part in the project down to those who are noise-tolerant or those who can be there early in the morning before the noise-makers wake up.

I’m not giving up, either in terms of continuing this conversation or in looking for other workarounds and solutions. If you’re interested in joining in, you know where I am.

UPDATE: While writing this, the minutes of last nights organising meeting came through. It seems the Barbican Library have complained about the noise too.