We’re losing grasp of how the internet works

This sounds crazy.

You have to think a good bit to even entertain this idea.

But I have a theory. I think most Americans today understand LESS about how the internet works than Americans did 10 years ago.

Of course, internet use is way up. We're online all day. Like 100X more than we were 10 years ago.

But social media and accessing networks (Facebook, in particular) mostly through an app—not a browser—has changed things, I think, more than we realize. It's thrown off our collective movement toward a better understanding of how the internet works. Of how, and what it means when, we connect with other people "online."


This is an old-ish piece—published at Quartz in February 2015. But I've thought about it a lot since I first read it back then.

The short version: In 2015 Indonesia, more people reported using Facebook than reported using the internet. This, of course, doesn't make sense.

But the study's methodology was consistent. The simple fact is, many Indonesians were introduced to the Facebook app before they ever used a "browser." They didn't understand which came first—which one gave rise to the other.

I think if we conducted this study today in the United States, worded slightly differently, we'd see similar results. Especially among kids.

I first used the internet in my pre-teens. I remember the phones lines not working as AOL "dialed up." I got my Facebook account in 2007, and watched it (and other networks) grow and evolve over time. I watched apps being developed, and saw users migrate from browser- to app-based network access. The evolution was fast, but it was sensible and fit in line with my very simplistic understanding of how the internet worked.

I remember reading about packets and protocol stacks and routers. I didn't quite know what they were, but I knew the general idea. And that's really all that matters for the average person.

But think about kids today. Young adults today. Do they know which came first? Do they know what "internet" really means?

This isn't just an interesting anecdote. I think there are some serious implications here. I wonder about how this affects the average American's understanding of how to work "with" the internet. What's possible. How to cross the divides between apps. How to understand, fundamentally, the way content spreads online.

For American kids today, the internet is just there. A given. Ubiquitous. That's why they're called "digital natives." But what is lost when an entire generation doesn't really understand how this all works in the first place?

I'm talking about the average user. Non-super-technical. Are kids set up to successfully work in a digital world when they really have no clue what the internet is or how it works?

Generally, I think an "app-first" understanding of internet access confuses new users. Apps are more siloed. Browser-based access is more flexible and fluid, and leaves the "pipes" exposed, showing the universe of what's possible to accomplish on the internet.

Here's a concrete example…

I run a market research firm. Most of what we do are online surveys. We design, program, field and analyze surveys in order to gather valuable consumer perception data for our clients.

To maximize the value of this data, we often append survey datasets with data our clients already possess about the survey respondents. Behavioral or transactional data gathered from, say, the order form they filled out when purchasing a client's product or service.

This can be done after survey data has been collected, given we know the identities of the respondents. But even better is to do it beforehand, such that the survey itself is customized to the respondent, based on what we know about them already.

We do this most often with URL tags. We'll assign "hidden values" to each respondent, based on some unique ID, and we'll tag their unique survey URL with information about them, such that the survey instrument itself can reference those tags as the respondent proceeds through the survey.

Now, respondents sometimes pick up on this. They see their name or email address or some other characteristic about them (gender, ethnicity, etc.) in the URL bar, and they'll delete it. Sometimes a clever respondent might even tweak the URL so that the survey instrument changes, or so they can proceed to pages they know might earn them some reward.

But in an app, this is almost impossible. There is no URL bar exposing the way we are connecting with respondents. That said, if someone who's not super-technical gets a survey in an app, and that survey appears to "know" something about them, they're just going to believe that, somehow, this app knows this or that about them. Perhaps it's pulling this data from elsewhere in their phone (possible). Perhaps it's pulling this data from a form they filled out on Yahoo! Answers 10 years ago (possible).

The bottom line is there's no "seeing" how this all works. There's no understanding what's going on. Further, there's no forthcoming way for curious minds to see "what's possible," such that they might see ways to make things better.

I remember the first time I saw my email address in a URL. I understood, immediately, that the link I'd just clicked was somehow unique to me, and that whatever I did using that URL was going to be tied back to my email address later on (I spent the next several days looking at the URL of every webpage I visited, just to make sure it wasn't "spying" on me).

