How we all got trapped in a Skinner Box

Sigmund Freud may be the most famous psychologist of the 20th century, but his legacy has nothing on that of B.F. Skinner. Step into your TARDIS or Delorean, travel back to 1950 and bring the then forty-six year old behaviorist to 2017, and much about our world would not only seem familiar to Skinner, he likely would realized how much his work had helped build it. Put a smartphone in his hand and let him play around for  awhile, then afterwards inform him that not only was the device not a toy, but that we were utterly dependent upon it, and the epiphany would no doubt come to him that all of us were now living in sort of globe-sized Skinner box.

Invented around 1930, an operant conditioning chamber, or a Skinner Box, is a cage in which an animal is trained via regular rewards and punishments to exhibit some targeted behavior. To Skinner it offered empirical demonstration that animals (including humans) lacked free will. For him and many of his fellow behaviorists, our sense of freedom, even consciousness itself, is an elaborate, psychological illusion. All of us are mere puppets of our environment.

Skinner wasn’t one for humility. He thought he had stumbled upon the true and final keys for controlling human behavior. Given this he felt the keys might fall into the wrong hands- communists, fascists, or advertisers for cola or face creams . In 1948 he published his utopian novel Walden Two (Thoreau would not have appreciate the homage). It depicted a “paradise” designed from above where only its architect was what we should recognize as free. It’s perhaps closer to the world we are living in than any of the dystopian-utopias written during the same period, even Orwell’s 1984 (also written in 1948), or Huxley’s Brave New World (1931).

The novel tells the story of a psychology professor Burris and a philosophy professor- Castle who along with a handful of Burris’ students, and their girlfriends, visit a utopian community named Walden Two established over a decade earlier by a colleague of Burris- T. E. Frazier.

The novel is all very 1940’s, filled with cigarettes and sexual innuendo, minus the sex. The book has the feel of Mad Men, and for someone who doesn’t believe in interiority, Skinner is surprisingly good as a novelist, even if predictably didactic.

In Walden Two you can find utopian tropes common since Plato invented the genre- the abolition of the family and at least some degree of equal property. What makes the book distinct and relevant to today is that Skinner’s novel imagines an entire society built around operant conditioning. It’s a society that shares some remarkable resemblances to our own.

Walden Two is a community where its inhabitants, gleefully “never have to go out of doors at all” (20 ). Designed on the basis of the maximally efficient use of space and time,  large-scale universally shared activities have been supplanted by the niche interests of individuals. Lack of mass interest in shared culture also translates into a lack of knowledge or involvement in areas of common responsibility and concern-  that is, politics.  Most people according to Frazier the utopia’s designer “want to be free of the responsibility of planning.” (154)

Walden Two’s efficiency has allowed it to reduce work hours to no more than four-hours per day. Housework has been commodified, and mass education replaced by individualized instruction that focuses on the student’s unique skills and interests. Mid-20th century sexual puritanism, especially for teenagers, has been supplanted by open sexuality and (writing twelve years before the introduction of oral contraceptives), biological parenthood (parenting itself being provided by the community) pushed back into ages ranging from the late teens to the early twenties.

Much of this readers will either find attractive or, seem more familiar to us in 2017 than it would to anyone in 1948. Yet it’s the darker side of Skinner’s vision that should concern us because he was perhaps even more prescient there.

Inhabitants of Walden Two still engage in the electoral politics of the outside world, they just do so at the direction of the community’s planners. The ultimate object is to spread their model from one city to the next- a kind of mondialist revolution.

In Walden Two it’s not merely that individuals have absconded political responsibility to experts out of lack of interest, it’s that they’ve surrendered all control over their environment to those who write and manage what Skinner calls the “Code” under which they live. An individual may lodge an objection to some particular aspect of the Code “…but in no case must he argue about the Code with the members at large.” (152)

Indeed, it’s not so much that the common individual is barred from challenging the Code that renders her essentially powerless in Walden Two it’s that the Code itself is deliberately obscured to those who live under it. As Frazier states it: “We deliberately conceal the planning and managerial machinery to further the same end.” (220)

Although Skinner justifies this opacity on the grounds that it promotes a sense of equality, in combining it with a deliberate inattention to history (justified on the same grounds) he ends up robbing the inhabitants of Walden Two of any alternative to the system under which they live, the very purpose that, as pointed out by the historian Yuval Harari, the study of history serves.

