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on 4 December 2010
"Walden Two" is a bizarre utopian novel by the notorious behaviourist B.F. Skinner. The novel (first published in 1948) is quite seriously intended, but nevertheless comes across as an unintentional parody of social engineering. Had it been a work of considerable antiquity, I'm sure Leo Strauss and Alan Bloom would have assumed that it *is* a parody!

As classical utopian novels, "Walden Two" has no real plot. Most of the "novel" is a description of an imaginary utopian community, named Walden Two after the forest where Thoreau wrote his famous work "Walden". The similarity between Thoreau and Skinner isn't very striking, however. Walden Two may be surrounded by farmland, but it's really a large public housing complex with about 1,000 inhabitants, and obviously based on high technology. It has plans to expand and eventually take over all of the United States. Thoreau, as far as I know, mostly wanted to be left alone!

The main character of the story is Frazier, the founder of Walden Two, who guides six visitors (and the reader) through the community and explains its ideology. Another character is named Burris. Apparently this is supposed to be B.F. Skinner himself, although Frazier is probably Skinner's real alter ego. Yet another character is an unsympathetic, useless and abstract philosophy professor named Castle, who is Frazier's main protagonist and constantly questions both him and the utopian society. The four remaining characters are named Roger, Barbara, Mary and Steve.

Walden Two turns out to be a benevolent dictatorship ruled by anonymous Planners and Managers. They are not elected but appoint their own successors. The law of the community is called the Code and can be changed only be the Planners and Managers. The members of the community are not allowed to discuss any changes of the Code amongst themselves. The meaning of the Code is explained at mass meetings. There are also a kind of Sunday sermons. Children are taken from their parents immediately at birth and given a collective upbringing and education, based on (bizarre) behavioural psychology and conditioning. There is no sense of history. In fact, study of history is discouraged. Not even Frazier, who founded the community, expects to be remembered. At death, people are cremated and quietly forgotten. The important thing is the collective and the plan. Everyone in Walden Two seems to live in an eternal now.

All problems are solved by behavioural engineering. If anyone has problems with the Code, he is considered to be sick and sent to a psychologist. A group of medical doctors have complete control of nutrition, physical training and sanitation. Even the tea service is managed according to scientific principles! Despite these authoritarian features, everyone in Walden Two is happy and contended. They only work four hours per day, and spend the rest of their time playing music, watching theatre or tending the gardens.

And that, of course, is the point.

What struck me when reading "Walden Two" was Skinner's unabashed elitism. He has a kind of benevolent contempt for the common man. Anti-democratic arguments abound. Society must be rationally planned by a scientific elite steeped in behaviourism. Elections are unnecessary and "freedom" is just an illusion. The important thing is to make the common people feel happy. Of course, people have no idea how to accomplish this, and the task should therefore be left to experts. But since people will be happy-happy-happy, what grounds are there for complaints? Two of the characters, Mary and Steve, join the community almost immediately. They are real simpletons and sign up because Walden Two has a high standard of living and provides them with simple pleasures. In other words, Mary and Steve (just listen to those common names!) are symbols of the plain folk Skinner both despised and wanted to "help" with his social engineering. By contrast, the intellectual Castle turns out to be quite impossible.

Frazier openly talks about how Walden Two will eventually take over the neighbouring towns, buy up the farmers' land and force the local dealers to join "the cooperative"...or else, apparently. Frazier also reveals that all of Walden Two's inhabitants vote for the same candidates in the local elections. Both methods (economic compulsion and bloc vote) were used by Mormons to wield political power in both Nauvoo and Utah during the 19th century. Indeed, Skinner might have gotten the idea from a study of Mormon history (he mentions Joseph Smith in passing). At an even more candid moment, Frazier climbs onto a spot known as the Throne, assumes a position similar to the crucifixion, and fancies himself an equal to God and Jesus Christ! As for the inevitable parallels with Soviet Russia, Skinner's alter ego brushes them aside by accusing the Russians of not being radical enough. After all, they never abolished the family or religion.

