How the internet can prepare you for university

The best part of university was always the tutes. You could skip the lectures if necessary, but you missed the tutorials at your own peril.

I remember vividly stepping up the wide staircases of the John Medley building at 2.10pm on a Tuesday, burdened with a big folder of academic articles. You’d sit in a quiet room stuffed with too many chairs, talking about that week’s readings.  These were golden hours. To speak during the tute meant you had to have done the reading. You’d hear if other people got something totally different from the assigned articles, say your piece, have people disagree with you.

The shouts from South Lawn would filter through the leaves of the plane trees, but the debate at hand was always more enticing. This is where you saw what points held together, what ideas got torn apart, and worked out what topics you would write your big essay on.

If the point of doing a liberal arts degree is to develop critical thinking skills, the tute was the nexus of the whole affair. The selection of smart people put in a room with an interest in understanding the topic was unparalleled. The tute was to a political science student as the weights room is to a body builder. Where you break down to get built back up.

But now, I think you can build up the skills you need for university – at least somewhat – online.

The best online debates remind me a lot of those tutorials. I do not mean Twitter. Twitter is more like flicking the channels on TV while yelling things nobody will hear. Not Facebook either. Facebook is synonymous with shallow debate.

I’m mainly impressed by Reddit.

It’s a place where you write something, and it gets marked. You can get a big fat zero (or a negative score) if you write something stupid, wrong, unhelpful, or irrelevant. You’ll get called out on your spelling and grammar, too. But if you write beautifully, logically and use references, you’ll get upvoted. The culture there (in some places at least) is quite academic. If you’re clearly spouting off your mouth without having done the reading, someone will normally slap you down.

For example, here’s a debate going on in the economics subreddit today about this article at Vox, on whether and in what ways economists are partisan.

reddit economics debate

What we see here are people kicking around important ideas, learning things, being respectful to each other. It may not seem like much, but it’s damn nice to see that happening on the internet.

There’s also a lot of bona fide experts on Reddit that are only too happy to answer people’s questions clearly:

Bows and arrows
Source: Ask Historians

Not just in history but in physics too.

phsyics
Source: Explain Like I’m Five

Sometimes, you can see people being presented with evidence and changing their minds, in real time. At it’s best, it is quite amazing.

Caveat: I do not in any way imply Reddit substitutes for university. University is comprehensive, while Reddit is merely a subset of things that are fun to talk about. And furthermore, university is not just about engaging with ideas. It’s about engaging with people. It is is also about showing up and doing the work, even when you don’t want to, while Reddit offers no points for diligent attendance.

Reddit also fails where the sorting process for confirmation bias is complete, and people end up in subreddits that reflect their own points of view back at them. For example, the subreddit about the holocaust has ended up as a place for deniers.

Still, using Reddit to develop your reading, writing, persuasive argument, critical analysis and grammar, plus skills in giving and receiving feedback will put you in damn good stead to make the most of a proper liberal arts education.

The reason Reddit is like this seems to be its culture. It started out as a nerdy place, and it retains some sort of internal pressure to be fair and accurate. But it is growing fast. I’ve written before about what happens when the internet grows – it gets way more mundane. So there may be a time – and maybe it has already arrived – when the best place to learn and debate online is somewhere else.

Online debates are probably one reason we can hope this internet *is* making us smarter. If there are other websites you love that you think also support good debate, mention them in the comments below.

The Internet is Proving Quite Popular. (Or, Why I Might Be Wrong On The NBN)

I’ve written before on the National Broadband Network, under the following headings:
National Broadband needlessness.
National Broadband Nuff-Nuffs.
I believed the cost of the NBN was too high, the case for it had not been made, and the idea of rolling out fibre to every premises failed to recognise the differences in need between certain types of premises.

Also, I wrote this:

“I think there is a cap on how much data we can consume. No doubt data demand is increasing. From 286 MB/month in 2000 to 14,909 MB / month in 2009. But this is a result of moving real-world activities like photos and video onto the internet. YouTube’s audience is double that of the three big channels broadcasting US prime-time TV.

Data demand is limited by human constraints. Pixel demand is limited by the size of screens we can fit in our homes, audio quality demand is limited by our hearing and demand for video is limited by the number of waking hours in the day.

Camera megapixels are a good example of this. For about five years after the advent of digital cameras, the number of megapixels available grew exponentially. But then it plateaued at about 10-12. For the majority of people the marginal benefit of more and more data wasn’t worth it.

