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India's runaway boys

Hundreds of children live in a cycle of drugs, crime and deprivation in a railway station in Kolkata

Six years ago, Sheikh Alamgir ran away from home. He was seven years old. The Sealdah railway station in Kolkata has been his home ever since. He is not alone. More than 500 children live within the precincts of the city’s second-largest railway terminus, surviving through begging, petty theft or hawking goods on the platforms. Most of what money they earn is spent on drugs (heroin or cocaine usually) or else on tubes of Dendrite, an industrial adhesive that is a particular favourite with the children at Sealdah. (It is estimated that between 100,000 and 125,000 children live on the streets and railway stations of India’s major cities, and that more than half of them have some form of drug addiction.)

Alamgir’s body clock is synchronised with the rail timetable. Most of the trains that come into the station are short-distance suburban commuter services. But his preferred quarry is the long-distance trains that terminate here, and which can be scavenged for leftover food and empty water bottles once the carriages have emptied.

For Alamgir and his friends, the working day begins around 10.30 am, which is when the Rajdhani Express arrives in Sealdah from Delhi. Until then, the children are largely invisible, sleeping on top of cornices, under staircases and in other neglected corners of the station.

If the day’s pickings have been good, there will be an impromptu feast. Any additional money made from selling the empty water bottles or picking a few pockets is used to buy drugs and glue.

The first time we met Alamgir, he was hunched over a drawing book at a cramped drop-in centre run by the Mukti Rehabilitation Trust, not far from the station. The Rajdhani had been delayed that day, so he and his friends had been late finishing “work”. While Alamgir drew, other boys played carrom or ludo. He looked younger than anybody else in the room, but he was highly assertive and burned with a fierce sense of entitlement. When someone else got an extra biscuit, he was quick to demand one for himself, and he thought nothing of upsetting the carrom board if he sensed he was losing. On another occasion, he ganged up with an older boy, Abhijit, to loot the biscuits left over from the day’s tiffin.

Violence arrives suddenly and frequently here, and most of the boys were nursing an injury of some sort. Nonetheless, in the midst of it all, a kind of solidarity endures. The night before we met him, Alamgir had stayed up to attend to Abhijit, who had been bitten by a dog. And whenever a boy is in trouble, the others will rally round.

The boys take great pride in cultivating a wild and abusive machismo, partly as a protection against what they have to live with. They will have witnessed casual violence daily and will, in many cases, have suffered sexual abuse, sometimes as a kind of initiation by older boys, and sometimes at the hands of petty criminals or even the police.

More than a hundred girls live in Sealdah, too. Alamgir introduced us to a group of them, aged between ten and 17. They generally regard strangers with a mixture of suspicion and contempt, but are highly protective of the younger boys. Later, however, Alamgir told us that one of these girls had robbed him of 500 rupees when he fell asleep as they were watching a film together. Many of the girls have sex with the boys or are raped, and messy pregnancies are common. And, like the boys, most of the girls take drugs and sniff glue.

There is a thriving market in narcotics in Sealdah. Dendrite, which is widely used, is freely available over the counter in most shops. A small tube costs only seven rupees. Harder drugs are sold clandestinely throughout the station, though you need to know where to look. Unlike many boys of his age, who tend to stick to Dendrite, Alamgir smokes, sniffs and snorts whatever he can lay his hands on. He washes irregularly, believing that having a bath brings you down prematurely from your high.

To try to understand why Alamgir loses himself in drugs like this, we headed 60km north of Kolkata, to his home village of Tyantra. His parents are now estranged. Alamgir and his seven brothers and two sisters spent their childhood watching their alcoholic father regularly beat their mother in rage and frustration at his lot. Today, the father survives on casual work helping carpenters or stonemasons. His wife, who left him five years ago, works in a factory packaging prawns.

It is only when he meets his mother that Alamgir’s mask slips and he shows some emotion. She lives with his grandmother a few kilometres away, and has remarried, though Alamgir does not seem to hold this against her. Nor does he worry that his mother appears to be neglecting her youngest son, seven-year-old Abdullah.

Abdullah cried bitterly and clung to his brother as Alamgir began to prepare to leave the place he is no longer able to call home. Alamgir looked discomfited and fidgety at this outburst, and as soon as they reached the car, he and his friend Abhijit pulled out rags smeared with Dendrite and started puffing on them vigorously, as if to obliterate the temporary intrusion of unfamiliar feelings. By the time we reached

Sealdah, however, Alamgir seemed to have gained his equilibrium. It was dark already, and he and Abhijit disappeared into the night.

Nights here are dangerous. Because of his puny frame, Alamgir is roughed up more regularly than most, though his unprepossessing physique works to his advantage when the police descend upon the station and round up a number of boys, charging them with petty crimes. Most of his friends, especially the older ones, have been beaten up in police custody, though much of the physical harm suffered in Sealdah is self-inflicted. Many of the children here have the horrors of life in the station carved on their forearms, self-harm being common among the addicts.

After returning from Tyantra, Alamgir announced that he would leave Sealdah and go back to help his mother, running her fried snack stall while she went off to work at the prawn factory. The very next day, however, he was back at the carrom board at the drop-in centre, having just made a couple of hundred rupees by picking the pocket of a commuter.

In 1994, the Indian government developed a master plan for combating substance abuse. That plan focused on the establishment of treatment and rehabilitation centres, training in substance abuse for primary care doctors and other medical personnel, education programmes and collaboration with NGOs. There are more than 300 counselling centres for drug-abuse prevention across the country.

Yet the cycle of drugs, crime and deprivation in places such as Sealdah has proved stubbornly resistant to government intervention. More than drop-in centres and counselling, what children in Alamgir’s situation need is to be persuaded that another kind of life is possible. And that will be difficult: they have seen and suffered too much to believe that adults will ever be serious about delivering them from what they have come to accept as their fate.

Photographs by Arindam Mukherjee

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge