In Which We Simply Cannot Control Ourselves
Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 10:36AM
Alex in SCIENCE CORNER, alex carnevale

Mission Control


I am the person I'm most concerned with controlling.


B.F. Skinner was used to looking out for things that could not manage for themselves. In his laboratory, rats and pigeons remained under his watchful eye.

When his wife Yvonne gave birth to his second daughter, Deborah Skinner, he thought of ways he might better care for the girl. In his basement his built a crib enclosed completely in safety glass, replete with a thermostat. In 1945 they would name it: the Heir Conditioner.

He had noticed how hard it was for the bundled Deborah to turn over. In the Heir Conditioner Deborah could always be in a diaper, allowing for total movement within the unit. Air that entered was moistened, sound was absorbed by the walls. Because the child was totally contained in the system, General Mills feared what would happen if the climate apparatus were to fail - an overheated or frozen child. After the company passed on the Heir Conditioner, Skinner decided to publicize his invention through an article in Ladies' Home Journal entitled "Baby in a Box."

Skinner himself was not responsible for the article's title. "The word box," he later admitted, "led to countless confusion, because I had used another box in a study of operant conditioning. [They] assumed I was experimenting on our daughter as if she were a rat or a pigeon." (Years afterwards, a rival faculty member started a rumor that Skinner's daughter had committed suicide, presumably as a result of the device.) Despite the poor word of mouth, Skinner got a manufacturer interested, but because of the device's high cost (over three hundred dollars to fabricate), it was never successfully produced on any real scale.

His next project was the utopian novel titled Walden Two. The book examined how behavioral conditioning could improve American life. There is one scene from the book I have never been able to get out of my mind. Skinner imagines children sitting around a table at meal time, preparing for their food. He suggests that one set of children be served while the other half of the group watches their peers eat. In this way he planned to eliminate the concept of impatience at an early age. It seemed then, and still does appear to be, a marvelous improvement on the world. At the same time it is absolutely terrifying.

with wife Yvonne

Luddites continue to haunt our world. They romanticize not even just the past, but the very recent past, like flip phones and Technology itself contains no content, and fear of it is understandable, since it may be used for good or ill. Skinner's changes to the established way of living, harshly received as they were, possessed great utility, perhaps even more so as part of today's culture than the one that received Walden Two. Even Skinner seemed to realize this in subsequent years.

Concluding that the realization of the intentional communities he described in Walden Two was a long way off, he turned his attention to improving the academic life around him. Writing to his colleagues in the Harvard psychology department in 1955, he told them, "We do not teach; we merely create a situation in which the student must learn or be damned." The problem, as he saw it, was that "the students were not being told at once whether their work is right or wrong... and they were all moving at the same pace regardless of preparation or ability."

as a boy

To remedy this, he invented a teaching machine. "There is no reason," he wrote, "why the school room should be any less mechanized than the kitchen." Harvard officials allowed Skinner to set up his machines in the basement of Sever Hall where he might test them on students. IBM became interested in producing the device, but backed out after researching the market.

Skinner's ideas never were fully embraced by companies because he had no grasp of the capitalist mentality. Whether something could reasonably be accomplished suffered in comparison to whether it should. Skinner tried to get his devices used in Harlem middle schools, but he despised the educational experts who saw the machines as a replacement for their way of life. As computers began their ascent, he saw they heralded the natural extension of his ideas. He never learned to use one.

His next book was Beyond Freedom and Dignity. In one sense the book could not have been timed better - it led him to the cover of Time magazine. But the ideas in Beyond Freedom and Dignity entered an evolving America obsessed with the concept of freedom of body and mind. The manuscript reads like a long lecture, rarely referring to any source outside itself. "I am not a historian," Skinner wrote in a later article, "I don't remember what I read, and I keep only sketchy notes."

When Skinner found out Noam Chomsky would review Beyond Freedom and Dignity for The New York Review of Books, he blanched and exploded with rage.

He was right to fear. He learned from a friend that Chomsky described his book as "beyond bed-wetting its bullshit." Other critics found even more to dislike. Stephen Spender termed it "fascism without tears," and Ayn Rand explained that "Beyond Freedom and Dignity is like Boris Karloff's embodiment of Frankenstein's monster: a corpse patterned with nuts, bolts and screws from the junkyard of philosophy, Darwinism, Positivism, Linguistic Analysis with some nails by Hume, threads by Russell and glue from The New York Post."

When the great furor surrounding the book had died down, Skinner remained as he was before: with relatively few friends inside or outside academia. He retired and was presented with a special copy of Walden by Harvard. He focused on writing his autobiography. Split into three parts, it would span over 1300 pages, with the main goal being that he wanted "people to like me." I recommend them in their entirety; engineers have always been the best writers.

Skinner's ideas would have been received far better in this time. At his moment one could live independently from a set of common stimuli. Now we all share so many of the same experiences that we are conditioned behaviorally, but not by the altruistic benefactor that Skinner imagines in Walden Two.

Instead our enslavement is unknowing. We are devoted to the idea of freedom, not actual freedom itself. We shame individuals who do not share our views. We do not require conditioning now to become more alike; as Skinner put it, "A person is not only exposed to the contingencies that constitute a culture, he helps to maintain them, and to the extent that the contingencies induce him to do so the culture is self-perpetuating."

Skinner, and only Skinner, prepared to save us from this fate. To break this cycle we must be trained by some intelligence in the philosophy of freedom, which, as Karl Jaspers noted all those years ago, consists of knowing that a choice made now, today, projects itself backwards and changes our past actions.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He last wrote in these pages about the Chagalls. He tumbls here and twitters here.

in retirement

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yvonne checking on the baby

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