26 April 2009

I can has freedom and dignity?

A while ago a good soul sent me a copy of B.F. Skinner's 1971 book 'Beyond Freedom and Dignity'. Would, he asked me, the book, in particular the chapter entitled 'The Design of a Culture', be relevant to someone developing a device like the iPlant? In case you're interested, and because I'm unlikely to write a review of the book, here's what I replied:

It's very relevant. The tricky thing with the iPlant is that it's hard to imagine what society would end up looking like if a powerful behavioural technology was in widespread use. I've tried to imagine how people might use it to overcome health problems and contribute to scientific research, but the applications are truly endless (and some are disturbingly bleak). This makes people resist the development of iPlants and makes it difficult to formulate policy and legal safety-nets. This book may be the first I've read that's truly ambitious in thinking about making behaviour more effective and better controlled. It articulates an overarching goal: making people more and more influenced by the long-term consequences of their behaviour and the evolution of their society. It articulates and responds to objections regarding de-humanization and abuse. All this is very relevant to thinking about future behavioural technologies like the iPlant. I guess I wish Skinner would have included a chapter describing in detail which behaviourist practises he personally thought society should adopt, how we should go about adopting them (including how to deal with the backlash when traditions are challenged) and what society would or could look like once we had adopted them. Does he spell this out in detail somewhere else? Walden Two maybe? I'm also curious what the critics said about this book in particular (not, as you say, the partisan bickering around behaviourist science as such).

Thanks again
Chris


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