Category: Web/Tech

Girardian sentences to ponder

We also find that stronger peer effects are exerted by more price-sensitive individuals. This positive correlation suggests that the elasticity of aggregate demand is substantially larger than the elasticity of individual demand. Through this channel, peer effects reduce firms’ markups and, in many models, contribute to higher consumer surplus and more efficient resource allocation.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Michael Bailey, Drew M. Johnston, Theresa Kuchler, Johannes Stroebel, and Arlene Wong.

Maciej Cegłowski on gdpr

The plain language of the GDPR is so plainly at odds with the business model of surveillance advertising that contorting the real-time ad brokerages into something resembling compliance has required acrobatics that have left essentially everybody unhappy.

The leading ad networks in the European Union have chosen to respond to the GDPR by stitching together a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of consent,a mechanism whereby a user wishing to visit, say, a weather forecast page 4 is first prompted to agree to share data with a consortium of 119 entities, including the aptly named “A Million Ads”network. The user can scroll through this list of intermediaries one by one, or give or withhold consent en bloc, but either way she must wait a further two minutes for the consent collection process to terminate before she is allowed to find out whether or it is going to rain.

This majestically baroque consent mechanism also hinders Europeans from using the privacy preserving features built into their web browsers, or from turning off invasive tracking technologies like third-party cookies,since the mechanism depends on their being present.

For the average EU citizen,therefore, the immediate effect of the GDPR has been to add friction to their internet browsing experience along the lines of the infamous 2011 EU Privacy Directive (“EU cookie law”) that added consent dialogs to nearly every site on the internet.

The GDPR roll out has also demonstrated to what extent the European ad market depends on Google, who has assumed the role of de facto technical regulatory authority due to its overwhelming market share. Google waited until the night before the regulation went into effect to announce its intentions, leaving ad networks scrambling.

It is significant that Google and Facebook also took advantage of the US-EU privacy shield to move 1.5billion non-EU user records out of EU jurisdiction to servers in the United States. Overall, the GDPR has significantly strengthened Facebook and Google at the expense of smaller players in the surveillance economy.

The data protection provisions of the GDPR, particularly the right to erase, imposed significant compliance costs on internet companies. In some cases,these compliance costs just show the legislation working as intended. Companies who were not keeping adequate track of personal data were forced to retrofit costly controls, and that date is now safer for it.

But in other cases, companies with a strong commitment to privacy also found themselves expending significant resources on retooling. Personally identifying information has a way of seeping into odd corners of computer systems (for example, users will sometimes accidentally paste their password into a search box), and tracking down all of these special cases can be challenging in a complex system.The requirements around erasure, particularly as they interact with backups, also impose a special burden, as most computer systems are designed with a bias to never losing data,rather than making it easy to expunge.

Here is the full Senate testimony, there are many interesting points in the piece.  I thank an MR reader for the pointer.

The internet gang deconversion culture that is Brazil

As gang wars drive Brazil’s homicide rate to historic highs, evangelical pastors — long revered in the nation’s slums and prisons — have come up with a new way to protect members looking for a way out.

Gang leaders say the only way to leave the business alive is to convert to Christianity. So Barros, a televangelist popular here in western Brazil, memorializes a gang member’s embrace of the ancient articles of faith using the most modern of tools: He records the conversion on his smartphone and posts the videos on YouTube, Facebook and WhatsApp. The converts gain immunity against retribution by rival gangs and their own.

Gang leaders and law enforcement officials say it works.

“We aren’t going to go against the will of God,” a local leader of the powerful Comando Vermelho, the gang that was pursuing Viera, told The Washington Post. “God comes first, above everything.”

And there is an enforcement mechanism:

When his attackers saw it [the deconversion video], they dropped their pursuit. But they monitored him for months, checking to see if he was going to church or had contact with his former leaders.

“If I do anything wrong, they will kill me,” Cunha said. “I have to take the video seriously. They don’t tolerate regressions.”

Here is more from Marina Lopes at The Washington Post, interesting throughout.

Average is Over, installment #437

Taking logs of computer activity, or even screenshots, and running them through big data analytics programs allows these firms to create detailed reports for executives about productivity, they claim. How employers use the data, they add, is up to them.

