Sunday, October 6, 2013

Do we really need to regulate that?

Why is it illegal to smoke on domestic flights in the U.S.? Whatever benefit there is of prohibiting smoking on a flight accrues to those who are actually on the plane. If this benefit is large enough, then it is in the interest of the airline itself to prohibit smoking, because the benefit to passengers translates directly into greater willingness to pay for airfare and greater profits for the airline. Is it somehow easier to enforce a smoking ban if the force of law is behind it? Did the government pass the law to insulate airlines from the ire of those passengers who would prefer to smoke in flight? Maybe, but I would also note that some airlines had their own smoking ban before the law took effect in 1998. Is the purpose of the law to level the playing field, because there is some negative consequence of allowing airlines to compete through their policies regarding smoking? Again, maybe. I wouldn't suggest that anyone should be able to smoke on airplanes, either as an economist or as an air traveler; but it is clearly incorrect to assume that the only way to achieve this outcome is by passing a law. This seems to be a fairly common belief: that if the government doesn't make something happen, it won't happen.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Siri, tell me what I want to hear

Web sites use increasingly sophisticated algorithms to tailor content to the individual user: Netflix and Amazon deliver personalized recommendations, news aggregators filter content, and Google search results depend not just on the search terms themselves but also on whatever personal characteristics or details of one's historical usage are available. I imagine a near future in which I'll get into my driverless car around dinner time and be driven to my favorite Mexican restaurant without even having to say anything. If the car has enough predictive ability and access to enough data, I won't have to specify that I'm in the mood for Mexican, or even that I'm hungry. The car would never be able to get it exactly right every time, but it's easy to imagine it being close enough that the user wouldn't bother quibbling about it.

So, could this possibly be a bad thing? Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble (and presenter of a TED talk), thinks so. His concern is that all this personalization of content has an isolating effect. My starting point is an idealized view of filtering as a way of culling some subset of information from all of the information available. The user can sift through the information the old-fashioned way and decide what to consume--e.g., glance over the headlines and decide what articles to read--or allow the filter to do the sifting. If the filter arrives at the same subset of information that the user would have ultimately consumed anyway, then the filter is unambiguously beneficial insofar as it eliminates the cost to the user of sifting through the information.

The question is then in what way or to what extent the actual scenario diverges from this ideal. I can think of three possibilities: