CORPORATE INTERESTS

Democrats and Republicans both have a big blind spot on net neutrality

National Public Radio recently suggested that “tribalism” is the word of the year for 2017. Each day it gains new meaning in US political culture. The latest example is over the case of so-called net neutrality—the principle that internet service providers should treat every bit of data equally, ensuring that users can load any online content they want and at the same speed.

One might think this would be a relatively benign, technocratic issue—especially since a sweeping majority of Americans agree on the equality principle, many quite fervently. But this bit of policy has become tribal, too. The Dec. 14 Federal Communications Commission vote fell along party lines, with Democrats voting to preserve the Obama-era net neutrality rule, and Republicans voting to end it. The tenor of the public debate is similarly polarized, both in the apocalyptic “save the internet” rhetoric of the net-neutrality partisans as well as in FCC chair Ajit Pai’s disregard for the outcry his actions have aroused.

Neither side is talking enough, however, about what really makes net neutrality matter: We have a monopoly problem, and both sides are caught up in it.

The Democratic establishment has followed the path of former president Barack Obama, who mixed with the Silicon Valley elite and whose antitrust monitors exonerated Google while Europe fined the company billions. In general, mainstream Democrats side with the young, shiny, post-industrial platform monopolies—the apps, social networks, and boy-kings of content. These companies have been avid supporters of net neutrality in Washington, surely in part because the principle insulates them from having to pay fees for the 70 percent of internet traffic that goes through their servers. Net neutrality is thus a convenient cause for Democrats to fight for.

Republican leaders, more so than Republican citizens, have chosen instead to hitch their digital future to the behemoth utility companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon. (Pai himself used to work for Verizon.) In March, Republicans in Congress passed a law that allows internet-service providers to monetize users’ data, as Facebook and Google already do. Maybe the grayer Republicans prefer this older generation of companies, which deem strong net neutrality an intolerable burden to their business models. But it is hard to have much sympathy for a business model in which 129 million people in the United States have no choice of broadband provider.

Tribal allegiances come with blindspots. Republicans leaders have allowed themselves to ignore the fact that the telecoms they’re supporting are some of the country’s most hated companies. On the other side, when TV personality and net-neutrality crusader John Oliver rails against corporate monopolies, he conveniently neglects to mention Facebook or Google.

To see what a post-net-neutrality world might look like, actually, one need look no further than Facebook. In poorer regions of the world, where people’s internet access options are limited, it offers programs like Facebook Zero and Free Basics, which provide cost-free access to select parts of the internet—hand-picked by the company. When customers lack choice or oversight, a monopoly can edit the internet in its own image.

One person who has expressed concern about the corporate influence of Google and Facebook is Breitbart chairman and former Trump advisor Steve Bannon. He reportedly believes the companies should be regulated like utilities, and when Breitbart reported on the new Republican proposal for a telecom-friendly, net-neutrality-lite law, Bannon’s reporter offered gleeful hints that the feds would be coming after Facebook, Google, and Twitter next.

These loyalties do waver. Senator Elizabeth Warren has spoken about Google’s monopoly threat, and the Trump administration is challenging the AT&T-Time Warner merger. But on basic matters of internet policy, both political tribes have tied themselves to monopolies, and if those ties hold, we all stand to lose.

That said, not all monopoly threats are created equal. The platform companies like Facebook and Google have vast wealth and vast troves of our personal data, but it is still possible to opt not to use them and use one of their fledgling competitors instead. The danger from telecoms is more immediate, if only because so many people have no real choice over where their service comes from—especially rural and low-income customers.

Federal protections like net neutrality are thus necessary, if not a panacea. Without net neutrality, we’re likely to see the rise of codependent monopolies—imagine AT&T charging Google millions of dollars to reach viewers of its YouTube platform, for instance, while Google learns to enjoy how the arrangement keeps out new, smaller competitors.

What else should we do to protect the internet from monopolies? Europe’s emerging personal-data protections are an essential check on abuses of market power. Next, it’s time to rearm antitrust enforcement for the internet economy; old laws made for railroads and robber barons are far more relevant than regulators have realized.