According to Gartner, more than half of companies with over $750m in annual sales used “non-traditional” monitoring techniques on staff in 2018, while the workforce analytics industry will be worth nearly $2bn by 2025, according to San Francisco’s Grand Review Research.

Products developed by companies such as Activtrak, which raised $20m in a series A funding round in March 2019, allow employers to track which websites staff visit, how long they spend on sites deemed “unproductive” and set alarms triggered by content considered dangerous.

And:

If combined with personal details, such as someone’s age and sex, the data could allow employers to develop a nuanced picture of ideal employees, choose whom they considered most useful and help with promotion and firing decisions.

Here is more from Camilla Hodgson at the FT.

The company that is Amazon

Let’s pause to reflect that the company that has made one-day shipping of tens of millions of items the industry standard is also the global leader in cloud computing services, owns the Whole Foods grocery stores (and is building a second chain), helps police departments identify criminals, is building its own air cargo fleet, has an $11 billion-a-year advertising business, is working on a plan to give everyone on Earth internet from space, has put always-on microphones in at least 1 in 10 U.S. homes, built an Oscar-winning film and TV studio from scratch, and is competing directly with UPS, FedExGoogle, FacebookAppleMicrosoftIBMthe entire book-publishing industryNetflix, HBO, DisneyWalmartTarget, CostcoKrogerCVS, Walgreens and countless startups.

I don’t like Alexa, and wouldn’t take one for free!  Still, this is overall a remarkable record of both innovation and competition across many markets.  That said, I wonder for how long Amazon can keep this up without becoming a bloated, inefficient conglomerate.

Here is more from Christopher Mims at the WSJ.  You will note also that Walmart is several times larger in U.S. retail than is Amazon.

Are social media really bad for your children?

Maybe not:

To disentangle between-person associations from within-person effects, we analyzed an eight-wave, large-scale, and nationally representative panel dataset (Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study, 2009–2016) using random-intercept cross-lagged panel models (2). We adopted a specification curve analysis framework (35)—a computational method which minimizes the risk that a specific profile of analytical decisions yields false-positive results. In place of a single model, we tested a wide range of theoretically grounded analysis options [data is available on the UK data service (6); code is available on the Open Science Framework (7)]…

We first examined between-person associations (Fig. 1Left), addressing the question Do adolescents using more social media show different levels of life satisfaction compared with adolescents using less? Across all operationalizations, the median cross-sectional correlation was negative (ψ = −0.13), an effect judged as small by behavioral scientists (8). Next, we examined the within-person effects of social media use on life satisfaction (Fig. 1Center) and of life satisfaction on social media use (Fig. 1Right), asking the questions Does an adolescent using social media more than they do on average drive subsequent changes in life satisfaction? and To what extent is the relation reciprocal? Both median longitudinal effects were trivial in size (social media predicting life satisfaction, β = −0.05; life satisfaction predicting social media use, β = −0.02).

The effects which are observed are larger for females:

For females, however, social media was a predictor of slightly decreased life satisfaction across all domains, except satisfaction with appearance (b = −0.13 to −0.05 or β = −0.09 to −0.04; Fig. 2Center). Furthermore, all domains of life satisfaction, except satisfaction with friends, predicted slightly reduced social media use (b = −0.17 to −0.05 or β = −0.11 to −0.07; Fig. 2Right).

Here is the full (short) paper by Amy OrbenTobias Dienlin, and Andrew K. Przybylski.

We’re a Niche, We Just Didn’t Know

That is the new Medium essay by Anna Gát, it is the best attempt I know of to formulate a “new ideology” of sorts, or maybe a new manifesto, but also a post-political one.  Here are a few scattered bits:

Let’s imagine the I.I. [Inter-Intellect] as a loose-knit on/offline niche of people with similar mental energy: we seem to have roughly the same companion + kindness + information needs, activity levels and communication preferences…

We seem to prioritize open discussion and collaboration across differences, and establishing projects that can address real-world questions better…

We believe individuals are capable of acting virtuously without external intervention and judging the consequences of their own actions, and that open discussion of our life plans, decisions or progress can inspire others.

“Example over slogans” is the tldr…

Being conscious of this, the I.I. is age-agnostic and instead problem/progress focused.

Interesting throughout.

Roissy has been deplatformed

Or so I hear, and Google doesn’t bring it up either, not even the shut down version.

I worry about deplatforming much less than many of you do.  I remember the “good old days,” when even an anodyne blog such as Marginal Revolution, had it existed, had no platform whatsoever.  All of a sudden millions of new niches were available, and many of us moved into those spaces.

In recent times, a number of the major tech companies have dumped some contributors, due to a mix of customer and employee protest.  So we have gained say 99 instead of say 100, and of course I am personally happy to see many of the deplatformed sites go, or move to other carriers.  Most of the deplatformed sites, of course, I am not familiar with at all, but that is endogenous.  I would say don’t overreact to the endowment effect of having, for a while, felt one had literally everything.  You never did.  You still have way, way more than you did in the recent past.

You might be worried that, because of deplatforming, the remaining sites and writers and YouTube posters have to “walk the line” more than ideally would be the case.  That to me is a genuine concern, but still let’s be comparative.  Did you ever try to crack the New York publishing scene in the 1990s, or submit an Op-Ed to the New York Times before the internet was “a thing”?  Now that was deplatforming, and most of it was due to the size of the slush pile rather than to evil intentions, though undoubtedly there was bias in both settings.

Another “deplatforming” came with the shift to mobile, which vastly favored some websites (e.g., Facebook) over many of the more idiosyncratic competitors, including many blogs (MR has done just fine, I should add).

Developments such as VR, AR, 5G — or whatever — will reshuffle the deck further yet.  There will be big winners, many of which are not yet on the scene, and some considerable carnage on the downside.  Maybe you won’t be forced off, but many of you will find it worthwhile to quit rather than adapt.

There still has never, ever been a better time to be a writer.  What bugs people about deplatforming is the explicitness and potential unfairness of the decision.  It’s like prom selection time, where there is no escaping the fact that the observed choices, at least once they get past the algorithms and are reviewed by the companies, reflect very conscious decisions to bestow and to take away.  We have painful intuitions about such rank orderings…still, we are better served by the objective facts about today’s diversity and opportunity compared to that of the past.

I thank a loyal MR reader for the initial pointer.

Nick Clegg on breaking up Facebook

The first misunderstanding is about Facebook itself and the competitive dynamics in which we operate. We are a large company made up of many smaller pieces. All of our products and services fight for customers. Each one has at least three or four competitors with hundreds of millions, if not billions, of users. In photo and video-sharing, we compete against services like YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, Pinterest and TikTok, an emerging competitor.

In messaging, we’re not even the leader in the top three markets — China, Japan and, by our estimate, the United States — where we compete with Apple’s iMessage, WeChat, Line and Microsoft’s Skype. Globally, the context in which social media must be understood, China alone has several large social media companies, including powerhouses like Tencent and Sina. It will seem perverse to people in Europe, and certainly in China, to see American policymakers talking about dismantling one of America’s biggest global players.

In this competitive environment, it is hard to sustain the claim that Facebook is a monopoly. Almost all of our revenue comes from digital advertising, and most estimates say Facebook’s share is about 20 percent of the United States online ad market, which means 80 percent of all digital ads happen off our platforms.

That is in the NYT, to be clear Clegg now works for Facebook.

The Facebook cryptocurrency

Kroszner and I wrote about related possibilities in our 1994 book Explorations in the New Monetary Economics.  Here is a not very informative WSJ article.  Here is Ben Thompson speculating from his email newsletter:

This, then, is what I suspect is the overall motivation for Facebook’s efforts: having its own currency will allow for transactions on Facebook’s terms, not the credit card companies, which should, in turn, allow for both more kinds and more total transactions. Consider a Facebook currency on a theoretical level: if there were no fees attached to a transaction, micropayments suddenly become much more viable; peer-to-peer payments are simple — for both users and Facebook — as clicking a button; tipping models actually make sense.

None of these benefits are new to be sure, the question, though — and this is always the question generally, but with payments especially — is how you get from here-to-there. Remember, payments is a multi-sided network: users have to be one board, merchants need to be on board, and there has to be some sort of liquidity in the market. From a user perspective, how do you get them to buy into the network? Then consider merchants: how do you prevent them from taking money out of the market, killing liquidity?

