Our move to this hamlet, hugging the Hudson, happened quicker than what we were ready for. With the outcome that I didn’t take to the change of settling down in a new place all too well.
And it was in those difficult days that I began reading B.F. Skinner’s “Walden Two,” half-expecting it to have some wondrous elements of science-fiction—flying cars, moving sidewalks, dinners that pop out at the push of a button—to put my mind in a better frame. But far from having these thrills, the novel is more along the lines of a monograph on “behavioral engineering” that reads like a cross between Thomas Moore’s “Utopia” and Plato’s “Republic.”
Passage after passage of debate between two men at opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum—one, an advocate of pure science; another, of pure arts—makes for a monotonous, plodding read. But if one can sit through the dense dialogue, there are some mind-blowing postulates to be found at the end of it. One of which is that god is a behavioral engineer, of sorts.
Walden Two is a utopian community of some 1,000, in the middle of civilization. Its founder, T. E. Frazier, bins the philosophy that humans are innately good or innately evil and puts his faith in the power of science to regulate human behavior. They can, he reckons, be made good or bad; smart or stupid by changing the environment in which they grow.
This stems from his assumption that events in our lives fall under three tabs. To some, we’re indifferent. Others, we like and take steps to make them happen again. There are still others that we don’t like and take steps to keep them from happening in the future.
It follows then, that our habits and actions can be altered by agents external to us. And that power to direct our behavior or the stream of events in our lives is called “control.” Control, as commonly understood, has a negative connotation.
But the nature of the control that shapes the lives of the members of Walden Two has nothing to do with “force” or the “threat of force.” No one there is meted punishment or imposed a penalty or put in prison or exposed to pain. Nor do those in charge tweak peoples’ behavior directly, telling them what to do or not to do.
All they do is gently nudge their activities along a path that meets the Walden Two rules of conduct by creating conditions that they’ll either like or by removing those that they’ll not like. Doing so, they deem, increases their chances of repeating a particular behavior, a.k.a. “positive reinforcement.”
On the other hand, the society we live in is chiefly, governed by the school of “negative reinforcement,” which holds the reverse to be true. It supposes that by setting up a condition a person doesn’t like, such as being reprimanded for a wrongdoing, fired from a job, slapped with a fine, or put in handcuffs, it’s possible to change his or her errant ways.
Benevolent as the control at Walden Two is, its residents are robbed of the very essence of what makes us human, the ability to choose between different possible courses of action. The loss of “free will” is the greatest downside of the program at Walden Two.
But is it so very different from our own society? The notion of human freedom, Skinner reasons, is essentially illusory. Everything that happens in our world is outlined in a blueprint. Yet, at every stage, the individual seems to think that he or she is making choices.
“The same is true of Walden Two. [Its] members are always doing what they want to do—what they “choose” to do.” In reality, though, the managers see to it that they want to do only those things, which are in their own best interest as well as that of the entire group. Their comportment, therefore, is both determined and born out of free will. Paradoxically, though, they feel freer than we do—only because they’re doing what they want to do, not what they’re forced to do.
In a bombshell climax, the book pulls away from science and cultural technology and takes a turn toward religious cosmology. Frazier—who sees a curious parallel between himself and god—declares that in many ways, the establishment of Walden Two is closer in spirit to the creation of Earth as described in the Bible—that is, per a plan. Only his is the better plan. “The evolution of human intelligence may not have been deliberately planned. Perhaps we are merely reading a plan into the world after the fact. But Walden Two was planned in advance pretty much as it turned out to be.”
Walden Two operates harmoniously—as “heaven on Earth”—because its members willingly submit to being turned into the psychological equivalent of a G.M.O. product. If they’re not being fed mind-altering drugs, then the only other explanation for their cooperation is that they’re conforming out of loyalty to a hero or a ruthless despot. But Walden Two, surprisingly, has neither. In fact, no one even so much as recognizes its creator, even though he lives and walks in their midst.
A truly leaderless polity, its governance is carried out efficiently, silently, and invisibly by a bunch of men and women, some in charge of making policies; some in charge of running the day-to-day operations of the various divisions of Walden Two—but whose names only a handful know.
It surely doesn’t sound like any other place that we know of.