But kids today don't have this experience as often. Especially if they're accessing networks mostly through a siloed app. The apps works more or less the same way—not with custom URLs, per se, but by "tagging" users to customize their experience.

Don't let my example throw this post off track. I'm writing here about how the average American's understanding of how the internet works has, I think, lagged behind growth in rates of internet use.

Maybe this is just a harmless observation. Maybe all of this just doesn't matter. But I think there's more to consider here—things that we could, for example, think more deeply about in order to build a wholesome, effective curriculum for teaching kids about the internet. Right now, I don't think we have a very intentional way of doing that.

If you're still not convinced there's anything here, then just ask yourself: Do I understand how the internet works? Am I familiar with the words packet, protocol stack, router? If not, start here (thanks Mozilla!). Take 15 minutes to quadruple your knowledge in this area.

I'm going to follow this up later with some thoughts on how I think a failure to comprehend how the internet really works affects the way we consume information on the web. Please message me with any thoughts on this topic, of what I've written above. Thanks!

The Fantasy of Addiction?

An old-ish piece from First Things:

It was the triumph of the Christian religion that for many centuries it managed to become the unreasoning assumption of almost all, built into every spoken and written word, every song, and every building. It was the disaster of the Christian religion that it assumed this triumph would last forever and outlast everything, and so it was ill equipped to resist the challenge of a rival when it came, in this, the century of the self. The Christian religion had no idea that a new power, which I call selfism, would arise. And, having arisen, selfism has easily shouldered its rival aside. In free competition, how can a faith based upon self-restraint and patience compete with one that pardons, unconditionally and in advance, all the self-indulgences you can think of, and some you cannot?

That is what the “addiction” argument is most fundamentally about, and why it is especially distressing to hear Christian voices accepting and promoting it, as if it were merciful to call a man a slave, and treat him as if he had no power to resist. The mass abandonment of cigarettes by a generation of educated people demonstrates that, given responsibility for their actions and blamed for their outcomes, huge numbers of people will give up a bad habit even if it is difficult. Where we have adopted the opposite attitude, and assured abusers that they are not answerable for their actions, we have seen other bad habits grow or remain as common as before. Heroin abuse has not been defeated, the abuse of prescription drugs grows all the time, and heavy drinking is a sad and spreading problem in Britain.

Emphasis on “the abuse of prescription drugs grows all the time.” True in the US as in Britain.

From a population-wide, results-based perspective, where has the “addiction paradigm” brought us? Are we better off for it? Less “addiction” than was before it became a sort-of creed?

Tough subject. And controversial, as this author says, to insinuate anything but the prevailing “addiction” paradigm.

At the very least, what effect does this paradigm have on first-time users? Even if it’s proven helpful for, say, alcoholics to admit that their problem is bigger than their willpower alone (that it is, indeed, a chemical addiction), does that mean it’s automatically helpful also for non-addicts to view problems of drug abuse as problems of addiction? Or might it have the opposite effect? Might it promote a less sinister and less moral setting for (mostly young people) making the decision to use the first time?

Quick review: Bench.co

I'm not super organized.

That's a weakness. Especially when running a business.

But I try to compensate. I like paying experts to do things for me—things I'm not good at—so I don't have to worry about those things.

Mostly, I do it so I can focus on what I'm good at. Focus on what brings the money in, not where the money goes or adding it all up at the end of the month.

That's why I use Bench (bench.co).

Bench is a remote bookkeeping service on steroids. Subscribe, and you get assigned a bookkeeper. You also get access to a cool dashboard that allows you to see how your business is performing from month to month. This works by linking to your bank accounts, and reporting data from there after your bookkeeper has cleaned things up.

What I really like is the way it prompts me to categorize expenses right in the dashboard. I don't have time to take a note of every expense, or photograph every receipt. I'd rather just categorize everything at the end of the month. That's what Bench does. At the end of the month, I get questions about the handful of expenses my bookkeeper doesn't know how to categorize, and it takes me maybe 5 minutes to clear them all at once (rather than having to worry about it for 5 minutes several different times in a given week).

I highly recommend it. Starting a business should be about you hyperfocusing on what you do best. On what brings in money. Not managing your books. Books are a necessary evil. You should not be spending more than an hour a week managing your books. These days, I spend maybe 10 minutes per week, at most. Because of Bench.

