Friday, June 16, 2006

net neutrality

This topic is not centered on Human Factors, but it is something that is critically important to the development of Internet innovation so it will affect most of us in many ways.

For those of you not familiar with the basic premise, here are the two sides:

Telecoms: The fairest and most efficient way to fund the development of bandwidth is for companies that use more bandwidth to pay more for that use. So if your site has high-res graphics, video, audio, or simply lots of visitors, you will pay more for their access. A text only site with three visitors will pay the minimum. This is the basis of the free market system. And anyway, they own the bandwidth, so even if you think this is a bad idea, it is their private property on which to make such mistakes.

Internet companies: The greatest innovations of the Internet age have come about because there are minimal start-up costs to create the next greatest thing. I you think of the Web 2.0 services and other new companies (MySpace, YouTube, Skype, even Google), they were created by college students in their dorm rooms. If they had to pay for every bit, they could not have afforded to get started. And even established companies would be hesitant to create new services (think online banking) if the bandwidth used would not be covered by the extra revenue. If they charge for the new services, no one will try them out and great services will be killed at the outset.

Social organizations: It is very rare for and the Christian Coalition to agree on anything, but here is one. If they (and other non-profits) had to pay for every visitor who clicks on their sites, it would kill the circulation of their ideas. Independent bloggers (especially Vloggers) would disappear. Local governments would not be able to afford to support their services. Charities would lose their online fundraising capabilities. So we need net neutrality.

And most people realize that government often screws up regulation of technology. They move too slowly to regulate something that moves so fast. Even if the regulation was good to start, technology would change and it would take 10 years for the government to update the regulation. And the regulations they do enact are generally flawed because of the influence of lobbyists, special interests, and a general ignorance of technology by the average politician.

So you are probably asking whether I am in favor of government regulation of net neutrality. To be honest, I am torn. I wish there was a free market solution. It is possible that competition in the telecom industry would create net neutrality because anyone who tried to charge more would lose business. But I don't think that there is enough competition at present to do this. So some government regulation is necessary. But how to do it, I don't know.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

how much does Human Factors contribute

I was watching an interview of Alvin Toffler (the author of Revolutionary Wealth) and he said something that really struck me. His example of the problem with measuring national GDP was that when Microsoft spends millions creating a new version of Windows that is only marginally better than the old one, the measure of GDP goes up based on the money spent on it. But when thousands of programmers contribute to the development of Linux for free and thousands of companies download and use the software, again for free, there is no recognized effect on GDP.

I wondered about Human Factors in this same way. For the past few years we have been struggling to make the business case for Human Factors by proving that it increases sales, etc. But are there other effects that we are missing? I think that a usable product, even if it doesn't make me more productive at work, still makes me happier, and maybe more productive overall because of my mood. Or maybe just the happiness should be measured.

Overconfident experts

There has been a lot of writings lately about how experts are not nearly as expert as they think (Arnold Kling, James Surowiecki). The Arnold Kling article specifically discusses economists and how this overconfidence can harm public policy when governments rely on their recommendations. This is a considerable problem.

Since Human Factors has so much to say on naturalistic decision making (of which economics is a prime example), such as the fantastic research on recognition primed decision making, I think it behooves us to think about applying some our work to the public policy domain. Yes we are helping the military, law enforcement, etc., but why not macroeconomic and industrial policy at the federal level. Not only can we have a huge effect on our nation(s), but we would also increase the visibility of our field.