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    By the time waters had receded in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina had wrought twin disasters. One was the obvious flesh and blood tragedy– thousands of human lives were lost in the disaster. The other disaster was for FEMA, for Bush, and for all the civil servants whose bungling in the face of devastation was a sharp blow to their credibility.

    One lesson we can take away is this: "Ordinary people can solve communication problems much quicker than clueless government officials when catastrophes like hurricane Katrina strike." So says Steven Berlin Johnson, in an article for Discover magazine. Why is this the case? The simple answer: as technology continues to grow, there is more and more intelligence in mobs.

    When Katrina struck, panicked survivors went to sites like Craigslist, Yahoo!, and the Red Cross website. But the information on these sites– by virtue of the sheer number of people affected– was too much to sift through. Survivors were lost in what is often termed "data smog." How would they find their way through all this?

    The answer did not come in the form of a systemic plan, be it state or private sector. It came, instead, through the diffuse actions of thousands of tech-savvy volunteers. In response to the tragedy, David Geilhufe and his small team formed the PeopleFinder Interchange Format– "a service that gathered information from all over the Web through something called "screen scraping," an automated process that involves grabbing the relevant information for each person—name, location, age, and description—and depositing it in a single database." The team's efforts were picked up by a few prominent bloggers, who spread the word. Almost overnight, Geilhufe's team had expanded to a decentralized army of thousands, all helping survivors connect and communicate.

    Johnson notes that only through spontaneous order could such a sucessful task be executed:

"PeopleFinder was the kind of data-management effort that could have taken a year to execute at great expense if a corporation or a government agency had been in charge of it. The PeopleFinder group managed to pull it off in four days for zero dollars."

Daniel Corbett



   Belated apologies for yet another absence, but I'm…how you say…in Canada. Just for a scoch, though; I'll be back this weekend. For the record, two things I never realized about our neighbor to the north:

1. Canada is shockingly close to us! As in, a morning's drive from Pittsburgh! Christ!

2. Canada is perhaps the cleanest place on earth. I had heard this, of course, and Toronto trash strikes notwithstanding I believed it. But I never realized it. Yowzer.

Back Sunday, Dan.

–Morgan Hubbard

P.S. Your "case by case" solution to the problem of regulating employee blogs does indeed smack of a cop-out. Let's hash this out over the weekend, set some rules and so forth.

    The new X-Men? Disappointing? How can it be? In any case, I hope my answer is at least somewhat fulfilling. First, I have to echo my support for your unflinching stand on free speech in cyberspace. The Electronic Frontier Foundation out of San Francisco has been the vanguard of the "bloggers' rights" movement. Why should, within reason, companies rein in what their employees say and do in their private lives?

    But it's this "within reason" caveat– painful but necessary– that comes around to haunt our theoretical defense of Internet free speech. Nondisclosure agreements are the lifeblood of many companies, especially in an idea-based economy. But where do we draw the line? Is blogging publishing, per se? What, exactly, is a "trade secret?"

    These are thorny questions, to be sure. And I can't provide clear answers to them because so much (of life and of law) is contextual. In response to your idea that a Cleveland desk jockey has little in common with the radical, the cafe owner, and the stablehand– I agree partially. You're right that these disparate people have little in common; and even though they can connect via the Web, it doesn't mean they will. This view has dominated some arguments about whether blogging is "publishing" in a meaningful sense. Like many debates before it, however, technology has drastically changed the terms of the debate. Through aggregators and blog-specific search engines, more people are accessing more blogs than ever before. And they don't need to know where to look– just what they're looking for.

    There's a lot I can and will blog about in law school this fall. It's practically expected of me. But I would dare say there are some things about your job that you may not be allowed to share on this blog. Call it a cop-out, but I think the answer here is balance– a case-by-case approach that reconciles the privacy, property, and free speech rights of employer and employee.

Daniel Corbett

    It may be that easy. The Institute for Human Studies is sponsoring a series of essay contests, and deadlines are fast approaching.

The prizes for each contest:

1st prize: $2000 2nd prize: $1250

3rd prize: $750 Honorable mention (four prizes): $250

Authors of the top 50 essays to each contest will receive a free book.

aWorldConnected Essay Contest

Entrepreneurship & Education

Apply Now! Deadline: May 31, 2006
aBetterEarth Essay Contest

Global Environmental Challenges: Meeting the Needs of Today and Tomorrow

Apply Now! Deadline: May 31, 2006
iLiberty Essay Contest

Tobacco Regulation / Smoking Bans

Apply Now! Deadline: May 31, 2006

Daniel Corbett

      For some it's cause for alarm: the public tarnishment of a corporate image. But for some it's simply the digital water cooler: the free speech of employees in a connected world. Like it or not, workers everywhere are taking to the Web and taking their work experiences with them. From the New York Times:

"Most experienced employees know: Thou Shalt Not Blab About the Company's Internal Business. But the line between what is public and what is private is increasingly fuzzy for young people comfortable with broadcasting nearly every aspect of their lives on the Web, posting pictures of their grandmother at graduation next to one of them eating whipped cream off a woman's belly. For them, shifting from a like-minded audience of peers to an intergenerational, hierarchical workplace can be jarring." 