All the while, we need alternatives to the big internet-service providers. Rural, often conservative areas have demonstrated the promise of deploying broadband through cooperatives, owned and governed by their customers, just as co-ops brought electricity to farmers almost a century ago. Cities and other local governments have set up publicly owned networks, too. Both strategies often result in higher speeds at lower costs than the big telecoms offer. These community networks are designed to serve their members, not extract profits for investors. Smart policy can ensure that the telecoms of the future are more nimble, more local, and more accountable than what we have now.

The same can be done for platforms. “Zebra” startups and “platform co-ops” are aiming to create online businesses that seek to benefit their communities, rather than enriching investors by seeking scale above all else.

The internet was in danger well before Pai took aim at net neutrality—and that danger comes from monopolies. His crusade is a symptom of the problem, but not the cause.

Read this next: What will happen now that net neutrality is gone? We asked the experts

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HIT THE BOOKS

These three strategies can help you master any subject

7 hours ago
7 hours ago

I learned a lot in 2017. I learned about how the European Union works, because Britain decided to leave it. I learned what a social media-obsessed presidency looks like, and the distinctive outlines of a political party that picks power over principle. I learned that a Trump presidency can force a scientific-based organization dedicated to saving millions of people’s lives into not using terms like “science-based” in an effort to get its budget passed.

That was learning that happened to me. I want 2018 to be a year where I can define more of my learning, making it more deliberate and intentional, and hopefully, effective. To that end, I turned to Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just about Anything.

“The ability to learn effectively might be the most important skill in life,” says Boser. “It’s like the anti-Kryptonite. It gives you the almost magical power of being able to succeed in ​any field.” Indeed, the case for continuous learning has never been stronger—whether we’re trying to remain agile in the face of automation or simply build the muscles to think deeply in the face of a warp-speed news cycle and a Twitter-fueled political environment.

For everyone looking to learn better in 2018, Boser identified three important strategies we can all put into practice right away: finding meaning, developing metacognition, and embracing the power of forgetting.

Find meaning

Research shows that motivation is key to successful learning. So in order to master a new idea, we have to figure out how to make meaning of the subject matter.

“It’s impossible to learn if we don’t want to learn, and to gain expertise we have to see the skills and knowledge as valuable,” Boser writes. “We have to create meaning. Learning is a matter of making sense of something.”

Some people think our brains are like computers: We read something, our brain stores it, and we recall it when we need it. Not quite, says Boser. One illuminating 2002 experiment found that students could successfully use formulas and math to solve an average of 1,500 physics problems, but still lacked a conceptual understanding of the questions they were answering. “People can do things—literally—thousands of times without learning.”

We need to actively engage with information to make it stick. Stopping to say “Why is that?” or even getting an answer wrong helps cement information in the brain.

So while it may make us feel smart to underline and highlight text in a book, it’s far more effective to read for a bit, then stop for two minutes to jot down notes on what you understood. Research from 2014 shows that students who read a passage and then had to recall what they learned, either by writing a paragraph or creating a concept map with what they remembered, retained more of the information than students who just studied the texts without the active retrieval strategies. Forcing them to frame it and write it forced them to make meaning of it.

Another good way to learn? Get answers wrong. Boser was once asked the capital of Australia. He confidently blurted out Sydney, and then Melbourne, moving onto Perth and then every other Australian city he could come up with. (The answer is Canberra.)

This was a very effective way to learn the capital of Australia, Boser says. By messing the answer up, he became more likely to remember the correct answer moving forward. This is called the hypercorrection effect—what happens when you are absolutely sure you know something, and then find out you are wrong. When we’re confronted with our own mistake, Boser says, “We stop and say, why is that?” Thus, the material we learn has more meaning.

The next time you hear an argument, see if you can immediately boil it down to its essence—either in writing, or simply by taking a moment to identify the key takeaways. This may seem time-consuming, but it’s probably less time consuming than reading material, forgetting it, and having to read it again. Make the information you absorb have meaning, and it may stick.