Similarly, telephone call sound quality is abysmal and noone cares. Most of the value is in the existence of the link not the quality.”

Well, the data is in, and while I hold fast to my fundamental point about eventual data satiation, that point looks far away. Data demand is nine times what it was five years ago.

Image

There’s another point to make too. Both this data set and my analysis above are obsessed about downloads. But that’s not the only thing that happens on the internet these days. User-generated content is becoming more important.

It was not until I started making a bit of video that I understood how very very poor upload speeds are. The NBN as imagined originally would offer much better download speeds.

Especially for business, upload speeds can easily be a major choke-point. The shadow minister for communications walloped the government with this point earlier in April.

I still believe that the NBN should be subject to a proper cost-benefit analysis and weighed against other investments. It may be the NBN has an extremely positive return but still yields less than public transport investments. In which case we should probably reconsider our aversion to debt.

Also, this argument still stands:

“There’s a big difference between giving hospitals and the square kilometre array incredible internet speed (8 tbps!), and giving incredible internet speeds to every terrace house, flat and bungalow in postcode 3068. Where productivity demands better internet access, users should pay.”

But the idea that data demand won’t create need for the NBN, I concede, looks wrong.

Rapid growth of WhatsApp should actually make Facebook frightened.

Ever since Facebook swapped the GDP of a mid-sized nation for a simple messaging service, the chart below is getting a lot of attention.  But I fear its main point is being missed.

Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 8.53.57 am

Facebook got so excited by this sort of user growth that it spent $US19 billion buying WhatsApp. But it should be cowering.

Facebook’s biggest single virtue now, is that it’s the social network your friends are on. Facebook’s entire $175 billion market value hinges on the idea that this “network effect” is enough to lock you in and make sure you never leave. Is it?

The first person to install WhatsApp had no way to use it. The second person to install it could only contact the first one. The thing had no real value until a decent-sized circle of your contacts was on it. Despite this, despite the presence of other perfectly good options, like email, SMS, Viber, and despite its terrible IT-developer’s-idea-of-a-pun name, the application has grown faster than anything the web has ever seen.

WhatsApp’s growth shows people are now damn comfortable in the app store. Nobody is worried about hitting install, checking something out, and deleting it later. That represents an important – but predictable – change in consumer behaviour. And a major threat to the apps we already have installed.

Facebook perhaps recognises it could be gazumped. It is trying to make our commitment to Facebook a virtue, with, for example, recent videos reflecting our history on Facebook, etc. But if its major selling point is that it stores your old memories, will that be enough? If we all keep our Facebook – like we all keep our old school photos – but use something else for day-to-day use, then Facebook loses.

Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 10.34.09 am

There’s another even bigger point to make here about the lesson of WhatsApp’s incredible growth.

When I wrote about Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp a few days ago I mainly just goggled at the incredible price. $US19 billion in cash and stock, or about $A21 billion. Since then I have had a very constructive argument with someone I respect greatly in the tech space, about what the point of the acquisition is.

I argued you could have lots of customers but no good way to monetise them. Twitter was a really good example, I said. The old-school capital market guys that floated facebook and were currently propping up their shareprice would, I reasoned, have to learn the hard way to not rely on their old-world model that says a successful business is one with lots of customers.

But I got an eye-opener in response.

“Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t buy FB shares at the current frothy prices either. Nor would I pay $19 Billion dollars for WhatApp. But the long-term play is a little more interesting than “monetise internet service”. The aim as I read it is to eliminate the existing rent-seeking middlemen (in this case, telcos) by undercutting their service. Then, once you have sufficient user lock-in and network effects, you can *become* the rent-seeking middleman, but at an unprecedented global scale! Not exactly a glorious ambition, but it may just work out that way.”

That made me think about the way I look at the internet.

There is one company that has created “sufficient user lock-in and network effects” to be considered the backbone of the internet. Google. Revenue of $15 billion and profit of $3 billion in one three-month period in 2013. Google is to the internet what the state-owned telecommunications companies were to the early days of the communication by wire. A behemoth.

Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 10.36.04 am

The question then becomes, is Google a model for the rest of the net? Can Facebook et al do that too? Or is Google an outlier?

The telcos became rent-seeking middlemen by owning a network that could not be replicated. They had physical wires that they controlled. Competitors needed to make huge investments to beat them. There’s an analogy to Google there.

