Technology, Behaviour Control & The Removal of Freedom

You’ve probably heard of B.F.Skinner. He was an American who made some important discoveries in the 1930’s as he developed operant conditioning: in other words, how to change people’s behaviour with either reinforcement or punishment. If you haven’t heard of the man, you might still have heard of the Skinner Box (which, contrary to urban legend, he apparently didn’t place his daughter into after all…).

In many ways, those ideas and his body of work represented the spiritual forebears of today’s digital world. Particularly for the two billion Facebook users and countless Amazon customers whose daily interactions online are guided in unseen ways by the platforms they rely on for ‘entertainment’…

That superpower could be used for good (as with Number 10’s Behavioural Insights Team). Yet these vast commercial digital behemoths are financially incentivised to remain laser-focused on continually improving their ability to accurately predict your behaviour in real-time throughout each day. Because doing this enables them to serve you more profitable advertising – whilst a more positive use of the technology is left in the wake of the relentless drive towards profit.

Looking back at history, this perhaps isn’t as new a problem as it seems. Over 45 years ago, there was public outrage in the US when behaviour modification techniques, first practiced in military and government-funded institutions were applied to captive individuals who fell outside their original scope (prisoners, pyschiatric wards, classrooms and the like). Check out this quote from a report of the time referred to in Shosanna Zuboff’s latest book – it’s taken from a federal investigation into the issue (‘Individual Rights and the Federal Role in Behaviour Modification):-

“When the founding fathers established our constitutional system of government. they based it on their fundamental belief in the sanctity of the individual….They understood that self-determination is the source of individuality, and individuality is the mainstay of freedom….

“Recently, however, technology has begun to develop new methods of behaviour control capable of altering not just an individual’s actions but his very personality and manner of thinking…the behavioural technology being developed in the United States today touches upon the most basic sources of individuality and the very core of personal freedom… the most serious threat… is the power this technology gives one man to impose his views and values on another….

“Concepts of freedom, privacy and self-determination inherently conflict with programs designed to control not just physical freedom, but the source of free thoughts as well… The question becomes even more acute when these programs are conducted, as they are today, in the absence of strict controls. As disturbing as behaviour modification may be on a theoretical level, the unchecked growth of the practical technology of behaviour control is cause for even greater concern”.

The idea that such vast power could ever be in the hands of anyone other than the state was beyond comprehension at that time – let alone in the hands of such unregulated superpowers as Facebook. The impact of the surveillance capitalists is particularly scary in this context however – because the greater the extent to which others can prove to be able to manipulate and redirect your behaviour, the shakier the foundations of your freedom as an individual become.

The more these companies develop the power to control your life, the fewer options you have in practice to interact with the world that lies in front of you. This issue isn’t simply a worry about your phone being able to identify that you’ve just returned from a run and therefore likely full of positive endorphins and more likely to make an impulse purchase if the right advert is served to you in this context. It is that this desire – partially manifested today, but becoming increasingly fully established – of others to control the decisions in your day has the very tangible outcome of removing the freedom you have to define your own life.

Reason #2345 to consider #DeleteFacebook.