Web/Tech

Does using Facebook make you happier?

by on February 27, 2015 at 1:48 am in Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

I’ve long suggested that those worried about inequality, envy, and relative deprivation should tax Facebook rather than the private fortune of Bill Gates.  Most envy is local, and connected to people you know and whose lives you are in touch with.  Along these lines, here is some recent research by Verduyn, et.al.:

Prior research indicates that Facebook usage predicts declines in subjective well-being over time. How does this come about? We examined this issue in 2 studies using experimental and field methods. In Study 1, cueing people in the laboratory to use Facebook passively (rather than actively) led to declines in affective well-being over time. Study 2 replicated these findings in the field using experience-sampling techniques. It also demonstrated how passive Facebook usage leads to declines in affective well-being: by increasing envy. Critically, the relationship between passive Facebook usage and changes in affective well-being remained significant when controlling for active Facebook use, non-Facebook online social network usage, and direct social interactions, highlighting the specificity of this result. These findings demonstrate that passive Facebook usage undermines affective well-being.

The pointer is from Robin Hanson on Twitter.

Also, unlike Silicon Valley, the Stasi was regulated.

That is from Bryan Appleyard.

The self-assembling chair

by on February 23, 2015 at 11:55 am in Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

There are few tasks more infuriating than assembling a piece of furniture. But a new project at MIT may eventually eliminate that pesky life chore entirely.

As Wired’s Liz Stinson reports, the loopy geniuses over at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Self-Assembly Lab recently debuted a chair designed to put itself together, without the need for a single vaguely illustrated instruction manual.

There is also a good video at the link, courtesy of the excellent Samir Varma, a loyal MR reader.  I sometimes toy with the proposition that there is in fact nothing I can assemble, not even simple items.  My requested birthday gift this year was that Yana show me how to put together and operate that which I got for Christmas.

Ironically, given all the concerns about robots destroying jobs, Mr Tsuda said one of the main constraints on the market’s growth was a shortage of human engineers.

“To use robots — not just to make them — you need quite a level of engineering,” he said. “If anything, for us and the market as a whole, growth is held back by the number of engineers who can do that.”

From Robin Harding at the FT, there is more here.

The disappointment of the professors?

by on February 16, 2015 at 12:40 pm in Education, Web/Tech | Permalink

The huge personal disappointment—and it puzzled me for a long time—was that junior professors did not, by and large, give us work I wanted to print. I knew their professional work was good. These were brilliant thinkers and writers. Yet the problems I encountered, I hasten to say, were absolutely not those of academic stereotype—not esotericism, specialization, jargon, the “inability” to address a nonacademic audience. The embarrassing truth was rather the opposite. When these brilliant people contemplated writing for the “public,” it seemed they merrily left difficulty at home, leapt into colloquial language with both feet, added unnatural (and frankly unfunny) jokes, talked about TV, took on a tone chummy and unctuous. They dumbed down, in short—even with the most innocent intentions. The public, even the “general reader,” seemed to mean someone less adept, ingenious, and critical than themselves. Writing for the public awakened the slang of mass media. The public signified fun, frothy, friendly. And it is certainly true that even in many supposedly “intellectual” but debased outlets of the mass culture, talking down to readers in a colorless fashion-magazine argot is such second nature that any alternative seems out of place.

That is from Mark Greif, an editor and founder of n+1.  He says actually that graduate students do much better than the junior professors.

For the pointer I thank Claire Morgan.

…Most disturbing for Mr Briggs, was when he received a phone call from himself trying to flog payment protection insurance.

Briggs was also the voice of Siri for a while.  Here is from another person who has been the voice of Siri:

The 65-year-old confesses she found listening to Siri a bit creepy. It was not that she hated hearing herself — that is an everyday occurrence for the voice recording artist. She is used to hearing her voice over tannoys at airports and stores, as well as telephone on-hold systems. She is her son’s bank’s automated voice and it tickles her to assume that voice and taunt him by saying: “Thank you for calling the bank. You are overdrawn.”

It was interacting with herself that felt so peculiar. “It was very strange having my voice coming back to me from my hand. I said, ‘Hi Siri, what are you doing?’ Siri said, disgustedly: ‘Talking to you.’”

That is from Emma Jacobs at the FT, interesting throughout.

I have seen this future in the eighth-floor apartment of Lee Chang-hyun in Seoul (pictured at work, above). At around midnight, he goes online with a couple of friends and performs his meal, spicy raw squid one day, crab the next. “Perform” is the right word. He is extravagant in his gestures, flaunting the food to his computer camera to tantalise the viewers. He eats noisily and that’s part of the show. He’s invested in a good microphone to capture the full crunch and slurp.

This is not a private affair. Some 10,000 people watch him eating per day, he says. They send a constant stream of messages to his computer and he responds verbally (by talking) and orally (by eating, very visibly and noisily).

If the audience like the performance, they allocate him what are called “star balloons” and each of these means a payment to him and to the internet television channel on which he performs. He is coy about how much he earns but the BBC has estimated, by noting the number of star balloons on his screen, that it would run into several hundred dollars for a two-hour stint.

The full story is here, and for the pointer I thank Claire Hill.

