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Beyond Net Neutrality—All the Places Our Markets are Broken

December 9, 2017 Leave a comment

Net neutrality has always struck me as a weirdly radical idea. Isn’t allowing companies to offer premium services at a higher price how our world works? I don’t particularly like that some people get to squeeze into coach seats and others get first class, but that’s fundamental to free enterprise.

Getting rid of net neutrality rules would be a great idea if markets for internet service worked. Here’s what we’d need: choice and transparency. Each household would have to be able to switch ISPs without a prohibitive cost in time or money. And as you shopped for an ISP, you’d need transparency—to really know what you are buying, and how much it will cost. You would know the speed of service you’re getting and that you won’t be throttled without your knowledge.

Then people would vote with their feet, paying money to companies that offer good service at a fair price. Sure, one ISP might make a deal with Bing to make them faster than Google—but then people who like Google wouldn’t use that ISP. And maybe the managers of that ISP would decide that giving unequal access wasn’t such a good idea after all. People who have more modest needs could buy plans that cost less, and others could get new features not currently available for a premium. The possibility of higher profit margins for premium features would drive innovation.  Except none of this works without choice and transparency.

Are we likely to get either choice or transparency without government regulation?  I’d bet money against it. I’ve already been secretly throttled by more than one ISP, and I had no idea that would happen when I signed up for the plan. There are only a few available service providers in most areas. Neither a wealth of options nor clarity on what you are paying for are likely to happen. For that reason, we need net neutrality rules.

All of this became clearer to me after I taught net neutrality in my Computers and Society class this fall. There’s nothing quite like teaching something to help you understand it. Stepping back from net neutrality, something struck me: There are lots of other places where we don’t have either choice or transparency.

To have a fair, functioning market, we need good information. But good information is surprisingly rare, as any one of the nearly half a million people who bought Volkswagen cars with falsified environmental data can tell you.  Even if a company isn’t committing deliberate fraud like VW, how can you know how reliable that car is really going to be? How can you tell if that organic produce is any healthier for you than the conventional produce that costs much less?  How can you tell if the doctor you went to is competent if there are no easily accessible statistics on outcomes for past patients?  The structure of our society is built on the idea of fair markets, but to a large degree those fair markets don’t exist because of lack of information.

Democrats tend to take a consumer protection view of regulation—the government should actively work to protect citizens. Republicans tend to take a free market view—let companies do what they want, and feedback and demand from consumers will drive innovation. Whichever view you take, here’s something we all can agree on: that transparency is fundamental.  Whether we take a free market or consumer protection approach, nothing will work without the availability of accurate information in a form people can understand.

Some people would argue that market forces will lead to the production of that information—but that’s simply not true. For example, it’s immensely useful for consumers to know how many calories are in foods they order at restaurants. (The cheeseburger has half the calories of the Caesar salad at Cheesecake Factory—who would’ve guessed?)  You could say, if consumers value that information, then they will only patronize restaurants with calories on menus. But did that actually ever happen? Of course not. Not until laws were passed requiring large chain restaurants to put calorie information on menus. Starting in May 2018 in the US, consumers can make smarter choices, and market pressure can lead to healthier offerings if that’s what customers want. The whole system doesn’t work without the information. Information is a prerequisite for the formation of a fair market, not a consequence.

In the absence of a fair market, net neutrality solves the problem. And if what we value is innovation, it fosters innovation in an intriguing way: new companies have an easier time getting a start when they don’t need to pay a premium for bandwidth.  It’s a strangely radical idea, but I like it. And I wonder if there are other areas where ideas like this would be useful. Healthcare neutrality, perhaps?

I’m feeling like my one semester of high-school economics is not adequate preparation to write about this subject. If any economists out there want to correct errors or add some nuance, please leave me a comment!

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Computing Challenges We Can’t Solve with Research: Simple Ideas and Platform Lock

September 22, 2017 3 comments

Critical problems for computing and society are increasingly economic. It’s not that we don’t know how to fix them—it’s that a purely market economy model to fund software development doesn’t support some simple things that would make the world a better place.

My students and I research and design collaborative computing systems. We start by studying existing groups and trying to understand their needs. For example, Kurt Luther studied animators trying to work on collaborative projects with teams of fifty or more artists. Based on what he learned, he built a project management tool for creative collaboration that tried to balance decentralized and centralized creative decision making. Jill Dimond worked with the nonprofit Hollaback, which is trying to end street harassment, and helped redesign their website with a federated structure that helped them to rapidly spread around the world. In these cases, as researchers were able to understand the problem, and innovate to solve it.