Yes, there's a cost. But it's unbelievably low. More than worth it. Anywhere from $100 to $300 per month, depending on your business's monthly expenses.

Of course, Bench isn't perfect, but mostly on account of what it chooses not to do—not because of what it tries, but fails, to do. It's not a full accounting system, and doesn't claim to be. You can't use it to create and send invoices, so tying revenues to particular projects can be a bit of a hassle.

Try it out. Link here.

An odd sort of risk aversion

We’re so risk averse.

I’d bet today’s Americans are more risk-averse than any previous generation.

But it manifests oddly. So oddly.

Young Americans engage in personal behavior that is riddled with risk. Sexually, financially, professionally. Multiple sexual partners, often in rapid succession. Borrowing more than we can earn in 10 years to get degrees in fields with terrible job prospects. Quitting jobs to “tour the world” on credit.

From that perspective, we’re the opposite of risk-averse.

But we simultaneously lend our unwavering support to policies and ideas designed to combat what we believe are systemic, existential threats on our way of life. We fear big things that haven’t happened. We worry so much about the “system” falling apart.

Take universal healthcare. Almost certainly unsustainable. Definitely inefficient. Sure, there might be ways of accomplishing universal healthcare that we’ve yet to try. But to dive into something this wide, this massive, with little or no evidence and almost no possibility of turning back ought to be something few people are willing to do.

But polls show that most young people are willing, because they fear these systemic, existential threats to society enough to justify almost any society-wide action to combat them. Even giving up their own freedoms—their own liberty to live as they wish. If it means we won’t all die of some disease, sure, I’ll give up 1% of my income. If it means no mass genocide, sure, I’ll give up another 2%.

This adds up. Fast.

What’s vexing about this phenomenon is that we really have no ability to curb these things. We can’t predict a Black Swan, and it’s the Black Swans that hurt the worst. But for some reason, we believe that enough resources guards against Black Swans, and that once we’ve set up those new defenses, we couldn’t possibly have been totally wrong, or things couldn’t possibly change so much that the old defenses are literally worthless.

Think Social Security. Medicare. Nuclear weapons. Most literally couldn’t imagine the world without these rather arbitrary defenses against exogenous shocks. Yet they are old programs that have really done little to combat the true, underlying problem. Indeed, the most contentious debates in Washington are perennially the same—how do we solve these “problems” that we’re supposed to have solved a million times before? Poverty. Healthcare. Defense.

These programs, and the miniscule (and shrinking) number of people willing even to consider that they might not work, are evidence of the risk-aversion I mentioned earlier. Big existential fears that literally paralyze our critical thinking, coexisting with lifestyles that seemingly belie a defeatist attitude about our prospects for long, happy lives.

Bottom line is we don’t fear the consequences of our actions as much as we fear exogenous shocks to the “system” that threaten our way of life. But ironically, it’s the former that is statistically proven to be vastly more influential to our well-being.

Our personal choices and their consequences are responsible for most of what happens to us, yet it’s precisely this we, today, do not fear. We fear what others might do. We fear what else might happen. Nuclear war. Worldwide pandemic. A breakdown of the “system.”

This is irrational. Why do we think this way?

Maybe we watch too many movies. Maybe we don’t know our history, or don’t take it seriously.

Whatever it is, it’s the cause of most of our problems. Bad thinking about our problems and what causes them. “Whataboutism” that ends any attempt (not just particular conclusions) to measure how much blame poor or unhappy people might have for their own condition.

But this isn’t doom-and-gloom. Yes, we have it all wrong. But getting this right in your own life will vastly boost your prospects for success—especially in your professional and financial life.

Think more about what you can do to change your circumstances. Think less about things you can’t control. Spend less on insurance, more on improving yourself. Take what you planned to put toward your retirement next year (especially if you’re under 35) and take a class—learn to program, join a gym, take a class in negotiation.

Your choices make the big difference. And they can improve the way you handle exogenous shocks.

Fear yourself the most.

When asked “What’s wrong with the world?”, GK Chesterton replied, “I am.”

