Cory Doctorow on behaviorism
After bouncing off of it a year or so ago, I recently decided to restart Cory Doctorow’s novel Walkaway (which led NPR reporter Jason Sheehan to describe Doctorow as “Super-weird in the best possible way”). The audiobook is excellent, and since I started a couple of days ago, it’s displaced my podcast listening and given me another chance to wrestle with Doctorow’s ideas here.
There is way too much going on (and I’m not far enough into the book) for me to engage with the underlying message of the novel (or even to be sure of what it is yet), but one passage stood out to me so much this morning that I have to write it down now. Walkaway is too delightfully weird to be able to give an easy explanation of the context here, but the following passage comes from an argument between (one of the many) protagonist(s) Limpopo and antagonist Jackstraw. Jackstraw believes that their “walkaway” community needs to be gamified and leaderboarded to be made more efficient. Limpopo is firmly against that:
She called him on every crumb of bullshit, found crashed projects where gamification ahd run wild, so financialized that every incentive distorted into titanic frauds that literally left structures in ruins, rotten to the mortar. They were existence proof of the terribleness of his cherished ideas. She pointed out that getting humans to “dot hte right thing” by incentivizing them to vanquish one another was stupid.
And here’s the bit that really stood out to me:
She found videos of Skinner-trained pigeons who’d been taught to play piano through food-pellet training and pointed out that everyone who liked this envisioned himself as the experimenter—not the pigeon.
Doctorow is an opinionated writer (in a good way, as far as I’m concerned), but he’s gracious enough in Walkaway to wrestle with the tension between this ideal and cold, hard reality through his characters and novel. Likewise, while I’m generally skeptical of behaviorism, I’ve sometimes found it personally helpful as a self-applied technique to get me to do what I want to get done.
That said, I’m struck by this idea, that those who argue for behaviorism like to see themselves “as the experimenter—not the pigeon.” Those who develop, sell, purchase, and apply behaviorist ed tech would do well to keep this in mind. Even educational researchers, who have noble desires and would never describe themselves as behaviorists, ought to ask themselves if they’re treating learners, teachers, or other stakeholders as pigeons as they figure out which nudge, incentive, or intervention is going to improve outcomes that they care about.
- educational psychology
- Cory Doctorow
- learning theories
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