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The Utopian World | Mitakshara Medhi

Mitakshara Medhi

Burrhus Frederic Skinner, born on 20th March 1904, was a prominent behaviourist who believed that the existence of free will is an illusion. His idea of operant conditioning postulated that behaviour is operant or dependent upon consequences. Demonstrating his ideas through his famous experiment with rats in a Skinner Box, he spoke of reinforcements and punishments as the only way to elicit behaviour. Notice that the word “idea” is used instead of ‘theory’. B.F. Skinner considered himself atheoretical and distanced himself away from “tentative statements”, willing to demonstrate everything through experiments. Based on his research work, he went on to author the famous book called Walden Two.

The name Walden Two is construed from Henry David Thoreau’s book, Walden (1854), which is an exploration of a simple lifestyle amidst nature. Walden Two essentially looks at a simplistic society without “establishments”. This society, an experiment, has no government or formal structures. There is a small group of Planners who cannot use force or violence to implement the rules. People carry on with their daily routines merely with the help of behavioural control techniques. One of the most interesting parts of the society is that there is no money, but rather some kind of points that people can exchange for leisure time. The work duration is 4 hours or less, with the rest of the days being devoted to fulfilling the “higher needs” of art, literature and leisure.

The idea is based on community based activities. There is a common dining room, common educational centre and leisure place. With a population of just 1000, crowd is avoided.

Frazier, the researcher, who is conducting the experiment in the book, explains how crowd is a tool used by established societies to give a false sense of community. According to him, it creates nothing but chaos in the long run. On being asked as to how they manage the crowd, Frazier replies that everything that generates a crowd in the first place is simply repeated in front of smaller audience till everyone has had the opportunity to witness it. These include concerts, plays and movies. As for lectures, Frazier critically points out that the traditional way of delivering lectures is as good as handing down printed notes to the students. He opines that there is not a single topic in this world that would be of interest to even two hundred people at once. Hence, there is no need of repetition of lectures. People attend whichever topic interests them the most.

The most stunning part of the book is the vivid description it provides of the orderliness of the society. The Dining hall has different décor for different parts. There are only twelve tables and chairs to avoid crowding. In case the number of people increases, a different timing to dine is chosen. The dinner plates, which are made of glass, are compartmentalized to separate the main course from the dessert. The transparent material helps the managers of the automated dishwasher operation to examine if the plates are actually clean, without having to turn them around. Frazier notes that with such a mechanism, the work is completed with less expenditure of labour on jobs that would have, otherwise, been a burden of the housewives.

This experimental society is, however, perceived differently by the different characters of the book who are on tour to experience this unique phenomenon. The reactions of the characters aptly represent the real-world critics who would have differing viewpoints about the feasibility of this mechanism. Two of the characters feel this society to suit them; one finds himself in a skeptical middle ground, while others dismiss it with dismay.

It must be understood that this book was written in 1945 (published three years later), which was the year the Second World War had ended. People all over the world were shocked at the evil that came from structures and institutions and at the possibilities of “something going wrong”, due to these establishments. This book was a response to this “disillusionment”, where an alternative society was presented, which was utopian, but nonetheless based on experiments and research. In the book, Frazier is heard stating how research continues to look at the well-being of the people. If empirical data finds that something makes an individual more happy (say, doing away with routines), it is immediately implemented.

From a personal viewpoint, if a society as Walden Two is to work, there must be an assumption that everyone fits the model of Theory Y by McGregor (1960).

People should be motivated to work, internally, without any external push. The control of behaviour is seen not through monetary compensation, but through increase in leisure time, and of course, rise in happiness.

But to put it in the present context, how many people would actually count ‘happiness’ as a tangible reward for their work?

This hypothesis of mine is debatable because we have been raised up in a completely different setting, and have never experienced a society like the one mentioned in Walden Two.

Yet, as I speak of such a society, there have been experiments such as the one named Twin Oaks in Virginia by Kathleen Kinkade, founded in 1967, specifically based on Skinner’s work. Another one closer to home, seems to slightly resemble Walden Two  – the small town of Auroville. There seems to be very few forms of establishments like religion, police, or even economic system with paper currency. Although the concept of money is not totally done away with, it surely reduces the way in which the ‘payments’ are made.

With Auroville being the centre of awe for almost everyone around the world, it would be a privilege to witness if B.F. Skinner’s ideas were indeed not as far-fetched as one would like to believe.

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