Gavin DouchSmall fish with wide tail, swimming in front of underwater vegetation

Data's Tragedy of the Commons

programming compsci , 2 min read 10.5281/zenodo.8325702

Memory and storage virtualisation have created a problem in a world where computers have many processes competing for limited hardware resources. Since so many users don’t know (or are unable to know) how to check which processes are running on their computers and what resources they are using, developers and companies are not sufficiently incentivised to reduce their use of these resources.

What does “The Tragedy of the Commons” Mean?

Here is an example: a group of fisherman find a lake with fish in it. They know that if each of them only fished as much as they needed, there would always be plenty of fish. However, it is in each fisherman’s interest to fish more, since they could sell the extra fish and make more money. Each of the fishermen begins to overfish, and before long, there are no more fish in the lake.

The lake in this metaphor is a commons, a resource that does not belong to anyone, but that can benefit many parties. A tragedy of the commons is the abuse of this commons based on the uncoordinated self-interest of each party.

Memory and Storage

Many popular apps are large memory hogs because they face no repercussions for taking up an excessive amount of resources. In fact, by taking up all this memory, they can run slightly faster. There is no reason for these apps to care that these resources are taken away from other processes or slow down the device overall.

This is why we have a tragedy of the commons in memory and storage. With so many companies cluttering devices with their own data, this shared commons is degraded.

What to Do about It

I can think of two solutions to this problem:

Include a section on app stores about memory use reasonableness. This names and shames apps that are using too much memory than makes sense for it to use for what it does.

Reject app submissions to app stores if their memory use isn’t reasonable. This may seem heavy-handed, but app stores often reject app submissions because they don’t follow the expected design language of the platform. They do that in order to increase users’ experience using their device. I believe that restricting app submissions for memory hogs would also improve the user experience, and so for the same reason, should be added to app store acceptance requirements.

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