Metacognition

Humans are an overconfident lot. We think we are smarter and better-looking than we actually are, and that we work harder than everyone around us. This is, of course, mathematically impossible. “We don’t do enough to understand the things we don’t know,” Boser writes.

That’s in part because we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what we do and do not know. As it turns out, thinking about thinking is a highly effective way to improve learning. Metacognition has two aspects, Boser says. There’s the planning: What are my goals and how will I learn this? And there’s the monitoring: Is there another way to do this? How do I measure progress? Why am I doing this?

Dutch researcher Marcel Veenman found that kids with metacognitive skills outperformed those with higher IQs on math tests. He told Boser that in his research, metacognition accounts for 40% of learning outcomes, compared to 25% for IQ. Creating a process for how to plan, monitor, and evaluate learning—not surprisingly—creates deeper understanding. (Teachers are masters of this, of course.)

One study showed that middle schoolers who received training on how to think about problem-solving—as well as another group that received training on problem-solving, as well as how to think about how to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning—did better on exams, embraced more self-directed learning later in the semester, and were more motivated than peers that did not get metacognition training.

According to the UK’s Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF), which performs studies to try and close achievement gaps, metacognition is one of two of the most effective educational interventions it’s tested. (Feedback is the other.) Students involved in programs designed to improve how they think about thinking accelerated their learning by an average of eight months’ worth of academic progress, with the greatest effects shown by low-achieving and older pupils. And a Stanford researcher developed a 15-minute study hack based on metacognition that lifted B students into getting As. If you’re looking for a way to embrace metacognition, it’s a great place to start.

The power of forgetting

People typically forget 50% of what they learn within 24 hours. According to Boser, this is totally fine. “In short, the research suggests that forgetting is good for learning, not bad, and the more we take advantage of forgetting, the more that we learn.”​ That’s because when we forget, we have a chance to re-remember. And re-remembering is how we retain information for longer.

A key educational practice that takes advantage of our tendency to forget is called “inter-leaving.” When practice sessions mix up different types of problems, kids tend to learn more than they would doing one kind of a problem at a time. Think of math: Kids typically learn one thing, say, a set of graph problems, followed by another, such as a set of slope problems. They are not required to think about what kind of problem they are solving, which would be helpful when it turns up on a test in no particular order. When we force ourselves to switch back and forth between different bits of information, we forget and then re-remember the material—ultimately absorbing the material better.

One study, by Douglas Rohrer, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, showed that kids who studied with problems jumbled up did better than those who did not. More importantly, later in the semester, when the children were tested again, they retained more.

Annie Murphy Paul, writing in Scientific American, describes the results here:

After three months all the students were led through a review session, and a day later took a test. The students who had been engaging in interleaved practice got 80 percent of the test questions right, compared with 64 percent on the part of students who had been completing blocked assignments—a not-inconsiderable difference. But the real value of interleaving became apparent when the students were tested a full month after the review session. On that test the interleaved students scored 74 percent, the blocked ones a paltry 42 percent.

This approach flies in the face of how we typically learn information. Find me a student who hasn’t crammed and I will find you a unicorn to fly me home for the holidays. And yet this is the way most kids study.

“We often practice the same thing over and over again,” says Boser. “But when you switch it up, the learning is more generative.” He says students who use a larger pile of flashcards, which space the learning through the sheer volume of cards, improved their learning by 30%. He even found a way to design for it IRL: his son now cuts back on Wednesday homework, and does more on Saturday afternoon (poor kid). The spacing and variation will help his learning—or so they both hope.

The upshot

There are a lot of misconceptions around learning. Many people believe there are learning styles, even though there is no evidence to support this, or that we learn well without guidance (we don’t).

The truth is that learning is hard work—but to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, it’s the hard things that tend to be worthwhile. We can all be natural learners if, like Boser, we make the time for it, design the right processes, and figure out how to track our progress.

Read this next: How to make your kid good at anything, according to a world expert on peak performance

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