19 August, 2015

BREAKING: Netneutrality more complex than you thought!

It was simple: netneutrality is good. Companies shouldn't be able to buy their way on a fast lane! That stifles innovation and competition and risks ruining the internet. Just like John Oliver explained it! But now the Brazilians are making things complicated.

Brazil was one of the first countries to introduce strong Net Neutrality laws, points for them. But now, Brazilian banks and local government are paying for the data bundles of users! Heresy! Why?

Well, many Brazilians can't afford a data bundle. Yet they need to bank, or order new passports. And it turns out that handling people in person at the office is more expensive for the banks and local governments than have them use an app on their phone. So, they made a deal with some local providers: users, even without a data bundle, can do their banking online and order their passports without paying. That seems like a win-win.

Zero rating, as this practice is called, exempts some services from from the data bundle - exactly what Brasil is doing. It is used widely in India ("internet.org") and in Chile it offered many people access to a limited set of internet services - until it was outlawed. But in a country where only a quarter of the citizens has access to broadband internet, aren't we doing the population a disservice by taking away their internet access, however limited?

Zero rating is essentially the equivalent of a collect call - the receiver pays. What is wrong with that? Even wikimedia supports zero rating!

It isn't win-win but lose-it-all

The thing is - the provider will be the gate keeper of what services you can. You are allowed only on a piece of the internet, being blocked not by technical boundaries but by a business model. A model which allows providers to extract more money from their business than they otherwise would have - not by offering more services, but by offering less.

The result will inevitably be lower data caps because it forces more companies to pay for zero rating! This is exactly what happens in Canada, where $45 gets you 2GB of data - compare that to the price of 8 dollars for the same amount in Finland. Canada is now changing the rules. Cable providers have figured that out, too, and try imposing limits while excepting certain services. And indeed, when providers introduce zero rating, prices go up!

Interestingly, when zero-rating is squashed, the opposite happens. When the government forbade zero rating in the Netherlands, its largest provider KPN responded by doubling their users' data caps without a price hike.

Thus, my suggestion to the Brazil government would be: work with providers to get indiscriminate data bundles to more users, rather than empowering providers to control their users' Internet usage.

Zero rating exist by virtue of artificial Internet scarcity in the form of usage caps and it is not part of the solution to bringing Internet access to everybody. It is part of the problem.

03 August, 2015

Special people

After a rant on G+ I thought it'd be nice (for me, at least) to share a thought: we have an urge to put certain people on a pedestal because it helps our own identity and self esteem.

We need to feel superior

Self Esteem is very important for us - Maslov put individuality on top of the piramid for a reason. We need it to function, be happy in life.

So our brain lies to us

But how do you feel special and unique when you're not? Our brain lies to us, causing our illusion of superiority. I say 'our' because this is a near universal issue: 90% of people in pretty much any profession feels they are better than average, despite skills pretty much always following a bell curve (statistics speak for "half the people is worse and half is better than average").

Our brain is in charge of maintaining that positive sense of identity and has a series of tricks to keep that.

For example, identity depends on contrast. So we tend to exaggerate differences with others who are close to us. See for example countries who make fun of each other - it is inevitably between peoples very similar. Some interesting experiments were done with group behavior at a young boys' summer camp in the US in the 50's. Read a bit about this here if you're interested. You'll realize some of the problems we have in society are ingrained in our brains - a point I've made in an earlier blog.

Then there is the Self-Serving Bias which:
is the belief that individuals tend to ascribe success to their own abilities and efforts, but ascribe failure to external factors.

We do that? Yes, we do. Examples are everywhere, and some honest introspection will show you. Why do we do it? Because it makes us feel better about ourselves! If something goes wrong, it's the fault of the world. If things go well, I DID AWESOME! (towards other people we show the related Fundamental Attribution Error). Just to get an idea of the impact of environment, watch this TED talk by James Flynn about the increase in IQ over the last 100 years (the Flynn effect, indeed).

Another important strategy is self justification: it is how we deal with a perceived discrepancy between what we believe about the world and what we see (also called 'cognitive dissonance'). Wikipedia again:
Internal self-justification refers to a change in the way people perceive their actions. It may be an attitude change, trivialization of the negative consequences or denial of the negative consequences. Internal self-justification helps make the negative outcomes more tolerable and is usually elicited by hedonistic dissonance. For example, the smoker may tell himself that smoking is not really that bad for his health.

External self-justification refers to the use of external excuses to justify one's actions. The excuses can be a displacement of personal responsibility, lack of self-control or social pressures. External self-justification aims to diminish one's responsibility for a behavior and is usually elicited by moral dissonance. For example, the smoker might say that he only smokes socially and because other people expect him to.

And there are many more of these biases which maintain our belief in ourselves.

Note that these persistent errors in judgment are part of a normal and healthy personality! But it is good to be aware of them and their effects on relationships, both private and in society at large.

Special or not

So, the rich have their brain lies to them, maintaining their illusory superiority. Now we can understand why somebody on top of the world feels that it is justified that he/she is paid more per hour than much of the world population earns in a year.

But why do we support this illusion by buying auto-biograpies and looking up to the Steve Jobs and Fords and Warren Buffets like they are such special people?

Because they support the narrative that we all need: the self made (wo)man.

There are always people who have a worse life than us - significantly so, often. As Sam Harris points out in a painful description of an iPad user, things are going very wrong in the world. So we have the need to justify ourselves, feel superior over the poor. We have many strategies for that - Sam mentions religion as one. Another one is the idea that we make our own life, supported by the biases I described.

I think that the stories of these great, wonderful people we've partially made up help us justify the thought that people who are worse off than us have only themselves to blame. We have a need to deny the harsh reality that the world isn't fair and we would be in their situation if the marbles would've fallen slightly different.