Google’s search results are so good not just because of its smart Page Rank algorithm, but because of its expensive web-crawling. Its competitors, like DuckDuckGo, use third-party results in their search results, because web crawling is expensive to do right:

“While our indexes are getting bigger, we do not expect to be wholly independent from third-parties. Bing and Google each spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year crawling and indexing the deep Web. It costs so much that even big companies like Yahoo and Ask are giving up general crawling and indexing. Therefore, it seems silly to compete on crawling and, besides, we do not have the money to do so. Instead, we’ve focused on building a better search engine by concentrating on what we think are long-term value-adds.”

Google’s core products, search and ads, are protected by both being smarter than the competitors, and expensive to replicate. They look safe.

But its various add-ons, like Maps, Gmail, Youtube and the play store could in theory be beaten. It has happened before. See: 10 Google services that failed and why.

Facebook’s offering is not necessarily expensive to replicate.  Open source social networks are out there. Market leaders diaspora and Movim both make privacy a big feature. Who knows what the spark will be that sets them, or something like them, on the path to exponential growth.

Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan take note. The Google model may prove to be a once-off. The internet will continue provide a lot of terrific services, but will not necessarily continue to provide a lot of money. The economic rule that price equals marginal cost of production in the absence of market power has not broken. And marginal costs online are often very close to zero.

Just to emphasise this point, I’d like to finish this piece by introducing you to an app called Telegram. It does everything WhatsApp does, but cheaper. There are no ads. There are no fees. And it is run by a not-for-profit.

Add me when you join. :)

 

The Alt-Tab Productivity Crisis

There is a puzzle at the heart of our economy. A conundrum profound and deep.

But it is one we can solve, if we are honest with ourselves.

The puzzle goes like this: Computers have made doing things a LOT easier. No more do you have to go to the fax machine and dial someone’s number if you want to send them a document. A million little tasks are now so easy they’re not even tasks.

Check the meaning of a concept? 10 seconds via Google. Invite someone to a meeting? 30 seconds in Outlook. Etc. Etc. You get my point.

So where the &^%! is our productivity boost? You look at data since the dissemination of the personal computer and all the millions spent on IT, and there is nothing special about it. You could be forgiven for thinking we’re still dipping quills in ink-wells.

Screen Shot 2014-01-08 at 12.23.41 PM

This is known as the Productivity Paradox. But the answer should be obvious to any economist.

Underpricing will lead to overconsumption. And nothing is more underpriced than content on the internet.

The internet is not a double-edged sword. It’s a giant swirling blade made of blades. And it’s coming right at us.

Every swivel-chair jockey knows about the internet. *Flinches at gross understatement*. I know you know far more than you’d ever let on.

Nobel-prize winning economist Robert Solow said in 1987 “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

No doubt, even that giant of macroeconomics has Alt-Tabbed to watch a few kitten videos on YouTube. Here’s a funny one of a cat and a vaccum cleaner. I bet Solow laughed until tea came out his nose.

In fact, if we look at Em.Prof Solow’s publication record – dormant since ’01 – he may as well have been immersed in LOLcats since he pocketed that Nobel prize in 1987. (Joking. The man is 90.)

The reality is that if you have a computer jobs, there’s a great deal of stuff you have to do on the internet. And there’s a great deal on the internet that looks like something you could justify looking at for work, but really isn’t.

Now, some jobs don’t have this aspect. Surgeons for example, don’t find themselves in a Wikipedia worm hole halfway through a colectomy. Bricklayers neither. But us, the knowledge-economy types, the kind of people who are reading this blog, some of the most highly skilled among us, are essentially free to spend as much of the day as we can get away with puddle-ducking on the internet.

There’s your productivity crisis right there.

Also, the internet has taken our attention spans and tortured them until they broke. The idea of working on one thing for an uninterrupted eight-hour stretch is utterly laughable.

In this vein, I give to you the five biggest enemies of progress

slate.com

reddit.com

play-dune.com [Dune 2, now in your browser!]

theage.com.au

twitter.com

Go ahead, click on them. You’ve earned a break.

One way to save the news.

I worked for the last three and a half years for a newspaper called the Financial Review. Cover price is $3.30 and a full price online subscription costs $A680. That’s high. Continue reading One way to save the news.

I desperately need a single mother’s trick for teeth whitening!

I suspect our friends at Google have updated the algorithm that decides what ads I should be shown on the internet. Continue reading I desperately need a single mother’s trick for teeth whitening!

National Broadband needlessness.

I’ve already unleashed a lot of emotive language on the National Broadband Network. Here’s why: Continue reading National Broadband needlessness.