Lately though, we’ve been exploring problems and finding solutions that are straightforward but impossible to realize. The problems are two-fold: things that are too simple to make for meaningful research problems, and there is a barrier of platform lock.

For example, a team of GT students led by Hayley Evans found that people trapped in the economic crisis in Venezuela are increasingly using Facebook Groups for barter of basic necessities. It’s no longer possible to buy diapers at a fair price, but you can trade staples like flour for them. However, people are still price gouging and duping others with fake products. The solutions here are simple—a price comparison tool like the one Stubhub provides for ticket sales could give everyone a calibration on what exchanges are fair. A reputation system like the one on ebay could help stop scammers. If people have public reputations, then individuals can choose not to trade with someone who has a negative reputation and be extra careful with a new account with no history. These are established solutions, but it’s not clear who can build these tools for the Venezuelans, even though the need is desperate. It’s certainly not research—it’s too easy. To do something as a research project, we need something that we can raise grant funding for and publish about—we need to innovate. But solving this problem doesn’t necessarily need much innovation.

The second part of the problem is platform lock. Venezuelans are using the platform they are already on—Facebook. It would be hard to imagine bringing people to a custom platform, even if we had the time and resources to try to build one. And although you can make some small changes to platforms like Facebook with browser scripting, those solutions are limited and fragile.

Here’s another example. In 2012, Dimond did a study of the use of mobile and social computing by survivors of domestic violence. Her research concluded that there are some simple things that could really help people in this situation. For example, features developed as parental controls could be adapted to provide protection from harassment for adults. But we have the same problems again—the solutions are largely so simple as to not qualify as research, and they’d have to be implemented by mobile carriers. What is missing is societal—why can’t we find resources to do these simple things? A purely market-based model for software development falls short of meeting people’s needs.

These issues are going to multiply. As software reaches into more and more nooks and crannies of everyday life, we need an economic model that can deliver needed features that don’t make sense from a pure profit motivation. This will involve more activity by software nonprofits like Mozilla that design tools for the public good. It will further require better computer science education and extensible platforms so that people can develop solutions for themselves.

Is there any point in talking to “them”?

August 5, 2017 5 comments

In response to my last post, Mike Travers wrote:

I wish I retained more of the liberal faith in the power of conversation, but after many years of trying to engage with a variety of right-wing types on the net, I really don’t. Face to face conversation sometimes has the power to change minds, but it’s a decreasing proportion of human interaction, which may be one of the roots of our current troubles.

I believe Mike has zeroed in on the most important issue in this conversation: is talking to “them” even worth it?  If you believe it is not, then I can see why you might sink to calling the other side names or punching them. If you believe that conversation might help, then of course you wouldn’t.

It’s fascinating to me how many people on both sides say they have no interest in talking to the other side. I had a conversation a week ago with a team of brilliant people who told me that there was absolutely no point in having any conversation with people who are unsure about LGBT rights, vaccination, or climate change. I admit that I have strong views on all those issues and have trouble imaging a sincere conversation with someone who disagrees with me. But I’m willing to try.

The other side feels the same way. The term “social justice warrior” (“SJW”) has emerged to describe folks they hate. Urban Dictionary defines SJW as “a pejorative term for an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way.” Members of the alt-right and others who use that term believe there’s no point in even trying to talk with an SJW–SJWs have made up their mind, and are not listening to others. It’s shocking to me how many people on both sides are not willing to consider the idea that the other side might have something worthwhile to say.

I still have, as Mike says, liberal faith in the power of conversation. I agree with Mike that conversation works better in person. But could we have conversations online that bridge the political divide? What if more people said, “I don’t think we agree on much, but let’s talk–and I’ll try to keep an open mind.” Even people with the most diametrically opposite views I believe can find some common values.

Could we create an internet site to facilitate those conversations, across the political divide? My students and I talk about this all the time. If we can come up with a good idea, we are going to try it. Would it be a structured discussion forum with rules of engagement and scaffolding for finding common values and agreed-upon facts? Could it be a kind of ‘game with a purpose,’ where finding common values scores points? Would anyone bother to try such a system? What would make it worth their while?