"Walden Two" is a fascinating, bizarre and interesting example of the darker sides of social engineering. As already mentioned, it could be read as an unintentional parody. One recurring scene in the novel is a flock of sheep seemingly conditioned to stay within a moving enclosure, but actually carefully watched by a large sheepdog. The symbolism is ambiguous. I suppose it's intended as a symbol of how people behave when *not* converted to Skinner's program. However, it may just as well be seen as a symbol of Walden Two. Indeed, Castle sees it that way.

Somehow, it feels as if he has the last word.
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on 20 April 2014
Literary utopias and dystopias have always fascinated me. I had not realised that the renowned US American psychologist and behaviourist, B.F. Skinner had penned one until someone mentioned it in an aside in a recent email.

So is it great literature? No not really. Is it an easy and accessible read? Very much so.

It is an incredibly earnest work. So much so that it includes an utterly unnecessary last chapter just to make sure that you have not misinterpreted the conclusion Skinner wants and you are totally clear as to what path Skinner makes the protagonist choose at the end. At the very least the book wants you to accept that the current ways of running society are not only inefficient, and bad for human happiness, but that they could also soon lead to disaster. Principally because our access to increasingly dangerous technologies sits badly with our bad attributes. Skinner argues that this might all be sorted with a bit of better planning and some conditioning.

The form of society he suggests as an alternative isn’t that much different from a kibbutz or a similar commune structure, but how he gets to that society is a bit more worrying. Unsurprisingly for Skinner he makes use of techniques of psychological conditioning from an early age to help get there. I can see the attraction here. Given a binary choice of a society based on force, or one built on positive reinforcement it’s easy to see which is more attractive. However on this occasion the great behaviourist didn’t do enough to influence this reader to totally accept his view.

While not great literature, and it also did not completely sell me on his vision, I would still highly rate the book. It does challenge you. it does give you even more of an insight into the ingrained anti big government gut instinct of many Americans, whether from left or right, and it’s made me want to expand my reading and now seek out Thoreau’s original "Walden".
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on 28 July 2004
this is a must have for the book shelf of anyone interested in the works of B.F. Skinner. It effectively provides a fictional micro-example of the better world Skinner envisages and proposes in 'Beyond Freedoom and Dignity (some 24 years later).
anyone who ever believed that Skinners ideas were dangerous or facistic should read this book and they will be suprised at the forward thinking (it was published in 1948) displayed with regards to distribution of wealth and power, gender equality and the use of state sanction punishment or contrived competition as a means of control (Skinner is especially critical of these last two). In may ways Skinners Utopia is more left wing than right wing, as he was often wrongly and maliciously accused of being (by Chomsky among others).
While not being the best piece of fictional literature published ,it is still, nevertheless an enjoyable read and a worthwhile introduction or companian to the more scientific or accademic works of Skinner.
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on 30 April 1998
Skinner describes an interesting scientific approach toward an utopian society. The only problem is that he barely brushes over the issue of external interdiction by the powers-that-be (the federal government) into the utopia's affairs. History has shown us that the forces of state capitalism don't like the examples places like "Walden Two" set, for they point out the serious shortcomings of "normal" society. But quite pragmatical in most all other respects.
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on 14 June 2006
Utopian fiction is difficult to get right: after all, how do you make a compelling story out of something where nothing goes wrong? Aldous Huxley tried to solve the problem by creating an external threat, with mixed results. With Walden Two, Skinner sets up a narrator who is viewing the utopia and may be tempted to join. And strangely, the founder of Walden Two is presented as quite dislikable.

The result is not compelling reading, but surprisingly good considering that Skinner wasn't a fiction writer by trade, and knocked this off in two months. What it is, is interesting. It poses a number of questions and suggestions about how life might be made better.

Sadly, the most thought-provoking section comes barely 60 pages from the end of the book, by which time many readers will have given up, and challenges you to think about how valuable our 'democratic system' really is. It's such a fundamental value in our society that it's quite healthy to question it, if not reject it.

