By Letter to the Editor on December 9, 2018.
In high school I remember learning about Burrhus Frederic Skinner. We made jokes about him and thought we were cool. My buddy used to call everybody “Skinner” and we’d laugh and laugh.
Only it’s no joke. With his Skinner box, B.F. Skinner released operant conditioning into the wild – stimulus and response, reinforcement or punishment. Like all science, its morality is entirely dependent on its application. Nuclear fission can be used to power civilization or it can be used to destroy it.
Cellphones have become the pre-eminent Skinnerian delivery system, replacing television. I don’t own a cellphone, and, barring a radical change in my circumstances, never will. No Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter – none of it. It’s not that I’m a Luddite; I’m just not interested in a society where everything is designed to be consumed and discarded. All of it pushed on the public through constant conditioning – stimulus and response, reinforcement or punishment. Everyone trudges along looking down, searching for fulfilment in a hand-held display, wondering why they’re stressed and depressed. As Oscar Wilde said, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
What happens when expectations run headlong into reality and people realize they’ll never lead the life they see playing out in the palm of their hand? Perfect plastic Barbies and Kens, cosmetically sculpted and coiffed, living the dolce vita made reality through the magic of marketing. Maybe the woke radicalize and protest that which they identify as the problem; maybe retreat into drug, alcohol or other addictions; possibly identify with a cause and seek meaning that way; or go to a foreign country and join a terrorist organization. Or maybe something more final: A CDC report released at the end of November reveals, while the top four causes of death have declined, the suicide rate has increased 33 per cent since 1999.
The thing is: It’s not a conspiracy and no one’s to blame. Again, science is amoral. Each and every one of us decides its morality based on the way we use it. I find it best to be lucid about a particular technology’s benefits and dangers. Semiconductors and digital technology have brought a great deal of good, allowed even the lowliest of us to access information and entertainment, but danger piggybacks astride these technologies in the form of stimulus and response, reinforcement or punishment.
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