Dave asked me if there was some way to bypass a bum sensor while waiting for the repairman to show up. But fixing Dave’s sensor problem required fiddling around in the tractor’s highly proprietary computer system—the tractor’s engine control unit (tECU): the brains behind the agricultural beast.

One hour later, I hopped back out of the cab of the tractor. Defeated. I was unable to breach the wall of proprietary defenses that protected the tECU like a fortress. I couldn’t even connect to the computer. Because John Deere says I can’t.

There is more here, interesting throughout, mostly about how farmers are no longer able to fix their own tractors, which by the way may cost $100,000 or more. This part is interesting too (“model this“):

There’s a thriving grey-market for diagnostic equipment and proprietary connectors. Some farmers have even managed to get their hands on the software they need to re-calibrate and repair equipment on their own—a laptop purchased from some nameless friend-of-a-friend with the software already loaded on it. There are even ways to get around the factory passwords that block access to the tECU to effect repairs.

But under modern copyright laws, that kind of “repairing” is legally questionable.

Manufacturers have every legal right to put a password or an encryption over the tECU. Owners, on the other hand, don’t have the legal right to break the digital lock over their own equipment. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act—a 1998 copyright law designed to prevent digital piracy—classifies breaking a technological protection measure over a device’s programming as a breach of copyright. So, it’s entirely possible that changing the engine timing on his own tractor makes a farmer a criminal.

In response, there is now a community of farmers looking to encourage “open source tractors.”

If this doesn’t concern you, I can assure you that in South Korea things are even worse.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Mark Thorson.

The largest conglomerates are still in the lead:

When we sum up the many networks owned by each media conglomerate, we can see how mighty these giants truly are. Netflix may be the largest “cable channel” by more than 100%, but it ranks 7th among cable television groups. Add in broadcast, and the delta is even greater. Not only is Disney more than three times as large as Netflix, but the OTT service makes up only 5% of total US video consumption per month. It may be that no single channel has the breadth of content and scale to be a serious Netflix competitor, but their parents certainly do.

That is from Liam Boluk.  Here is Boluk on the economics of Youtube: “Felix Kjellberg (PewDiePie) is already more popular than scores of Hollywood TV and film celebrities.”

Last I looked, Elon Musk was a clear winner of the MR readers’s poll for “most admired.”

Personally, I admire successful creators, scientists, and entrepreneurs a great deal, and Musk fits into those directions very well.  Still, the very top of my personal list would be shaped more by how much individuals had sacrificed.  Let me throw out a few options:

1. The members of the Mexican judiciary who have stood up to the drug gangs, often at the expense of their lives.  They believed in a better future for Mexico and I think eventually they will triumph.

2. Public health professionals who work under great hardship in difficult places, for years, to limit malaria or the spread of Ebola.  In addition to questionable living conditions, they often face high health risks themselves.

3. How about Aun San Suu Kyi, who endured about fifteen years of prison to help bring greater liberty to Myanmar?

4. At a smaller scale, how about individuals who volunteer to work in the burn unit at the hospital?  That has to be fairly icky labor, yet as medical care it can be effective.

You can do variants on my 1-4, but I would start with examples such as those.  Not at the very top of my list, but I also would think about good parents who work as primary caregivers.

If we are restricted to political/public figures, I would opt for Ben Bernanke.

Overall I was surprised how few of you approached the question the way I have, rather as a group you picked too many nerdy white guys.  Now I don’t like to play “the PC card,” and if a process generates a lot of nerdy white guys, I don’t then assume that process is necessarily biased or requiring correction.  Still, the fact that my list creates so much room for women (and non-whites) suggests it reflects the universality of human experience more than what most of you came up with.

It is also notable how few of you picked entertainers or sports figures, as such individuals have figured prominently on such lists in the past (see my What Price Fame?).  In 1971 a lot of people would have said “John Lennon,” and in his day Ted Williams placed high in such surveys.  These days, for better or worse, the tech world and politics seem to exercise a stronger hold on our imaginations, all the more among MR readers I suspect.

Addendum: Here is Noah Smith’s list.

…blogging, for better or worse, is proving resistant to scale. And I think there are two reasons why.

The first is that, at this moment in the media, scale means social traffic. Links from other bloggers — the original currency of the blogosphere, and the one that drove its collaborative, conversational nature — just don’t deliver the numbers that Facebook does. But blogging is a conversation, and conversations don’t go viral. People share things their friends will understand, not things that you need to have read six other posts to understand.

Blogging encourages interjections into conversations, and it thrives off of familiarity. Social media encourages content that can travel all on its own. Alyssa Rosenberg put it well at the Washington Post. “I no longer write with the expectation that you all are going to read every post and pick up on every twist and turn in my thinking. Instead, each piece feels like it has to stand alone, with a thesis, supporting paragraphs and a clear conclusion.”

The other reason is that the bigger the site gets, and the bigger the business gets, the harder it is to retain the original voice.

That is from Ezra Klein, there is more here.  (I recall Arnold Kling making a related point not too long ago, does anyone have the link?)

If you haven’t already noticed, we have no plans to chase traffic from social media, at least not by changing our basic interests and formula.