      This raises an interesting dilemma for as the Internet Generation descends on the working world. More and more, employees are getting the boot for blogging about their company's propietary information. It may be malicous. It may be cathartic. It may (at least to the bloggers and their readerships) be quite funny. But the fact remains, for better or worse, we are increasingly interconnected. And when a boss does a Google search for his or her company, and an employee diatribe comes up– it's not a pretty picture.

      Or is it?

      For many, getting fired for blogging is the best thing that could happen to them. For Kelly Kreth, a marketing director in New York, who lost her job for blogging about employees, she couldn't have made a better career move: "It led to me opening my own business and making triple what I was making before." A writer who was canned for writing about his job at Comedy Central is converting his experience into a book. And workplace tell-alls like "The Devil Wears Prada" and "The Nanny Diaries" are slated to hit the big screen this summer. It seems that behind this cloud, a market is emerging.

      But what will be the social effect of these events? Will companies, seeing green, find a way to make blogging work for them? (Remember Wal-Mart had a mini-scandal involving information it provided Wal-Mart-friendly bloggers.) One thing is for sure; however, companies are going to take notice of blogging. Right now, only 8 percent of HR executives in a survey said their companies had policies about blogging. Given the controversy it is generating, I think we're bound to see some fences put around the digital water cooler.

Daniel Corbett   

    Interesting, Morgan. I think you're right: this new politics of "behaviour management" is, on its face, nothing short of Orwellian. It is the brazen proclamation of lawmakers: "We Know Better." Don't believe me? Here's what Jowell told the Guardian:

"Many people ask whether there is a coherent moral and intellectual position behind our approach to these issues. I am convinced there is. Our actions are motivated by conviction and compassion. The fact that our philosophy is not well understood does not mean it does not exist."

    This is precisely why J.S. Mill, as we recently discussed, wanted a check on his father's utilitarian calculus. Maybe we'd be better off with more smoking bans. OK, I'll stop being facetious; we would be better off, at least in terms of public health. But is the overall well-being of society (whether physical, moral, or otherwise) all we need to take into account as policymakers? Mill certainly didn't think so. He argued, rather persuasively, that we need to balance our well-intentioned claims about the service public good against an assumed priority on individual freedom. I'm inclined to agree.

    But why should individual freedom matter? Right now, I'm reading F.A. Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty, in which he argues that freedom is desirable because, inter alia, it ultimately brings about the greatest good for the greatest number. When the onus of decision making rests on many, as opposed to a few, we are then able to escape what Hayek terms a "knowledge problem," which essentially refers to the idea that knowledge is disperse, and is best accessed by many people over time, through self-correcting, non-coercive processes. Some people argue that we're "too stupid to be free." In Hayek's view, they have it half right. Our knowledge is limited, but this is precisely why we should have more freedom and less control.

– –Daniel Corbett

From McSweeney’s



The Apprentice

Fired intern says, “Great, I wanted to leave anyway. Your capitalist mindset is a futile path to happiness,” then slips into a Che Guevara T-shirt. The other contestants mumble that it sounds good to them, and leave the boardroom en masse. Tired of the tyranny of their possessions, they abandon their wheelie suitcases, take the stairs to the lobby, run past the taxis, and go into the streets, where they use sales tactics to organize an anti-greed protest march. This culminates in thousands of people encircling Trump Tower, which is then turned into a free university.

    Social science has yet another ultra-specialized subfield to add to its constellation of disciplines. It's called "happiness studies," and it's growing quite rapidly. Will Wilkinson at Cato has even started a side project– Happiness and Public Policy— devoted to the intersection of the two fields, which admittedly come to loggerheads from time to time.

    And for good reason. How can you implement something so elusive, relative, and hard to pin down? Happiness scholars, for their part, are doing their best to puzzle this out, as well as dive deeper into questions of what happiness is. 

    A recent article in the Toronto Star provides a nice discussion of the movement, which formalized itself in 2000 with its own peer-reviewed journal, The Journal of Happiness Studies. The article details some recent findings in the discipline.

