Technology and Society
April 4, 2019
I don’t know much about B.F. Skinner, and what little I know makes me uncomfortable in the way hearing about eugenics makes me queasy. Operant conditioning. Behavior modification. Ideas about science that surely we’ve left behind, though they cast their shadows on the present. So it was striking to read two books recently that refer to Skinner’s weird utopian novel, Walden Two.
Published in 1948 and popularized in the late 1960s, the novel describes an ideal commune where life is optimized for happiness and productivity. Behind the scenes, a God-like behavioral scientist sets up conditions that will improve the lives of the people in the community. The whole thing is an ongoing experiment as he constantly tunes and refines his model society based on the scientific technology of behavior.
Education comes in for thorough reform in Walden Two. No need to have curricula or faculty or credentials. No need to study the past. “History tells us nothing,” the visionary scientific leader proclaims – because it doesn’t “set up the experiment the right way.” There’s a Year Zero zeal in this vision of a society without a memory, without politics, without freedom because Skinner thought it wasn’t relevant to optimizing human happiness.
I was intrigued to learn Walden Two has a library, one vigorously weeded of useless material. As the scientific engineer of the model community puts it:
“Have you ever spent much time in a large college library? What trash the librarian has served up in order to report a million volumes in the college catalog! Bound pamphlets, old journals, ancient junk that even the shoddiest of secondhand bookstore would clear from its shelves – all saved on the flimsy pretext that some day someone will want to study they ‘history of a field.’ Here [at Walden Two] we have the heart of a great library – not much to please the scholar or specialist, perhaps, but enough to interest the intelligent reader for life. Two or three thousand volumes will do it…. we subtract from our shelves as often as we add to them. The result is a collection that never misses fire. We all get something vital every time we take a book from the shelves. If anyone wants to follow a special interest we arrange for loans. If anyone wants to browse, we have half a barn full of discarded volumes.”
It’s not clear who does this vigorous pruning of the collection, but the visitor-narrator of the novel discovers it’s extremely well-managed, later admiring “the clairvoyance with which the Walden Two librarians had collected most of the books I had always wanted to read.” Of course, it may be he has been conditioned to believe the books provided are the ones he wants to read. That seems to be how Walden Two works.
These passages can give librarians the giggles. Weeding a library can be highly contentious, though in most situations it’s a valuable practice, and yes, we hear the “someone someday” reason for keeping everything. We’re also frequently told we’re bad at curation and buy the wrong books – too many of them are rarely or never checked out. But from my quick browse of the novel, I can’t find exactly how these scientific librarians are able to develop a small collection so successfully. The science promises everything but is a bit of a black box.
And this is why suddenly an out-of-fashion utopian novel is being mentioned again. So much of tech solutionism is utopian. By adopting these innovative technologies we’ll be happier, more productive, more connected and informed. Behind the scenes in a black box the scientists run their experiments and tweak their behavioral cues. Yes, there’s something sinister about that. Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism delves into the ways tech companies perform behavior modification in a continual experiment and sees this secretive conditioning as the usurpation of freedom and a totalitarian threat. The next book I picked up was Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, which also ties Walden Two to our present predicament (and pointed me to that library passage). Silicon Valley visionaries are perfectly happy to nudge and shape us in order to own our attention. Odell points out that Peter Thiel’s interest in creating utopian societies through initiatives like the Seasteading Institute is based on a belief that freedom and democracy are incompatible, that only exceptional geniuses like him have the vision to build social machinery that will make the world a better, more efficient place.
What’s curious, though, is that the utopian ideals that our most profitable tech platforms adopt for mottos don’t have much to do with what they actually do. Their behavior modification technologies are geared not toward increasing productivity or happiness but toward snaring your attention and stirring your emotions. So while they project a smiling-but-creepy vision of a behaviorally-controlled utopia, we end up with technologies of discord, distraction, and compulsive consumption.
In the utopian community of Walden Two, the library is limited to only a few thousand of the best books, carefully selected by some higher intelligence to be just what the community needs. Facebook, Google, and Amazon didn’t go that route. Oddly enough, YouTube’s CEO defended the platform as being like a library. “There have always been controversies, if you look back at libraries,” she told South by Southwest attendees last year, as if defending Heather Has Two Mommies is just like hosting ISIS recruiting videos or live-action white supremacist violence. YouTube is the opposite of the Walden Two library – no curation, just an algorithmic promotion of “engagement” that pushes viewers to the extremes, because that’s where the money is.
I wouldn’t want to live in Walden Two, even if I trusted its scientific leadership to act on my behalf. What’s fascinating is that we live in a world shaped by the worst of Skinnerian principles – people are to be experimented on to influence their behavior without their knowledge – but with all the post-war idealism and faith in scientific advancement cast aside in favor of nothing more elevated than selling more ads and getting more clicks. Some utopia.