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Looking Forward to a Brave New World? Beware the People Shapers, Warns Vance Packard

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Since The Hidden Persuaders in 1957 first brought subliminal advertising to public attention, Vance Packard has written several best-sellers on trends in American society (The Status Seekers, The Waste Makers, The Naked Society, A Nation of Strangers, among others). The books have made him one of the country’s most influential social critics. In The People Shapers (Little, Brown, $12.50), to be published next month, Packard delves into scientific methods for manipulating man—from behavior modification to genetic engineering. A native of Pennsylvania, Packard, 63, earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia in 1937 and wrote for such magazines as Collier’s and LIFE before Persuaders. Packard and his artist wife of 39 years, Virginia, divide their time among homes in Mexico, Connecticut and on Martha’s Vineyard. They have three grown children and one granddaughter. At his house on the Vineyard beach, Packard discussed his newest book with Christopher P. Andersen of PEOPLE.

Who are the people shapers?

The scientists and technologists who are experimenting with new ways to reshape and control man. They draw primarily upon discoveries in the behavioral, biological and computer sciences. As B. F. Skinner said, “We have not yet seen what man can make of man.” Well, now a lot of people are trying to mold our actions, moods, wishes and thoughts. The results may force us to alter our concepts of what it is to be a human being. The ascent of man as described by Jacob Bronowski covered tens of thousands of years. The reshaping of man now under way can occur within a few decades. Some of the projects are simply intriguing. Many are disturbing. Some make your skin crawl.

Such as?

There are plans afoot in some circles to keep people under surveillance by locking transmitters to their bodies, to create subhumans for menial work and as a source of spare parts for human bodies, and to pacify troublesome people—including children—by cutting into their brains.

Why this explosion of interest in ways to manipulate people?

Simply because science has advanced so rapidly. Until very recently, for example, we didn’t even know what a gene looked like. Now we are on the verge of predetermining the sex of babies, modifying our genetic blueprints, even starting man in a test tube. The same kind of dramatic progress has happened in a variety of behavior-related fields in the past decade.

How does behavior modification work?

Conditioners, for example, have been seeking quick alteration in sexual deviants. One technique used with male homosexuals is to show them pictures that arouse them sexually. At the same time an electric shock is applied to the genitals. When a picture of a sensuous-looking woman is shown, there is no shock. Sometimes a drug that induces vomiting is used instead of shock. This technique was also used on child molesters at a state prison in Connecticut. The desired personality change occurred, at least temporarily, in two-thirds of the cases. Bed-wetting in children is also a great target. One experimenter attached electrodes to the child’s genitalia to administer a mild shock when the bed-wetting occurred. He claimed improvement in 52 out of 58 cases.

What other methods are used?

Suggestion is very effective. A compulsive hand washer obsessed with dirt is repeatedly thrust into dirt-involved situations. He may, for example, be told to imagine himself strolling knee-deep in a cesspool. After a few such mental strolls, his concern for a few germs on his hands often diminishes. Behavior modification is now taking hold in the classroom. Roger E. Ulrich, an editor of a two-volume report, The Control of Human Behavior, has urged that compulsory public school education begin with behavior conditioning for 2-year-olds.

Is behavior-shaping dehumanizing?

More or less, since the fundamental assumption is that all humans can be controlled by pushing the right buttons. But many researchers are working to help people rid themselves of behavior problems, and I can’t criticize that.

Is psychosurgery—operating on the brain—widespread?

If some neurosurgeons had their way, it would be widely used in making prisoners easier to handle. Psychosurgery is, in fact, being practiced—and not only on criminals. The late Walter Freeman, sometimes called the dean of psychosurgeons, cited the case of a toy-smashing 6-year-old girl who, after two lobotomies, became “quite withdrawn, but less troublesome.”

Do you oppose brain surgery to alter behavior?

I believe there should be a moratorium on all psychosurgery that does not meet stern criteria of diagnosis and supervision for five years. Psychosurgery may indeed end up being the only answer for some very sick people, but right now I don’t think we know enough about the brain to be fooling around with it like this.

What about drugs?

Drugs like lithium, used to help manic-depressives cope, are very beneficial. And because their effects are reversible, I think drugs should be used in lieu of psychosurgery. But there are many abuses of drugs in trying to make antisocial types shape up.

For example?

Anectine, a drug derived from curare, has been used in prisons at Vacaville and Atascadero, Calif. It paralyzes the muscles for breathing so the prisoner is suffocating but fully conscious. During the suffocating phase the therapist reminds him of his intolerable behavior. Once the terror-stricken prisoner seems to get the point, the antidote is administered. Drugs are also a problem in nursing homes, where old people are sedated so they won’t be any bother, and in schools, where “problem” children are often given drugs that make them conform to the teacher’s rules of behavior.

What role is genetics playing in efforts to reshape humans?

Eugenics—genetic engineering—may help us to improve the human condition by screening out defective, disease-causing genes. On the other hand, something uncomfortably manipulative looms when we start talking about passing laws that prevent people with inferior genes from procreating. This enthusiasm for weeding out the less-than-perfect even before they are born can get out of hand. Let’s not forget that Lord Byron had a club foot. Dostoevsky was an epileptic. Abraham Lincoln had a congenital ailment that made his fingers and toes abnormal in size and caused a number of other abnormalities.

Will genetic engineering lead to the creation of superhumans?

Direct genetic engineering with humans to this extent is not likely to be a possibility that can fascinate or worry us before, say, 1984. But the whole notion of an “ideal” human prototype is worrisome. That would push us toward standardizing humans, and I think diversity is what makes life interesting.

Are we heading toward an Orwellian society?

If you mean 1984, no. I think we have too much warning ever to tolerate a Big Brother. But we may be heading toward Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Unlike Orwell’s Big Brother, who ruled by coercion and Thought Police, the World Controller of Brave New World was far subtler. He had human hatcheries where embryos were molded to order by genetic means to become humans of certain types. The level of intelligence was controlled in part by the amount of oxygen given the fetuses, so that those who were to become the drones of society got less oxygen. Later on “neo-Pavlovian conditioning” techniques were used to keep the people happy with their assigned role—not to mention “soma,” a drug that made people tranquil and highly suggestible. Most of the techniques Huxley fantasized for the future are already here.

How do we control the controllers?

Perhaps most important, a commission with absolute power over the creation of new forms of life should be set up in each country. In the U.S., I also favor a law that brings all forms of genetic engineering under federal control. Of course, public opinion, when informed, can also be an important source of control.

Is man malleable?

Yes, I can accept that fact. Genes, instincts and environment do play a role in shaping our lives. But it is also a fact that with effort we can still influence our destinies. Man is many things, admirable and unadmirable, but he has the potential for self-mastery and social direction, and he is at his best when he is achieving these ends. To a very great extent, each of us can be his own shaper.