Of Law, Norms and Orbs

In the 1990s, a barrage of legal scholarship on “norms” was sparked by the work of Robert Ellickson (especially his book Order Without Law). Much social behavior---including compliance with rules---Ellickson and others argued, occurs because of the development of social norms that have force beyond any formal enforcement mechanism. Numerous symposia were held and countless forests felled to produce the paper for the articles written.

No doubt the norms scholars were (and are) onto something important: Fear of social opprobrium or desire for social approval are powerful motivators, and in an important sense one can view the norms craze as of a piece with the roughly contemporaneous emergence of behavioral law & economics. Both scholarly movements challenged the view of human beings as rational calculators motivated only by the promise of reward or punishment (although it is possible to conceive of norms as acting as a kind of social reward and punishment that can then be fitted into a utility function: that’s the “beauty” of conventional economics; it can assimilate anything).

Here I want to highlight another way in which the focus on formal legal penalties and rewards overlooks a means of affecting behavior. If norms operate socially, orbs operate individually (or mostly so, anyway. More on that point below.) Orbs?” you say. “What, pray tell, are orbs?”

In the movie Sleeper, Woody Allen’s character awakes in a future in which the orb is a pleasure-giving device, but I have something else in mind. In particular, the ambient orb is a glass ball that glows in different colors depending on the data it is fed. Originally used mostly to monitor stock portfolios, it has recently been adapted to monitor energy use. As detailed in this story by Clive Thompson in Wired Magazine, people who monitor their energy use with an orb substantially decrease their use.

To be sure, there is a selection bias here. The sort of person who buys an energy-use-monitoring orb is much more likely to be interested in energy conservation than the average Joe. It’s hard to imagine Dick Cheney installing orbs in the OEOB---unless they’re programmed to monitor something else. Insert Dick Cheney joke here.

But that may just be the point. Thompson argues that most people would actually reduce their energy use if made aware of it ambiently, and he notes that data can be networked to take advantage of social pressure. More broadly, one can imagine all sorts of other public-regarding uses for ambient information. Suppose that your dashboard changed color as you drove successively faster (with wireless info telling the car what the posted speed limit is). Or imagine the power of public pressure if point sources glowed with pollution emitted. And that’s to say nothing of the public health benefits of orbs that glow for calories consumed or cigarettes smoked.

Consider this the opening salvo in the coming wave of orb-based legal scholarship!