Here is another thread I found online:

“The majority of time that people are spending online is on Facebook,” said Anthony De Rosa, editor in chief of Circa, a mobile news start-up. “You have to find a way to break through or tap into all that narcissism. We are way too into ourselves.”

There is more here, from David Carr, mostly about selfie sticks and Snapchat.  The human desire to be social used to be a huge cross-subsidy for music, as young people used musical taste to discover and cement social alliances.  Now we don’t need music so much to do that and indeed music plays a smaller role in the lives of many young people today.  This has been bad for music, although arguably good for sociability and of course good for Mark Zuckerberg.

The “problem” is that the web gives people what they want.  Those who survive as bloggers will be those who do not care too much about what other people want, and who are skilled at reaping cross-subsidies.

Addendum: Kevin Drum offers comment.

I’ve been puzzling through a thought experiment, and I hope it interests you enough that you will choose to address it on your blog…

The logical endgame of all this consumer data mining, web tracking, ad targeting, and loyalty clubs is what I am calling “omniscient sellers.” Omniscient sellers know with 100% certainty how effective an ad will be and what it will take to get a consumer to change consumption decisions. What happens then? Here are some bullets on what I’ve come up with:

* Consumers’ attention becomes even more valuable than it is now, and the rewards for controlling that attention even greater (Facebook, Google, the NBA salary cap all explode even more?).

* Consumers feel very happy because they are largely consuming products that marketers have made them (or discovered they would?) want very badly.

* Could attention-controllers start paying users to use their sites, since attention is so valuable now? Could there be an attention equivalent of credit card reward points?

* I can’t figure out who collects rents here, other than the platforms benefiting from network externalities.

* Does this increase or decrease market entry costs? It certainly will give startup companies something valuable to spend their capital on.

I would value any thoughts you care to share on this topic, or if you know of someone already addressing it.

All very good questions.  I would pose it this way: do consumers buy the ads, or do sellers/intermediaries bid for the attention of consumers?  If intermediaries are competitive and goods suppliers are monopolistically competitive, the surplus mostly goes to the consumers, who are paid to read the ads and then get exactly what they want.  If there is a dominant intermediary,  say Google or Facebook with unique information, that intermediary will extract surplus from both buyers and sellers.  People are happy with their purchases as they experience them, but both consumers and artistic producers have lower lifetime expected wealth, as the intermediary rather efficiently vacuums up those gains.  Not that this scenario in any way resembles our world today…

A hotel with robot staff and face recognition instead of room keys will open this summer in Huis Ten Bosch in Nagasaki Prefecture, the operator of the theme park said Tuesday.

The two-story Henn na Hotel is scheduled to open July 17. It will be promoted with the slogan “A Commitment for Evolution,” Huis Ten Bosch Co. said.

The name reflects how the hotel will “change with cutting-edge technology,” a company official said. This is a play on words: “Henn” is also part of the Japanese word for change.

Robots will provide porter service, room cleaning, front desk and other services to reduce costs and to ensure comfort.

There will be facial recognition technology so guests can enter their rooms without a key.

At least for now, the facial recognition bit means you cannot send your robot to stay there…

The story is here, alas I have forgotten whom I should thank for this pointer.

Here is some media coverage of a recent Facebook study of its economic impact in terms of revenue and jobs.  Facebook claims it added $227 billion to the global economy, but they approached the question the wrong way.

The correct method is to treat jobs as a cost of Facebook, not a benefit, admittedly that is not how politics works nor is it how corporate PR works.  We should measure the benefits directly by consumer time use studies, much as Austan Goolsbee and Peter J. Klenow did in their paper on the internet (pdf).

My question today is this: what is the most accurate one line back-of-the-envelope estimate you can come up with for the gross benefits of Facebook, not bothering to subtract for the costs of running the site?  Here is one (hypothetical and illustrative) example, for America only:

100 million regular users, one hour a day, time valued at $10 an hour, and multiply for $365 billion a year.

You will notice this method implicitly captures the value and disvalue of the ads on Facebook.  The better and more useful the ads are, the more time people will spend on the site.

I don’t devote time to Facebook (I can thank MR for that), so surely you can do better than I in building a plausible one-line estimate.  Please leave your answer in the comments.

Here is the new paper by Akerman, Gaarder, and Mogstad on how Norwegian broadband access has helped the higher earners and largely hurt unskilled labor:

Does adoption of broadband internet in firms enhance labor productivity and increase wages? And is this technological change skill biased or factor neutral? We exploit rich Norwegian data to answer these questions. A public program with limited funding rolled out broadband access points, and provides plausibly exogenous variation in the availability and adoption of broadband internet in firms. Our results suggest that broadband internet improves (worsens) the labor outcomes and productivity of skilled (unskilled) workers. We explore several possible explanations for the skill complementarity of broadband internet. We find suggestive evidence that broadband adoption in firms complements skilled workers in executing nonroutine abstract tasks, and substitutes for unskilled workers in performing routine tasks. Taken together, our findings have important implications for the ongoing policy debate over government investment in broadband infrastructure to encourage productivity and wage growth.

The emphasis is added by this blogger, not from the authors.