Take that seriously, and apply it to your fears. What’s most likely to kill you before your time? Your choices. What’s the fastest way to get rich? Your own hard work on a good business idea.

You get the point.

Rules for writing well

What follows isn’t mine. It’s rules and guidelines from a random website I stumbled across.

Everything you write should be easy to understand. Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. Take time to think about what you’re going to say, then say it as simply as possible. Keep these rules in mind whenever you’re writing on behalf of the studio.

Use small words. Using small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.

Use short sentences. Keep sentences short and get to the point. Readers might be interested in what you have to say, but don’t have much time to read.

Make clear statements. Every sentence should be a clear statement. If a sentence is incomplete or could easily be misunderstood, rewrite it.

Build clear stories. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements. Make sure every sentence adds to the statement that went before.

Don’t use jargon. Jargon makes writing less accessible. Technical terms should be used in their proper context; do not use them out of it.

Don’t use decoration. Don’t use decorative and flowery language. Focus on using only the words you need to communicate an idea clearly.

The standards for good writing are clarity and efficiency. You can develop good writing by editing with a careful eye to remove unnecessary words, decorative language, and jargon.

Some practical advice for fledgling founders

I hear from startup founders often. Specifically, I get unsolicited (but real/serious) connection requests from one-off entrepreneurs trying to build something from nothing.

Props to them for being aggressive, but I see so many make the same basic mistakes in their approach and personal branding. Here are some practical tips based on the most common mistakes I encounter.

  1. Be concise, always. If you’re sending unsolicited requests to connect, make them just that: requests. Not a sales pitch. Not a long-winded explanation of who you are. Ask for one thing, and make it simple. Less “We’ve set out to change the way people like you do business.” More “Do you have exactly 10 minutes this week for me to show you what my product can do for you?” Let them decide whether you’re “changing the way people do business.” Just get them on the phone first. And when you have them, or anyone, on the phone, remember—no one cares about your story because your story won’t help them. Stick to your product/service and how it solves problems. The second someone feels you’re wasting their time, you’ve lost them forever.
  2. Fix your domain. A huge turn-off for in-the-know potential customers and investors are company URLs that end in .wordpress.com or .wix.com. This signals a company’s unwillingness to invest even a small amount of money to make their online home their own. It yells “lifestyle blogger,” not “professional business services provider.” It’s so cheap and easy to get your own custom domain, like companyname.com. There is no reason not to, unless you truly don’t have $50 to spare (in which case, you need to re-evaluate you’re overall plan).
  3. Keep your site simple. If you’re just starting out, don’t fill your website and/or LinkedIn with pointless fluff. Get to the point. You don’t have testimonials, you don’t have success stories. So instead, put your one-sentence pitch front-and-center, and let the professionalism of your website theme and design do the rest. And link, somehow, to information about you and the team. There are too many fake websites out there selling crappy products. Three sections: What We Do (your one- to two-sentence pitch), Who We Are (about the team), and Contact (how to connect). That’s it. For design tips, just use what works—don’t try to build something from scratch. Pick a top-10 most popular site template from whatever platform you’re using.
  4. Get a real email address. Nothing says “amateur” like companyceo@gmail.com or companyname@yahoo.com. That’s fine for a church or community group, maybe, but not for a company that will be using that email account to send and receive client-confidential information, links to payment gateways, and correspondence with potential investors. Get a real email address. Something like first.last@company.com.
  5. Make it personal. People like doing business with people, not “platforms” or “companies.” This is especially true when you’re first starting out, and your brand/platform has no testimonials or reputation. You absolutely must become the face of your brand. Your “About Me/Us” page will be the most-visited area of your site. It’s vital that you back up the claims of your product or brand with a real name and face—someone customers can trust to answer the phone if anything should go wrong. You can’t afford not to become the face of your product or service.

I realize it’s not always easy to know how to do these things (like, where to get a custom domain). But there are so many possible answers, I can’t really give specific advice to a general audience. So if you have questions like this, message me here.

More on net neutrality

Thought-provoking piece here by Aaron M. Renn of the Manhattan Institute.

I don’t agree with some of his conclusions here. Namely, that Congress and the FCC should immediately launch investigations into the censoring practices of Silicon Valley social media giants, which cut off the public’s access to content that they find politically objectionable.

