Government agencies are in a similar position to benefit. I was speaking with a manager at the U.S. Department of Transportation about public transit when he mentioned that the agency is testing an app that provides local travelers with various transportation options for specific trips and that could gently reinforce decisions to use public transit by pointing out the extra calories commuters would burn by walking to the station and the carbon they’d avoid emitting by leaving their cars at home.
Of course, none of these tools would have much of a future if the public continued to harbor the kind of Big Brother paranoia that smeared Skinner’s reputation. Should we be wary of utilities that try to shift our energy use or health insurers that try to change our diets? Skinner would have celebrated these efforts, for their capacity to change society on a grand scale. But at what point does the interest of the individual diverge from the interest of corporations or the government—and will we even notice, if we’ve already surrendered all our choices to our iPhones?
The central irony of Skinner’s theory is that to control our behavior, we must accept a fundamental lack of control, acknowledging that our environment ultimately holds the reins. But an individual choosing to alter his environment to affect his behavior is one thing; a corporation or a government altering an individual’s environment to affect his behavior is another. The line between the two scenarios can blur. Nowadays most of us aren’t likely to wonder about the DOT’s motives when it urges us to take the light-rail instead of a cab. If it benefits the commuter, the government, and the environment, then what’s the problem? But the very definition of the Skinner box is that the inhabitant is not in control. In fact, he may not even know he’s in the box.