The purpose of Skinner’s Walden Two is to promote human happiness, but its design is one that, as his fictional stand-in Frazier openly admits, will only work if humans are no more free than a clockwork orange.

“My answer is simple enough”, said Frazier, “I deny that freedom exists at all. I must deny it- or my program would be absurd. You can’t have a science about a subject matter which hops capriciously about. Perhaps we can never prove that man isn’t free; it’s an assumption. But the increasing success of the science of behavior makes it more and more plausible. “ (257)

The world of Walden Two presents itself as one which is no longer concerned with the human-all-too-human desire for power. Yet the character who actually wields power in Walden, that is Frazier, is presented as almost manic in his sense of self- believing he has obtained the status of what in reality is an atrophied idea of God.

“Of course, I’m not indifferent to power! Frazier said hotly. “And I like to play God! Who wouldn’t under the circumstances? After all, man, even Jesus Christ thought he was God!” (281)

Perhaps Skinner’s real motive was sheer will to power masked by altruism, as it so often is.  Still, he gives some indication that his actual motivation was that the science his studies of pigeons and rats trapped in boxes, along with the susceptibility of “mass man” to propaganda as evidenced by the Nazis and the Soviets (along with liberal states at war), had proven human freedom a lie. Those in possession of even primitive versions of his science of human behavior were the true puppet masters capable of exercising control.  The future, for Skinner, if not populated by Waldens, would be dominated by totalitarian states or ad men.

Yet the powers offered by behaviorism ended up being much less potent than Skinner imagined, which is not to say, for limited purposes, that they didn’t work. Once totalitarian states passed from the scene the main proponents of behaviorism outside of psychology departments indeed did become ad men along with the politicians who came to copy their methods.

Manufactured behavioral addiction has become the modus operandi of late capitalism. As Natasha Dow Schüll points out in her book Addiction by Design about machine gambling, a huge amount of scientific research goes into designing machines, which optimize user addiction. Whole conferences are held to hawk these sophisticated slot machines while state revenue becomes ever more dependent on such predatory economics.

Now we all carry additive by design machines in our pockets. Software is deliberately designed for the kinds of positive reinforcement Skinner would easily recognize.  It’s a world where everything is being gamified. As Adam Alter writes in his book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked:

A like on Facebook and Instagram strikes one of those notes, as does the reward of completing a World of Warcraft mission, or seeing one of your tweets shared by hundreds of Twitter users. The people who create and refine tech, games, and interactive experiences are very good at what they do. They run hundreds of tests with thousands of users to learn which tweaks works and which don’t- which background colors, fonts, and audio tones maximize engagement and  minimize frustration. As an experience evolves, it becomes an irresistible, weaponized version of what it once was. In 2004, Facebook was fun, in 2016, it’s addictive. (5)

We are the inheritors of a darker version of Skinner’s freedomless world- though by far not the darkest. Yet even should we get the beneficent paternalism contemporary Skinnerites- such as Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein who wish to “nudge” us this -way -and-that, it would harm freedom not so much by proving that our decisions are indeed in large measure determined by our environment as from the fact that the shape of that environment would be in the hands of someone other than ourselves, individually and collectively.

The man who wrote the most powerful work against behaviorism ever written, A clockwork orange, Anthony Burgess wrote this about even behaviorism of  even the best kind:

One may take the principle of evil as applying in areas of conduct where the destruction of an organism is not intended. It is wrong to push drugs among children, but few would deny that it is also evil: the capacity of an organism for self-determination is being impaired. Maiming is evil. Acts of aggression are evil, though we are inclined to find mitigating factors in the hot spirit of revenge (“a kind of wild justice,” said Francis Bacon) or in the desire to protect others from expected, if not always fulfilled, acts of violence. We all hold in our imaginations or memories certain images of evil in which there is no breath of mitigation—four grinning youths torturing an animal, a gang rape, cold-blooded vandalism. It would seem that enforced conditioning of a mind, however good the social intention, has to be evil.

It’s an observation that remains true, and increasingly relevant, today.

John Gray and the Puppets of Gloom

Javanese shadow puppets

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about puppets. I know that sounds way too paleo-tech, and weird, but hear me out. Puppets are an ancient technology, which, for all the millennia that passed before, and up until very, very recently, were the primary way we experienced animated art. For the vast majority of human history the way we watched projected figures in front of us playing out some imagined drama was in the form of shadows cast on the walls.