We technically have no right to see certain types of information. Nor do we have to use Facebook or Google. Nor should we expect that these platforms (or any platforms) ensure we only see true, unbiased, factual information when browsing. It’s up to us to be informed—it’s not Facebook’s or Google’s job. We shouldn’t trust them, or anything else, so much.

(On that note, this is why I think Trump is, perhaps unknowingly, doing us all a favor by calling everything “fake news.” The fact is, there is a lot of fake news out there, and I think were were and are all just too fascinated by the speed and availability of information on the internet to stop and wonder whether what we’re reading is true. Much of it is simply false.)

But the bigger issue that this article raises is the almost arbitrary standard we use to determine whether something is a “public utility,” or simply ubiquitous enough that it should be governed by bureaucrats, not by owners.

Yes, “natural monopoly” is supposed to that standard. But that’s an absurd concept. I realize it’s an accepted notion among the vast majority of economists, but count me in the minority (here’s some reading on that).

Aside from that, it’s becoming clear that the day is nigh when policymakers push to turn Facebook and Google (and other similar tech/information platforms/networks) into what amounts to “public utilities,” with the goal of regulating them to be “neutral” in the way these tech giants want ISPs to be neutral. They’re certainly ubiquitous enough. But they are decidedly NOT “natural monopolies.”

This very article advocates such regulation in the last paragraph (though I don’t agree).

But of course, these companies would oppose that. Because they built these services, not the government. They should make their own rules.

That said, it’s wrong to assume that big companies like Facebook, Google and Comcast will always oppose policies that hamper their freedom to set prices and their freedom, generally. It’s a trade-off. If it means further weaving themselves into the public infrastructure, even at the expense of short-term profits, they may push for strategic regulations on themselves—especially ones that create permits and licenses that boost barriers to entry in their industries.

Think hypothetically: Comcast may one day decide to advocate for net neutrality (that is, for regulating itself) if it means they in turn become an “endorsed” provider of information—that only they are allowed to deliver internet because they are “licensed” and abide by the government’s rules. This kills their competition by boosting barriers to entry for their competition. It’s called “regulatory capture.”

This issue is complicated. It’s not just about “neutral” ISP.

Me at Mises.org on net neutrality

Mises.org re-published my recent net neutrality blog post. I edited it a bit—it’s a little cleaner now. I also added a quote from Marc Andreesen:

A pure net neutrality view is difficult to sustain if you also want to have continued investment in broadband networks. … If you have these pure net neutrality rules where you can never charge a company like Netflix anything, you’re not ever going to get a return on continued network investment — which means you’ll stop investing in the network. And I would not want to be sitting here 10 or 20 years from now with the same broadband speeds we’re getting today.

The fundamental economic problem with net neutrality is that government erroneously purports to know how much internet service providers ought to be charging.

The confusion stems from the status of the ISP market as a state-enabled oligopoly.

Is it right to combat one problem of intervention (ISP oligopoly) with another intervention (net neutrality)? I think not.

Tim Ferriss’ “Rules that Change the Rules”

I know. I’m late to the party. The 4-Hour Workweek was last decade’s business bible. But these rules are timeless, and worth committing to memory.

