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Walden Three

clock with misordered numbers, illustration

Credit: Andrij Borys Associates, Shutterstock

When navigation programmer Burrhus Skinner returned from NASA's aborted three-year attempt to colonize the planet Mars, he faced a difficult transition. The plan had been to send a fleet of spaceships carrying supplies, equipment, and 41 people to establish the beginning of a socially and biologically perfect society. Everyone agreed to the same set of social norms, and humans would be the only living species on the red planet. Of course there could be no birds, because the atmosphere was too thin for flying, but also no mammals, reptiles, bacteria or viruses, so infectious diseases would be impossible. But equipment kept breaking down, in the worst case depriving an outpost with 13 unlucky people of electric power; five did not survive the crash of a transport, and the prime number who returned to Earth was 23. For several weeks they waited in quarantine, as germs were gently returned to their digestive systems so they could survive the biological complexity of their home world.

This gave Burrhus time to ponder what he would do next. He had not abandoned his utopian ambitions, so he naturally thought of the Walden Three experimental community set up by his crazy brother, Frederic Skinner. In preparation for visiting, he read the 1948 novel Walden Two written by their psychologist ancestor, B. F. Skinner. Then he read the 1854 memoire, Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, that was the origin of the community's name. Walden had emphasized the human experience of unity with nature during social isolation. Walden Two had argued that a group of like-minded people could voluntarily decide upon a strict set of norms, then use behavioral psychology to ensure that all members of the group followed them. In 1974, Kathleen Kinkade published A Walden Two Experiment about a very real community she helped found in 1967 that continues to thrive.


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