The Tragedy Of The Mental Commons
The Tragedy Of The Mental Commons
By Kevin Arnold /

Driving to the airport to pick up a friend, I stop at a red light. My eyes wander to a bus-stop bench across the intersection. 'Norma Whitfield - Your Real-Estate Connection.' Wham. Before I even have time to react, the advertisement has entered my mind and lodged itself between the folds of my thoughts. Another chunk of my mental landscape, grabbed without consent. There was nothing special about this ad. Every bench in the city is festooned with a marketing message, and my eyes have passed over thousands, possibly millions, like it before. Yet this time it stood out, somehow starker than the rest. Some balance inside me had tipped, and I suddenly felt saturated. My mental landscape had been overgrazed. 

Thirty-five years ago, Garret Hardin, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, authored a ground-breaking article in the journal Science that introduced an idea: the tragedy of the commons. Our survival was at stake, he argued, if we failed to open our eyes and realize that Earth's physical resources were finite. Treating them as a free-for-all was no longer acceptable if we wanted to reduce human suffering and prolong our existence on this planet. 

To illustrate the tragedy, he used the example of 14th-century common land. 'Picture a pasture open to all,' he wrote. 'It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.' When a herder adds a cow to the pasture, he reaps the benefit of a larger herd. Meanwhile, the cost of the animal - the damage done to the pasture - is divided among all the herdsmen. 

This continues until, finally, the herders reach a delicate point: as the pasture becomes overgrazed, each new animal threatens the well-being of the entire herd. 'At this point,' Hardin argues, 'the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.' 

For me, the advertisement on the bus-stop bench felt like that tragic breach. We continue to share a commons today - a commons of the mind. It's a mental environment, shaped by everything from cultural cues to the physical space that surrounds us. At every level this mental commons is cluttered and commercialized. Millions of data points and marketing messages threaten to 'overgraze' our attention. Our mind is their pasture. 

'Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush,' said Hardin. As pessimistic as this view is, we have proved him right. Since he penned this warning, humanity has spread to every corner of the globe: we've scoured the land, razed the forests, emptied the seas and dirtied the rivers in the selfish interest of progress. Now, just as we begin to grasp our impact on the physical commons, the tragedy has begun to replay itself in an even more fragile realm. The assault on the mental environment has become an ever greater threat to our survival: we are losing our capacity to focus, to think, to find common ground, to communicate and come to agreement. We are losing the mental clarity to deal with the crises that we have created. 

An exaggeration, you say. Not quite. The staggering rise of anxiety and attention deficit disorders, depression, suicide, workplace violence and addiction is now a staple story of our news media. Less familiar is the concern rippling through the marketing industry itself. The herders are getting nervous: 'Marketers are going through a difficult period right now,' declares one company's website. 'Channel proliferation, attention span reduction and marketing overload are creating an increasingly cynical consumer audience who are each subjected to over one million marketing messages per year (or over 3,000 per day). 'If you're not interesting me now then you can forget later,' is becoming their mantra.' In a desperate attempt to free our mindspace, we are simply tuning out of everything around us. The UK marketing trade magazine Campaign did a study in 1998 that found that 52 percent of consumers were flipping channels during commercials. 

Even the so-called 'well-adjusted' among us are feeling the pressure. The effects may be subtle - a slight anxiety, a cynical attitude, a wave of fear - but this makes them all the more insidious. You see a can of Coke in a movie, and you stop following the plot to deconstruct Coke's marketing strategy and determine that you've just been subjected to paid product placement. You see a kid in a bandana loitering in a convenience store parking lot, and a flood of mental images and messages warns you that he may be a gang member. Instead of working, you check your email every 10 minutes in need of new information, fresh stimulus. You notice that you can't speak or listen for more than a minute anymore. Your mental environment is wearing thin. 

Is it too late to reclaim our mental commons? It wasn't long ago that our mindspace was still comparatively clean. I can remember - and I'm only 30 - when bus benches were only for sitting on, when the wall above the urinal was just an expanse of white tile, when a fashion magazine was lighter than a phone book. I remember when you could let your mind wander as you filled your car with gas, instead of staring at a tiny billboard on the nozzle. When the attendant would say, 'Thank you, have a nice day,' instead of pushing an Esso Extra card on you. Would it be that hard to get it back? 

The question, as Hardin noted, is one of freedom. 'When men mutually agreed to pass laws against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so.' We must decide whose freedom is more important: the bank robber's or the banker's; the marketer's or our own. We need to grasp the idea of the mental commons, and realize that it, too, can succumb to an all-too-human tragedy. Putting more cows out to pasture isn't helping anyone.

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The Tragedy Of The Mental Commons