In fact, Facebook is well-equipped on both fronts, particularly the merchant side: remember, merchants are the most likely culprits when it comes to killing liquidity in a market. They are going to transfer a cryptocurrency to fiat as soon as possible. Merchants, though, are also paying Facebook a lot of money for ads: that is, they are already putting money into the system. To that end, it is easy to see Facebook giving a discount to merchants willing to leave their money in the system and simply buy advertising using their Facebook tokens.

Users are trickier: certainly Facebook will push things like peer-to-peer payments to get users to connect up their bank accounts or debit cards to Facebook’s network, but I also suspect this is where the rumors about Facebook paying for ad-viewing comes in. This is not, in my estimation, some sort of genuine acknowledgment that user attention is worth compensating directly, but rather a plausible way to seed user accounts such that they are motivated to use Facebook’s currency; ideally, at least for Facebook, there will end up being lots of ways to use that currency.

…I don’t think that Facebook wants to impose any fees at all: thinks about it — what could possibly be more valuable to an advertising-based business than knowing exactly what customers are spending their money on?

You have to pay for Ben, but it is worth doing so, you can subscribe here.

Emergent Ventures, fourth cohort of award recipients

Kadeem and Savannah Noray, graduate students at Harvard, economics and HKS, general support and also to study how to identify undervalued, high potential K-12 students.

José Luis Ricón, for blogging and to develop further platforms for information dissemination. 

Arun Johnson, high school student in the Bay Area, to advance his work in physics, chemistry, nuclear fusion, and for general career development.

Thomas McCarthy, undergraduate at Dublin, Trinity College, travel grant to the Bay Area, and for his work on nuclear fusion and running start-up programs to cultivate young Irish entrepreneurs.

Natalya Naumenko, economist, incoming faculty at George Mason University, to study the long-term impact of nuclear explosions on health, and also more broadly to study the history of health in the Soviet Union and afterwards.  

Paul Novosad, with Sam Asher, assistant professor at Dartmouth, to enable the construction of a scalable platform for the integration and dissemination of socioeconomic data in India, ideally to cover every town and village, toward the end of informing actionable improvements.

Alexey Guzey, travel grant to the Bay Area, for blogging and internet writing, plus for working on systems for improving scientific patronage.

Dylan DelliSanti, to teach an economics class to prisoners, and also to explore how that activity might be done on a larger scale.

Neil Deshmukh, high school student in Pennsylvania, for general career support and also his work with apps to help Indian farmers identify crop disease and to help the blind interpret images.

Here is my previous post on the third cohort of winners, with links to the first and second cohorts.  Here is my post on the underlying philosophy behind Emergent Ventures.  You can apply here.

Is “the better car experience” the next big tech breakthrough?

That is the question I raise in my new Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Another reality of the contemporary automobile is that Tesla has managed to rethink the entire design. The dashboard and interior are reconfigured, the drive is electric, software is far more prominent and integrated into the design, voice recognition operates many systems, and there are self-driving features, too. Whether or not you think Tesla as a company will succeed, its design work has shown how much room there is for improvement.

You might object that cars have numerous negative features — but that’s where there is much of the potential for major transformation. Cars cause a lot of air pollution, but electric cars (or maybe even hydrogen cars) are on their way, and they will lower noise pollution too, as hybrids already do.

Cars also create traffic congestion, but congestion pricing can ease this problem significantly, as it already has in Singapore. Congestion pricing used to be seen as politically impossible, but the Washington area recently instituted it for one major highway during rush hour. The toll is allowed to rise as high as $40, but on most days it is possible to drive to work for about $10 and home for well under $10, at speeds of at least 50 mph. Manhattan also will move to congestion pricing, for south of 60th Street in Midtown, and the practice will probably spread, both within New York and elsewhere, partly because many municipalities are strapped for cash. As for building new highways, transportation analyst Robert W. Poole Jr. argues in his new book that there is plenty of room for the private-sector toll concession model to grow, leading to more roads and easier commutes.

In other words, the two biggest problems with cars — pollution and traffic congestion — have gone from “impossible to solve” to the verge of manageability.

There is much more at the link, and here is the closer:

Right now there are about 281 million cars registered in the U.S., and they have pretty hefty price tags and demand many hours of time. The basic infrastructures and legal frameworks are already in place. So, despite the current obsessions with robots and gene editing, it should be evident that the biggest tangible changes from technology in the next 20 years are likely to come in a relatively mundane area of life — namely, life on the road.