• Sharon Chau

daily espresso II: why my family data plan disproves the collective action problem

My family shares a data plan, where we have 20GB per month between the four of us. There is some control over the distribution of data which means it’s not a free for all - we all start off with 5GB per month, and once one of us uses that up, my mom can redistribute data from someone else’s allowance. For example, if Helen (my sister) uses 5GB in 10 days but my dad uses just 1GB, she would probably distribute 2GB to Helen from my dad’s. But a total of 20GB is not nearly enough, especially as Helen and I are used to 20GB each when in the UK. We are also only home only for several months a year, which means that my parents get way too much data when we’re not here and none of us get enough data when we are back. The obvious, efficient solution is to get separate data plans for my parents and for us; but anyways, my mom is reluctant to change it and, to our immense surprise, we ran out of data very quickly. Five days before the end of the month, the final data allowance was - Sharon: 7GB, Helen: 7GB, Mom: 3GB, Dad: 2GB, with 1GB left between us for five whole days. At dinner last night, we all lamented the tragic inability to use the Internet in the streets (#firstworldproblems), and discussed strategies to limit our use of data. I now simply use my data once per day to receive and send all messages, for example, making my daily commute much less interesting, with my family adopting similar practices.

Helen off-handedly joked that the collective action problem didn’t apply to us when there was 1GB left, which made us start discussing (arguing about) the possible reasons for this. A bit on the collective action problem - the official definition is ‘a situation in which all individuals would be better off cooperating but fail to do so because of conflicting interests between individuals that discourage joint action’. Overfishing is a good example of this - if every fisherman fished sustainably, everyone would be better off because the supply of fish could be replenished, but because everyone has short-term incentives to fish for as much as possible, and there is no way to ensure that other people wouldn’t do so, everyone ends up overfishing and are worse off as a result. One solution would be for the government to legally restrict fishing, and another would be the fishermen setting up an enforceable pact which would restrict an individual’s fishing behaviour.

But anyways, back to our data plan collective action problem, or lack thereof. One very simple explanation is that the cost of not having ANY data is far too high for any of us - eg. if one of us had an emergency and couldn’t text at all, that would obviously be a massive problem. So to avoid this doomsday scenario, we are happy to sacrifice a bit of Facebook scrolling for five days. The second reason is because 1GB is too little for a free for all. If there were a whole 20GB for us to share, it would be much easier to disregard the distant eventuality of running out of data until it was too late. Another thing is our unique relationship as family members - we obviously a) trust each other, and b) care at least tangentially about each other’s welfare. This is different from the overfishing case, where the individual fishermen have no confidence that others would do the same if they limited their own fishing, and might not care much about the welfare of everyone else.

So I guess this is much less exciting than what the title misleadingly suggests, but there are a couple of quite intuitive lessons to be learnt from this if we’re thinking of how to deal with collective action problems. Firstly, have a massive deterrence which means the trade-off of performing harmful action X is higher. But this is not enough, unless combined with diminishing the utility of X as well, where there comes a point at which the pay-off is simply not enough. Thirdly, build up some trust within your system and have friendly relationships - if you care about each other, you’d be able to avoid collective action problems without the high cost of enforcement. Yay!


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