  1. Retirement is worst-case scenario insurance. Don’t work toward it. Save money in case you become incapable of working (due to anything, for that matter—not just advanced age), but don’t make retirement the goal of your career.
  2. Interest and energy are cyclical. Alternating periods of activity and rest is necessary to survive, let alone thrive. You don’t deprive yourself of the other necessities of life—food, water, shelter. Why deprive yourself of this one?
  3. Less is not laziness. Focus on being productive instead of busy. If this means you accomplish your goals with free time to spare, celebrate! Boosting your productivity means accomplishing more in less time.
  4. The timing is never right. For all of the most important things, the timing always sucks. The stars will never align. Just take the plunge and correct your course along the way. Don’t wait around for the perfect setting, because it won’t ever happen.
  5. Ask for forgiveness, not permission. People deny things on an emotional basis that they can learn to accept after the fact. If the potential damage is moderate or in any way reversible, don’t give people the chance to say no.
  6. Emphasize strengths. Don’t fix weaknesses. Your choice is between multiplying results using your strengths or incremental improvements fixing weaknesses that will, at best, become mediocre.
  7. Things in excess become their opposites. Pacifists become militants. Freedom fighters become tyrants. Blessings become curses. Help becomes hindrance. Don’t pursue an excess of time or money. Pursue what excites you (likely a particular use of time or money).
  8. Money alone is not the solution. By using money as the scapegoat and work as our all-consuming routine, we are able to conveniently disallow ourselves the time to do otherwise. Again, focus on doing what excites you, not on making money now and figuring out how to be happy later.
  9. Relative income is more important than absolute income. Frankly, absolute income means almost nothing, and it’s not a number you should ever think about. Time is your most valuable commodity. Consider your income in terms of how much time you spend earning it.
  10. Distress is bad. Eustress is good. Not all stress is bad. Despair is bad, but being pushed and challenged keeps you happy, healthy and excited. Seek out eustress!

My economic critique of “net neutrality” from a high-level, Austrian perspective

Though the motives of net neutrality advocates differ, the most common motive seems to be a general belief that internet service providers (ISPs) face no serious competition, and therefore overcharge customers and generally treat customers poorly. In other words, ISPs have “natural monopolies” that allow them to rake in profits without improving service to customers or dealing with different customer-types in an equitable manner.

This perspective gave rise to “net neutrality,” which the FCC approved a few years back. This measure essentially transforms the internet into a public utility by regulating ISPs like other utilities (electricity, water, etc.). For convoluted reasons, regulators believe this will improve internet service is distributed equitably among all who are willing to pay the going rate—no more “special favor” for major players who can afford to crowd out smaller, less capitalized firms.

Underlying this perspective is the belief that we can decipher, in some way, the level of service that ought to be offered on the market. Regulators examine the ISP market and decide, on some grounds, that what exists ought to be differently, and that such a change can only come about through government regulation.

But by what standard are regulators judging ISPs to be acting unfairly? Who can say they are making too much or offering too little? Sure, internet service, as the technology has evolved, bears some similarity to public utilities like water and electricity, but it is not the same service.

More specifically, how can we know what ISPs ought to charge?

Some argue that ISPs have obtained special regulatory favors in the past that positioned them to build unfair monopolies in the present. That’s another argument entirely that, frankly, isn’t often made by regulators. But even if that were true, is the solution to end the market for internet service altogether, and opt instead for a pseudo-market whose bounds and limits are controlled, ultimately, by government regulators?

This brings to mind one aspect of the socialist calculation debate, whereby Austrian economists (among others) revealed the self-destructive nature of socialism. One pillar of their argument—Mises’, specifically—is that without a market to study and observe, central planners will not know what prices to mandate for what quantities of goods. The result will be over- or under-production of regulated goods—distortive resource misallocations that ripple throughout the economy and cause excess supply and/or demand.

It is not hard to see how this applies to net neutrality and regulating ISPs. By arbitrarily changing existing markets for internet service, regulators risk corrupting the fragile preconditions necessary for firms and consumers to calculate rationally. The result could be excess demand in the market for internet service if regulations force prices too low, or excess supply if regulations force prices too high. What’s worse, however, is that either way, market players will have no way to know whether related resources are being used toward their most highly-valued end.

This is not a complex point, but it’s important in this particular context, given the importance of internet service in modern economies. A more subtle but equally applicable point has to do with the nature of change in a dynamic world. In a sense, this is a more formal restatement of the problem with comparing market conditions to some model rooted in a concept of the economy as rotating in some static equilibrium. Peter Boettke explains:

Mises [explained] how the static conditions of equilibrium only solved the problem of economic calculation by hypothesis, and that the real problem was one of calculation within the dynamic world of change, in which the lure of pure profit and the penalty of loss would serve a vital error detection and correction role in the economic process.

In the context of the issue at hand, this is particularly consequential. The market for internet service is brand new and growing and evolving quickly. To decide, in a market as young and dynamic as this, that prices are not fair reveals a great degree of confidence in “hypotheses,” as Boettke puts it, about what the ideal market for internet service would look like.