Tech Ethics and the New Behaviorism

Whenever the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford and its alumni come up at work, I am compelled to share the legacy and impact of the new behaviorism.

I would argue, in total seriousness, that one of the places that Skinnerism thrives today is in computing technologies, particularly in “social” technologies. This, despite the field’s insistence that its development is a result, in part, of the cognitive turn that supposedly displaced behaviorism.

B. J. Fogg and his Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford is often touted by those in Silicon Valley as one of the “innovators” in this “new” practice of building “hooks” and “nudges” into technology. These folks like to point to what’s been dubbed colloquially “The Facebook Class” – a class Fogg taught in which students like Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, the founders of Instagram, and Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked, “studied and developed the techniques to make our apps and gadgets addictive,” as Wired put it in a recent article talking about how some tech executives now suddenly realize that this might be problematic.

(It’s worth teasing out a little – but probably not in this talk, since I’ve rambled on so long already – the difference, if any, between “persuasion” and “operant conditioning” and how they imagine to leave space for freedom and dignity. Rhetorically and practically.)

—Audrey Watters

Source: Education Technology and the New Behaviorism

Via: Persuasion and Operant Conditioning: The Influence of B. F. Skinner in Big Tech and Ed-tech – Ryan Boren

Everyone in tech should read Audrey Watters to better understand our impact on the world.

Self-determination Theory > Behaviorism

I see elements of self-determination theory pop up in liberated ed, critical pedagogy, and other places where people have turned away from behaviorism. Self-determination theory is a better lens for understanding human motivation than behaviorism.

Telltales of self-determination theory are the terms autonomy, mastery, purpose, and intrinsic motivation. Daniel Pink’s pop-sci treatment of self-determination theory, “Drive”, helped popularize these terms.

Audrey Watters asks of persuasion and behavior design “how they imagine to leave space for freedom and dignity.” Self-determination theory offers that space, which is why it shows up in progressive education and neurodiversity advocacy.

Dr. Leif Singer has a great introduction to self-determination theory:

Self-determination Theory: Understanding Human Motivation for Fun and Profit

Jonathan Mooney offers an example of autonomy, mastery, purpose, and intrinsic motivation in this brilliant talk. This timestamped link should take you to the right place:

The Past Decade of Unethical and Misguided Ed-tech

Why, it’s almost as if, when it comes to education technologies, you can just say whatever you want in the marketing copy.

The role that venture philanthropy has played in attempting to reshape the American education system is near the top of this list of bad ideas.

Source: The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade

Audrey Watters’ review of the past decade of unethical and misguided ed-tech is epic and essential. Watters is a tech ethics guiding star and a great writer. Her work is necessary reading for educators and tech workers.

Behaviorism is the foundation of education technology.Resist it in all its forms.