In such shadows were the forerunner of movies, and television, videogames and VR. And if you don’t think a similar artistry and brilliance to these newer medium can be found in ancient marionettes you should take a peek at the beautiful, bizarre world conjured up by the Javanese who with their long tradition continue to do shadow theater best.

Puppets have also been the jumping off point for some very deep philosophical reflections. What, after all, was the inspiration for the analogy of Plato’s cave than the world of the shadow play? Just a little over two centuries ago there was Heinrich von Kleist’s short story  “On the Marionette Theatre” that used the art of puppetry as a means of reflecting on human freedom and the difference between us, animals and machines. Philosophers can do a lot with puppets, or at least try to.

Thus when I heard that the philosopher John Gray had written a recent book whose starting point was Kleist’s short story- Gray’s The Soul of a Marionette–  I felt compelled to pick it up. I was ready to kick myself for not having realized first that Kleist’s story was an excellent way to address contemporary questions such as the difference between human and artificial intelligence or perhaps the challenges brought upon common notions of freedom in the light of recent neuroscience.

As I am not alone in seeing, rather than diminishing in importance as we have developed new and superior forms of entertainment a grasp of the ancient art puppetry might be a key to understanding our own confusing age. For it seems that we are entering a golden age of puppetry in which humans are the puppeteers of all sorts of semi-autonomous machines from drones to artificial prostitutes. A fate that seems much more likely over the next few decades than the kinds of looming full machine autonomy predicted (and feared) by many today.

The specter of the marionette can also be seen in the quite legitimate fear that some of the recent advances in neuroscience could possibly be used not only to infringe on the autonomy of animals, but on human beings as well.

In other words, I had high hopes for The Soul of a Marionette given that its jumping off point for discussing the modern world was Kleist’s brilliant 1810 story and essay on the philosophy of puppetry, but it seems I didn’t deserve a kick after all, for these hopes were dashed when I discovered Gray was merely using Kleist’s tale (and his entire book) as a prop for his otherwise stale, endless argument with liberals and “utopians”. Allow me to do in my own limited way what Gray should have done, but did not and for that those unaware will need to first hear Kleist’s tale.

It’s impossible to capture the genius of Kleist’s bizarre yet brilliant short story, but I will try nonetheless. Ostensibly it is the story of a man who encounters a famed dancer/choreographer named Herr C, attending a marionette show. This becomes the setting for what is really a philosophical discussion about how thought and free will often interfere with the ability of human individuals to effectively act- a theme which Kleist also explored in his essay On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking.

Any of us who have played a sport, given an impromptu speech, or even planted a kiss know precisely what Kleist is talking about. Consciousness, once one gets past the initial point of learning something, can actually trip us up. Herr C compares for the inquiring man clumsy human dancers with the grace of marionettes free of the limitations imposed by gravity and self-doubting minds.  The inquisitor himself recalls how with a mere joke he had inadvertently destroyed the unreflective confidence of a friend, which prompts Herr C to tell  a story illustrating how much better the natural skills of a bear are than even the most well trained human fencer. After which the two men end their conversation.

Such a story would mean little, especially for us two centuries later, had Kleist not put into the mouth of his Herr C within this dialogue what amount to philosophical and even religious speculation pregnant with connections, especially for today, and specifically in light of recent advances in artificial intelligence.

At one point in their discussion, the man inquiring of Herr C compares the marionettes to mere machines like a “hurdy gurdy” much unlike real human dancers. Herr C does indeed believe “that this final trace of the intellect could eventually be removed from the marionettes, so that their dance could pass entirely over into the world of the mechanical and be operated by means of a handle”. Yet rather than this reflecting a diminished judgement of the marionette’s visa-via human dancers, Herr C believes full artificiality and automatism to be their great virtues:

He smiled and replied that he dared to venture that a marionette constructed by a craftsman according to his requirements could perform a dance that neither he nor any other outstanding dancer of his time, not even Vestris himself, could equal. Have you, he asked while I gazed thoughtfully at the ground, ever heard of those mechanical legs that English craftsmen manufacture for unfortunate people who have lost their own limbs? I replied that I had never seen such artifacts. That’s a shame, he replied, for when I tell you that these unfortunate people are able to dance with the use of them, you most certainly will not believe me. What do I mean by using the word dance? The span of their movements is quite limited, but those movements of which they are capable are accomplished with a composure, lightness, and grace that would amaze any sensitive observer.

