B. F. Skinner and Technology’s Nation: Technocracy, Social Engineering, and the Good Life in 20th-Century America

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Abstract

Psychologist B. F. Skinner developed and promoted a technology of behavior as the basis for widespread social reform over much of his career. In 1948, he published his behaviorally engineered vision of the good life in his utopian novel Walden Two (Skinner, 1948). Skinner’s efforts were part of a much larger social engineering tradition that received one of its fullest expressions in the Technocracy Movement of the 1930s. Fifteen years before Skinner’s Walden Two, at the height of the Technocracy Movement’s public visibility in the United States, technocrat Harold Loeb (1933/1996) published his utopia, Life in a Technocracy: What It Might Be Like. In this article, I place the socially engineered visions of the good life promoted by the Technocracy Movement and by Skinner on an intellectual and ideological continuum to amplify and explore American attitudes toward psychology, technology, and social engineering during the middle decades of the 20th century. I argue that responses to both reveal the possibilities and limits of the social engineering enterprise, and suggest that historians of technology might consider how the history of psychology and other psy-disciplines can deepen conceptualizations of the relationships among the psychological, the social, and the technological in this period.

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