If you’re interested in these ideas, I recommend the US & Them Podcast. If you have ideas about software design for understanding across the political divide, leave me a comment–maybe we’ll really try it!

More on Common-Sense Symmetry: Please don’t punch Nazis!

August 4, 2017 1 comment

Thank you for all the great comments on my last blog post. My favorite comment so far said (paraphrasing): “That was a pretty wordy way to say ‘double standards.'”  (Wow–yes, thank you!)

Another way to say the same thing: Please don’t punch Nazis, or exclude them from health clubs when all they are doing is lifting weights. Yes, I think the alt-right’s Richard Spencer is a sad excuse for a human being. If I am ever unlucky enough to meet him in person, I will tell him so, in detail. But would I punch him? Of course not. Punching the Richard Spencers of the world means we sink to their level. It means Spencer and his followers can describe their opposition as violent and irrational–and they’ll be telling the truth.

What I find incomprehensible is that nice people who I respect have told me that in their view, the person who punched Spencer did the right thing. How is it even possible to think that? How is it possible to not see the negative implications of sinking to their level?  By sinking to their level, we fuel their anger, relinquish our claim to the high ground, and lessen the (already slim) chances of achieving greater mutual understanding.

The more complicated question of course is whether striving for mutual understanding is always a desirable goal. In most cases, I believe it is. But are there groups so heinous that they don’t deserve an attempt at conversation? I personally don’t think so, but I understand that it’s complicated. I will say, regardless, please don’t punch them.

Common Sense Symmetry: Language and Political Correctness

July 31, 2017 4 comments

I’m part of a Facebook group for women, and one of the members recently posted a “news story” about a man who went sunbathing nude. According to the story, a bird of prey mistook his private parts for turtle eggs, and the man ended up in the hospital. There are so many problems with this posting that I hardly know where to start. First, it’s fake news. Second, it’s not funny. Third, if someone posted a similar story with the genders reversed, wouldn’t there be an outcry that it was offensive and sexist? Can you imagine the reaction to a story about a naked sunbathing woman being attacked in delicate places by a bird of prey?

Fortunately, few members of the group “liked” the posting, and several responded positively to my comment that perhaps this wasn’t appropriate. But I was still left shaking my head: why don’t people use common sense to see the symmetry? If you can’t say that about women, why can you say it about men?

Similarly, why is it OK for some people to complain about “white people” on Twitter? I was astonished recently to see a favorite fiction author going on tirades against white people. In my view it wouldn’t be acceptable to go on a tirade against “black people,” so why is it OK to complain about “white people”? Common sense symmetry: if you can’t reverse it, don’t say that. How about instead going on a tirade against “racists”? Or even about “white people who don’t recognize their implicit privilege,” or “white people who <any adjective you like can go here”>? Yes, we can and should talk about race. Yes, racism is a pervasive problem that is critical for the future of our society. But aren’t you reinforcing racism by complaining about “white people,” “black people,” “Asians” or any group as a whole? Even just adding an adjective like “some” (or even “most”) helps.

Some people argue that it is more acceptable for members of a comparatively disempowered group to be critical of other groups—i.e., it’s more acceptable for women to be critical of men, and African Americans to be critical of Caucasian Americans than the other way around. I don’t really understand that argument—rudeness is just rudeness. It’s particularly problematic because it adds fuel to the fire of the culture wars. Over the last two years, I have spent time online with groups of people (particularly members of the GamerGate movement) who among other things advocate for men’s rights. Their online discussion sites are filled with outrage at cases where common sense symmetry is not applied. They are justifiably outraged at tasteless cases like the tale of the “turtle eggs.” Going beyond that, some take the next step to argue that men are just as oppressed as women. We could have a long and complicated discussion about how to measure the relative oppression of various groups within society, but I’ll go on the record as saying that I believe that the statement that men are as disempowered as women is not supported by the facts no matter how you measure. But every time we tell turtle egg jokes or vent about “white people,” we give energy to groups that are not in favor of working towards embracing diversity and empowering all groups.

Pokémon Go and Work/Life Balance

January 2, 2017 1 comment

I love casual games, though I’ve written before about how they can sometimes be disruptive. Surprisingly I do not find Pokémon Go particularly disruptive. As promised, it promotes walking (you get credit for hatching Pokémon eggs the further you walk.) And it has other interesting qualities I could not have predicted when I started playing it.