Here Kleist, at the very least, opens up not only the possibility that a machine constructed by a craftsman according to some specifications would be better than a human being, but also that human beings with mechanical parts would be superior to mere biological humans. In the story when the interrogator of Herr C questions this assertion that machines could potentially be superior to human beings the choreographer/philosopher responds with the assertion that:

….it would be almost impossible for a man to attain even an approximation of a mechanical being. In such a realm only a God could measure up to this matter, and this is the point where both ends of the circular world would join one another.

For Herr C, human beings were trapped between the infinite consciousness of God and the freedom from consciousness of machines. Getting free from this trap would entail eating again from the “tree of knowledge” and this would be “the last chapter of the history of the world.”

Now Kleist, of course, had no intention of addressing what we would consider questions regarding artificial intelligence, yet given developments in that field of late, one can’t help but be struck (at least if you’re not Gray) by the fact that “On the Marionette Theatre” seems to touch on current issues such as, what Yuval Harari brilliantly characterized as the “decoupling of intelligence from consciousness”. Like the marionettes patiently observed by Herr C, at least in some formerly human endeavors- such as playing chess– machines with intelligence, but no consciousness at all can outperform us. Indeed, this is the big surprise of recent gains in the ability of AI- we can get very close to smart and even superior behavior without any need for general intelligence let alone consciousness.

There are many places where Gray might have leveraged Kleist’s strange tale from addressing what such a decoupling means for the whole Western philosophical tradition, which began, after all, with the injunction “know thy self” to wrestling with claims that AI as currently constructed manifests intelligence more akin to puppet show illusions like the old Mechanical Turk than the intellect of a mind. Nor does Gray really extend Kleist’s analogy to interrogate how we, both voluntarily and involuntarily, seem hell bent on turning ourselves into a version of automata through technologies of micro-surveillance for the purpose of self-control and efficiency, or how this connects to the project of much of philosophy itself.

Gray might also have discussed how the problem with the version of marionette freedom proposed by Herr C was that it appears to be blind to the dictatorship of the puppeteer who continues to exist behind the scenes. To recognize and take steps to counter this is the first step towards ensuring technology actually does enhance human freedom, especially as that technology becomes merged with the body and brain themselves and subject to outside control.

These problems with The Soul of a Marionette stem largely from the fact that the book is ultimately the right weapon used to hit the wrong target. Although on the surface it appears that Gray is out to philosophically grapple with our current technological trajectory in light of our ancient human condition his real target is Steven Pinker and his exhausting band of optimists.

The Soul of a Marionette, I think rightly, makes the case that the philosophy behind much of modern technology is a modern form of Gnosticism. In this case Gnosticism means the belief that the world is somehow ill constructed and that through our knowledge and efforts we can fix it. But rather than make the case for this technological version of Gnosticism– ala Steve Fuller, or use such a recognition as the basis for a critique as does Luciano Floridi, Gray sidesteps the issue to make a rather weak case against common notions of “progress”.

It is indeed true that those who insist upon perpetual human progress share the same intellectual roots as those claiming we are rapidly approaching a technological singularity- most importantly both emerge out of “the death of God” in the 19th century which resulted in human beings assuming responsibility for both their own knowledge and fate, and we have been grappling with this new responsibility ever since.

Gray essentially adopts the old trope that while we have advanced technologically we have not advanced in our morality or our wisdom. At the same time, Gray essentially accepts the destination predicted by singularitarians- that human beings will be supplanted by artificial intelligence. What distinguishes him from figures like Ray Kurzweil is that Gray wants to make it clear that the coming “spiritual machines” will carry forward our same moral flaws as human beings, which, contrary to Pinker and his ilk, we have retained.

The first problem here is that any suggestion that moral progress (or even technological progress) is or is not perpetual remains mere speculation- it’s not really an answerable question. The second and bigger problem for Gray’s case is that in failing to acknowledge singularitarian technological projections as a political project Gray essentially severs our ability to influence how technological development unfolds- that is to define its moral and ethical dimension. By failing to keep in view the still very real and relevant human beings (moral and immoral) behind our intelligent machines he obscures the essential political and economic questions in his cloud of existential gloom.

Gray would like us to abandon whatever freedom we have left to join him in some stoic version“of the inward variety prized by the ancient world” (162). He is certainly premature in urging our retreat into the desert. Following him would only accelerate the very unraveling of our moral progress that he predicts. To step aside and let the the very real political and moral gains we have made over the last few centuries disappear would not be forgiven by our descendants, unless that is, they really have become soulless marionettes.