The other value of this book is in promoting the concept of positive reinforcement that Skinner is famous for, and that can only be a good thing when the alternatives are force or threat of force. But it'll be some time yet before our culture is so completely transformed as to produce something like the lives described here.
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on 10 April 2009
I read this book to learn more about behaviourism. At a novel written by the creator of operant conditioning, it does well to illustrate Skinner's ideas of a perfect world conditioned by sceince and behavioural engineering in particular. Some might find it boring so I wouldn't suggest reading it unless you are interested in utopia and behaviourism.
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on 22 May 2011
Skinner's preface to the renewed 1975 version was excellent and says a lot that we all need to think about in today's calamitous world. However, I felt that his description of the community would have been better as a simple theoretical description with a few real life examples of how his theoretical community would really work in practice. Presented as a story with characters did not quite add up when compared to today's reality. Stil, it did get better towards the end and I would recommend anybody thinking about how to live with less government to make it to the end and add several of the points to their thoughts for the future.

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on 14 July 2008
I doubt that many can read this book and theirr opinions remain exactly the same: even if you disagree with what Skinner proposes, your own opinions on life, interacting with others, social order, politics will be made stonger by being questioned and attacked! Which is great!

Although the protagonist and his companions who visit Walden 2 in the book questions things there, it remains for the reader to criticise what is proposed and not get carried along too much with Skinners carefully constructed argument.

I saw that a fellow amazon reader said that only towards the end of the book do things get truly interesting, which I disagree with, but I do know what he means. In fact Skinner is introducing us to his ideas incementally, gradually though the book, as any good behaviouralist would do hehe! This is to be applauded as it works well with intoducing new ideas in books as well!


As the book nears the endm I found myself asking, before the book does, is this book an ad for communism? It really does seem to be and although Russia is criticised on 4 issues, Skinner seems to pay too little attention to the flaws exemplified in all communist countries. I would have been very pleased for these to be discussed more as they are the make or break of this whole proposal. Human greed. Corruption. Self esteem. Such things.

As my parents and many friends of our family have lived in pre-freedom communist eastern europe I have some understanding of the practical faliures.

Unfortunatley for Skinner, he does not have a real example to hold up, as a scientist would need to, whereas the best democracies seem to be more easy to live in that the best communist countries. Neither has been executed "perfectly" but this is reality.

Not to say Walden Two is just about democracy Vs communism, there is plenty of food for thought on many other topics in there and I would definetley advise reading it if you have no interest in politics, as it is really just about lifing better and highlights things that may be wrong in all of our lives, or need more balancing.
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on 25 October 2007
Experiment. Vary conditions. Collect and share results. Raise concerns. Avoid arguments over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

These are the ways of a scientist and ways that Skinner suggested we all consider using.

Somehow this guy who worked with rats had other interests and other ways of sharing his concerns. "Walden Two" is one of them.

It's not "The Sheltering Sky" but, compared to what I could do, it's awfully well written. It's not the final answer on how folks should live together or even that much of a start - but it is a start and an invitation to all of us to consider how we can improve our conditions.

Even in "Beyond Freedomn And Dignity", Skinner didn't have many answers as to how culture could be designed for the better. But he did have the realization that we ought have to start somewhere. He also had worked on a technology that he expected others would improve on that might help us live more sensibly.

"Walden Two" provides an intimate glimpse into Skinner's world. I may not want to live there, at least for long, but I respect Skinner's efforts to make me think about what I can do to improve my living conditions.

Behaviorism may be limited but it can be effective, more than arguing over angels on pins. Small visible steps may be the best steps; small acquisitions of tested knowledge may lead farther than pompous rants or deep meditations.

Reading "Walden Two" is a good small step. A good step after that would be to learn about Los Horcones, a remarkable community in Mexico that, like Walden Two, applies behavioral science to design its culture. Los Horcones calls itself a Walden Two community, not because it imitates what's in the novel but because it also applies Radical Behaviorism. Skinner never intended that Walden Two remain just a book.
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on 12 January 2015
Great book. Thanks :-)
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