Most importantly and most surprising: It promotes better work/life balance. When I am out for a walk, if I have Pokémon Go open, I get credit for the distance walked. As a result, I tend to leave the app open, which means I don’t check my email. That means I am more truly not at work, for my walk.

The bad news of course is that I’m looking at my phone, rather than at the scenery. But generally speaking I find I still appreciate where I am, and enjoy chatting with people I am walking with. It takes little of my attention.

If I am playing while walking with people who are not playing, I never stop to do a gym battle. A gym battle takes a couple minutes, and that’s too long to ask friends to wait. It’s also important to leave the sound off. Most people always leave the sound off. I leave it on when I’m walking alone, because the audio feedback means I spend less time looking at my phone. After you throw a Pokéball, it takes a few seconds to see if you caught the Pokémon or not. If you listen to the sound effects, you can stop looking at the phone and listen for whether you caught it. But if I’m walking with other people, the sound is annoying, and also misleading—they assume I’m more distracted than I really am.

My second surprise: it is a participatory exploration of probability and economics. Probability is fundamental to the game—each time you try to catch a Pokémon, a circle around it shows whether you have a high (green), medium (yellow), or low (red) chance of catching it. A player is constantly calculating: How hard will this be to catch, and is it worth it? It’s a constant reminder of the basic laws or probability: past trials don’t affect the outcome of the next one.

When you try to catch a Pokémon, you have to decide: Am I going to throw a regular Pokéball, a great ball, or an ultra ball? The latter are increasingly rare, but have a higher catch rate. The more powerful the Pokémon, the harder it is to catch, and the higher quality Pokéball you need to use. If I use too cheap a ball, then I have to try again, and again—and might miss catching it entirely, if it runs away. Choosing to use a regular Pokéball might mean I wasted five or more balls, rather than using one or two great balls. It’s like the game is whispering in my ear over and over: don’t be cheap, don’t be cheap….

An economist friend noticed right after the launch of the game that it demonstrates the “sunk cost fallacy”: If it was worth throwing those previous six Pokéballs at that Pidgey, it’s worth throwing one more.

Pokémon Go is good for certain times and places. It’s great for travel, because different places have different Pokémon. It was fun to catch all the Growlithes in San Diego (a Pokémon common there and rare in most other cities). It was particularly fun to use at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which had a safari-like quality of Pokémon on the day I visited. When you’re visiting a zoo, you do a lot walking, and wander from exhibit to exhibit. Playing Pokémon Go at the zoo made the whole experience more fun. When a rare Pokémon appeared on the radar (a Snorlax), I got to chat with strangers who came to try to catch it from around the zoo. On the other hand, it was also nice to go a number of places (like the lighthouse and beach at Point Loma in San Diego) where there was no cell service, and I put my phone away. The trick of course is knowing when to put your phone away when there still is cellular service.

I won’t lie—I do sometimes play when I shouldn’t. Particularly when I’m somewhere I don’t want to be. A Pokéstop is a place you can get free Pokéballs and other useful items every five minutes. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is Pokéstop accessible in a conference room where I have a number of boring meetings. For a long meeting, I find playing a casual game helps me to pay more attention to the meeting. The distraction is so light that I am still paying attention to the meeting and less likely to zone out entirely. But it’s perceived by others as disrespectful (if they catch me with my phone under the table), and I probably shouldn’t do it. Like any casual game, Pokémon Go requires mindfulness in when you choose to play.

Whether Pokémon Go survives in the long or even medium term depends on whether the developers can keep adding features and special events to keep it interesting. But for now, it’s a casual game that fits into my life better than others.

Why LinkedIn is Creepy: Asymmetry of Visibility

February 3, 2012 12 comments

A friend recently shared this story: he was having trouble finding contact information for an old friend, and it occurred to him that his ex-girlfriend would be in touch. So he looked at his ex’s LinkedIn page to search through her list of contacts.  It turns out, though, that his ex has a premium LinkedIn account, which gives you a list of everyone who has looked at your profile.  She contacted him, “I see you were looking me up….”  This was NOT what he wanted. I suppose if Shakespeare were writing today, this is would be prime material for a modern Comedy of Errors.

What is uncomfortable about this situation is the asymmetry of visibility and awareness. She has a premium account, and can see more. He does not, and was erstwhile unaware that anyone had the ability to track profile views. It’s like a hidden surveillance camera. Principles of social translucence suggest that mutual visibility facilitates successful cooperative behavior. One-way mirrors are creepy.

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