1. Happiness is not purely experiential. Something scholars term "affective forecasting" refers to the uniquely human ability to anticipate experiences and predict their potential happiness.

2. It's the duration of happiness, and not the intensity, that matters. Day-to-day pleasures like well-fitting clothes, or say, a nice lambic ale, often make us happier than monumental triumphs such as winning a million dollars, or being elected president. 

3. Even though we can predict happiness, we're not always good at it. A die-hard sports fan will often anticipate the dire emotional consequences of his or her team losing it all; and will, in reality, bounce back from such a setback much faster than anticipated. Research on Holocaust survivors, most of whom went on to live normal, productive lives, suggests the extent to which humans can overcome.

    It will be interesting to see where this scholarship moves. It is certainly a wonderful new lens through which we can view policy and social ordering. But I think it must be kept in check by other considerations– economic practicality, individual rights, etc.– and must not be overly essentialized. 

Daniel Corbett 

    20 May marked the 200th anniversary of John Stuart Mill's birth. There's no doubt that the self-taught (Mill recieved no real formal education, instead recieving only heavy reading lists from his father) philosopher is at once the intellectual backbone of modern secular government and the whipping-boy of contemporary intelligentsia. Mill was, to use ironic college vernacular, "kind of a big deal."

    In a piece that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Roger Scruton writes that Mill's legacy may have lacked a crucial dimension: morality. We've talked politics and emotion on this blog recently, but the question is rearing its ugly head once again. What role in politics should we give "non-rational" elements? Is there a danger in relying too heavily on reason?

    Scruton details an important rift between J.S. Mill and his utilitarian predecssors. Both Bentham and the senior Mill succumbed to a conservative politics that based all sorts of regulation (religious, moral, and otherwise) on a notion of "the public good." Scruton writes:

"According to Mill's argument, that way of thinking has everything upside down. The law does not exist to uphold majority morality against the individual, but to protect the individual against tyranny–including the 'tyranny of the majority.'"

    Most of us would agree, to some extent, with that argument. The "public good," we can admit, is often twisted by those who define what that good is. In his famous work, "On Liberty," Mill fleshed out an argument that would protect the individual from oppressive notions of public morality. Scruton criticizes this secular, reason-based approach, arguing that it leaves out morals, emotions, and tradition. The question, for Scruton, becomes this: "What if we want public morality?"

    This is an interesting attack against Mill, and I'm not sure how to take it. Scruton's anticipated problem is decidedly conservative. He argues that, "this doctrine [liberalism] has made it impossible for the law to protect the core institutions of society, namely marriage and the family, from the sexual predators." As a libertarian, I find it easy to dismiss Scruton's attack wholesale. But most of us aren't libertarians. And whether it's pornography, gay marriage, or hate speech, many of us have cases in which we want morality to trump reason. Mill would leave us with a libertarian bright-line test. Mill's critics, from all ends of the spectrum, want no such test. So where should we bring in morality, emotion, and the like? Is there any sort of guiding principle we can take with us? If so, on what is this founded? Community consensus? Individual rights? Something else?

Daniel Corbett

    "If the Internet was once ungoverned by etiquette, those days are gone; MySpace and its siblings, by many accounts the future of the Net, are rife with discussions of good manners versus unforgivable faux pas,"writes Steven Barrie-Anthony for the Los Angeles Times.

    The freedom is indeed vanishing. Now the Net is a place where serious questions are hashed out: relationship statuses, rules of syntax, and now– thanks to MySpace– the hierarchy of friendship. You heard it right, a new feature on MySpace allows users to rank their "Top 8," a list that can include friends, family members, significant others, as well as favorite films and bands. And, as is often the case when "real" meets virtual, things get messy. The article details spats between spouses, co-workers, and long-time friends that have emerged on social networks.

    I am nothing short of a technophile (if not personally, then at least theoretically). I honestly believe, contrary to naysayers' arguments, that new technologies have the power to bring people closer together, and make us more human, not less human. But what does it mean when we have 78 million on MySpace already (and, on average, 270,000 joining every day)? Does the "opt-out" argument still apply? Can technology facilitate the feared tyranny of the majority? (I know I have made no empirical claims, but I'm just throwing out some big questions for you.) So, technophiles and Luddites alike, where do we go from here?

    I leave you with the MySpace experience of Michael Block, a search engine marketer from L.A., who received the following indecipherable message from "an unknown 15-year-old in Florida": "y u want people 2 look at u 4. u thinken that u looken sweet 4 da females."


    I admit I am young, but from what I've read, Internet discussion used to look a little more like this.

Daniel Corbett

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