Wednesday 2 July 2008

Pigeons and Ambient Persuasion

Given an acceptance of determinism, a concern for the promotion of the good society, and a belief in the usefulness of technology, we might make an ethical argument such as follows: since everyone is determined totally by his environmental and biological conditions, such that there is no degree of autonomy for his choices outside those conditions, and since we wish for the best of all possible societies, we should engineer those conditions so that the “choices” that everyone makes are for the best. Such, in short, was the argument of B.F. Skinner.
In what we may call the pre-scientific view (and the word is not necessarily pejorative) a person’s behaviour is at least to some extent his own achievement. He is free to deliberate, decide, and act, possibly in original ways, and he is given credit for his successes and blamed for his failures. In the scientific view (and the word is not necessarily honorific) a person’s behaviour is determined by a genetic endowment traceable to the evolutionary history of the species and by the environmental circumstances to which as an individual he has been exposed. Neither view can be proved, but it is in the nature of scientific inquiry that the evidence should shift in favour of the second. As we learn more about the effects of the environment, we have less reason to attribute any part of human behaviour to an autonomous controlling agent. And the second view shows a marked advantage when we begin to do something about behaviour. Autonomous man is not easily changed; in fact, to the extent that he is autonomous, he is by definition not changeable at all. But the environment can be changed, and we are learning how to change it. The measures we use are those of physical and biological technology, but we use them in special ways to affect behaviour. [1]
Instead of leaving human behaviour at the mercy of non-directed conditions, Professor Skinner proposed that a scientific “technology of behaviour” be put in place to cultivate the beneficent conditions that would shape human behaviour.
[I]t should be possible to design a world in which behaviour likely to be punished seldom or never occurs. We try to design such a world for those who cannot solve the problem of punishment for themselves, such as babies, retardates, or psychotics, and if it could be done for everyone, much time and energy would be saved. [2]
As if to warm the bones of a dead behaviourist, there has been talk in some quarters lately about so-called ambient persuasion using ubiquitous nanocomputing. The idea is that, with the cheap manufacture of microscopic computers, there will come a time when computers are embedded in the environment all around us — in anything you care to mention: shoes, writing-paper, disposable packaging, lampposts, chairs, and so on — with a wireless network between them, and perhaps even between them and us, such that the environment can be engineered to direct human behaviour towards certain ends.
Ubiquitous interfaces, which comprise a particular class of interactive systems, have the capability to unobtrusively surround the user at any given moment and place. This enables a persuasive intervention just at the right time. [3]
The authors of the above words envisage that such technology could be used to foster behaviours conducive to health and well-being, say, in persuading someone to exercise more or smoke less. One of the key components of persuasion that the authors identify is persistence:
Persistence means that the system confronts the user with the persuasive message at several occasions whenever an opportune moment arises. [4]
If I allow myself a little imagination, I can see a world in which my desk-chair notices a trend in weight-gain, and thereupon, every time I sit upon it, it reminds me of the dangers of heart-disease and diabetes, and of the link thereto of pie- and cake-consumption. Thus, in imagining the future, I am confronted with the possibility of being nagged by my furniture.
One can easily imagine the misuse of such technology by companies, political parties, and governments, especially if it were ubiquitous, even if one does not consider its very use a misuse in the first place. In promoting his ideal, Professor Skinner was aware of this kind of objection:
The misuse of a technology of behaviour is a serious matter, but we can guard against it best by looking not at putative controllers but at the contingencies under which they control. It is not the benevolence of a controller but the contingencies under which he controls which must be examined. [5]
He was hopeful that a new “contingency” was emerging that would constitute the beneficent conditions by which the benevolence of the controllers would be determined:
It is possible . . . that we are witnessing the evolution of a true ‘forth estate’, composed of scientists, scholars, teachers, and the media. If it can remain free of governments, religions, and economic enterprises, it may provide current surrogates for the remoter consequences of our behaviour. It could be the quis that will control the controllers.
Ah, well, that’s it then — no need to worry. So long as these benevolent gods remain free from government, religion, and business, that is to say, from the very things that they are to control and even constitute, beneficence shall perhaps follow.
.....One might well wonder if so much time spent with pigeons was healthy for Professor Skinner’s mental faculties, or for his view of mankind. Still, let it be said that any misunderstanding thus gained and imparted might yet prove elemental in conditioning the useful ability to treat men like pigeons.
[1] B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (London: Penguin Books, 1988), p.20.
[2] Ibid., pp.68-9.
[3] Wolfgang Hofkirchner, Manfred Tscheligi, Robert Bichler, Wolfgang Reitberger, “Ambient Persuasion for the Good Society”, International Review of Information Ethics, Vol.8, December 2007, p.43.
[4] Ibid., pp. 43-4.
[5] B.F. Skinner, op. cit., p.179.
[6] Ibid., p.219.


Sky Captain said...

One comment, two words:
Prague Spring!

Anonymous said...

"Autonomous man is not easily changed; in fact, to the extent that he is autonomous, he is by definition not changeable at all. But the environment can be changed, and we are learning how to change it. "

This is only true if you believe that autonomous man does not respond to incentives.

And since that is obviously not true, it follows that our man is talking shite.

Is it perhaps possible that it is his environment or genes which are deficient and causing him to spout rubbish? Perhaps a change of environment might in order? Something with comfy walls?

Anonymous said...

"but it is in the nature of scientific inquiry that the evidence should shift in favour of the second[the scientific view]".

And there you have it in a nutshell. Scientists will ensure that the scientific view is vindicated. The 'Scientific Method' and the uses put to 'Occam's Razor' are all part of the same cognitive bias. Impartial and disinterested, my arse.

Deogolwulf said...

Ah, Cleanthes, but you're forgetting that our man was a behaviourist: the last thing he would deny is incentives (in purely mechanistic terms of "operant conditioning"); it is just that, being a behavourist, he wished to cut out the middleman, as it were, i.e., some kind of autonomous self or will mediating between the conditions of behaviour and the behaviour itself.

Deogolwulf said...

Prague Spring?

Deogolwulf said...

Recusant, I suppose he could have meant it in a banal sense; after all, going by the terms themselves, stripped of most connotations, I would be surprised if "scientific enquiry" did not add to the "scientific view"; but what he means depends on what he means by "scientific view", and I suspect he uses it as a synonym for the metaphysical view of materialism.

Malcolm Pollack said...

There's much to say about this, of course; there is so much fundamental philosophical confusion in this sort of Skinnerian absolutism that it is, rightly, taken seriously by nobody these days.

But for now, this:

Two behaviorists have just made love. One says to the other:

"It was great for you; how was it for me?"

Sky Captain said...

Simple Deog, 'Prague Spring' was the uprising where those who presumed to do the conditioning, namely the Communist Czech secret police, were all taken out and shot.
I'd be happy to do the same to their inheritors, from Berkeley campus to ZaNuLabour.
It won't happen. But just so they know how I 'feel'.

James Higham said...

B.F. Skinner

One of the behaviourists in the mind control vein. Wonder he wasn't charged but then again, he wouldn't be, would he?

Deogolwulf said...

Very good, Malcolm.

Anonymous said...

"a true ‘forth estate’, composed of scientists, scholars, teachers, and the media."

Dr. James Hansen, B. F. Skinner, the General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers and Mr. Kelvin McKenzie - can't wait!