The tragedy of the academic commons: when abstraction makes us passive

Using the communal kitchen at the Faculty of Education last Friday, I noticed that the lid had fallen off the bin and was sitting on the floor. In the middle of something and keen to get home, I didn’t stop to pick it up. I just came back from the same kitchen on Monday afternoon and noticed it was still on the floor. “Ah the tragedy of the commons” I said internally while stroking my chin and nodding sagely, before beginning to walk out of the room. At which point I realised how absurd I was being and stopped to pick the lid up from the floor, immediately wishing I’d done it on Friday.

It left me wondering how certain forms of abstraction, stepping back from a concrete phenomenon and subsuming it into a general category, make action less likely. There’s something about that moment of understanding, recognising a fragment of the general in the mundanity of the particular, liable to induce passivity. It’s hard to argue a counter factual but I suspect I would have immediately picked up the lid if I hadn’t experienced that moment of abstract recognition. However I’m aware I’m doing exactly the same thing in writing this blog, recognising a general propensity in a particular instance, encouraging others to do the same by raising it discursively in a public forum.

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1 Comment

  1. Living with roommates, this is a particularly common occurrence. Oh, everything that remains untouched for an infinite period of time as we all make room around it to carry on with our daily tasks.

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