Behaviorist Theory of Information

In his book Infocracy, Byung-Chun Han writes about–and criticizes–the Behaviorist theory of information. Byung-Chun calls the proponents of this theory “dataist”.

“Dataist” think that digitalization creates more information than any discursive framework can handle, so much that it inhibits rational discourse. Discourse becomes, in the view of the dataist, a slow and inefficient way of processing information. They propose to use big data and AI to view society in all its complexity and find “solutions to the problems and conflicts of a society that is understood as a predictable social system.

These solutions are seen as beneficial to all members of society, who, because of their limited information-processing capacities, would not be able to find these solutions themselves. Big data and artificial intelligence, therefore, make more intelligent, even more rational, decisions than humans, who have a limited ability to process large quantities of information1.”

Dataist discard the idea of the free, autonomous individual. “As behaviorists, they are convinced that an individual’s behavior can be precisely predicted and controlled. Total knowledge renders the freedom of the individual obsolete2.”

A consequence of this worldview is the need to access as much data as possible about individuals and society as a whole, so systems can be devised to make better decisions. Byung-Chun quotes Alex Pentland, Director of the Human Dynamics Lab at MIT:

The main barriers to achieving these goals are privacy concerns and the fact that we don’t yet have any consensus around the trade-offs between personal and social values. We cannot ignore the public goods that such a sensory system could provide. Hundreds of millions of people could die in the next flu pandemic, and it appears that we now have the means to contain such disasters. Similarly, we are able not only to reduce energy use in cities dramatically, but … we can even shape cities and communities to both reduce crime and at the same time promote greater productivity and creative output3.

* * *

I’m all in favor of using technology to solve problems where it applies. But while reading about dataist, I couldn’t help but remember what Steven Pinker says: “there is a technical term for people who believe that little boys and little girls are born indistinguishable and are molded into their natures by parental socialization. The term is ‘childless.’”

I’m sure there is a lot that I don’t understand about what dataist propose. I’m also sure there are brilliant people that adhere to the behaviorist theory of information or one of its variants. However, as many people who must make decisions every day can testify, when we have to solve problems in the realm of the chaotic4, of the “unknown unknowns”, the main difficulty is not lack of information, but the fact that cause and effect are unclear.

The belief that human behavior can be precisely predicted and controlled doesn’t take into account that human decisions cannot be explained only by data or approached as the most efficient solution to a situation. Take, for example, empathy or compassion. Also, let’s not forget that History has a long track record of where proposals “for the greater good” at the cost of individual freedom can lead.

  1. cfr. Byung-Chun Han, Infocracy, p. 37 ↩︎

  2. Idem, p. 40 ↩︎

  3. cfr Alex Pentland, Social Physics: How Social Networks Can Make Us Smarter, London: Penguin, 2015 ↩︎

  4. Borrowing terminology from the Cynefin framework↩︎

behaviorist theory of information Alex Pentland Byung-Chun Hun

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