The brightness and the glory

A 154-foot tower, a chandelier weighing 300 kilos. Stephen Smithgains entry to the Mormon temple in

It must have been all the excitement, but as I entered the soaring new Mormon temple in Lancashire, I was distracted by an urge to perform an irredeemably earth-bound function. Under my breath, I asked a colleague whether he thought the builder's spec had included anything so worldly as a Gents. Hardly had we taken another pace across the marble flags than my elbow was seized in a firm but kindly grip. A man in a dark suit, whom I'd last noticed in a distant corner, had materialised noiselessly at my side. "I understand that you'd like to go to the bathroom," he murmured.

Paying a call at the temple, if that's the expression I want, provided a rare insight into one of Britain's fastest-growing but least understood religious movements. First, and at the risk of sounding like an Irish swimmer, I should say that I had not been taking any stimulants, because those popular diuretics, alcohol, tea and coffee, are off the Mormon menu. The cubicle itself boasted state-of-the-art Armitage Shanks vitreousware, and was carpeted in beige shagpile to ankle height, as indeed was the temple throughout. There have been rumours that these floor coverings will be ripped up and thrown out after a series of open days which finished last summer, but church authorities have dismissed this. However, they say that the temple had undergone "cleansing" - understood to be both spiritual and domestic - before its formal dedication last June.

Most impressive of all was the display of trouble-shooting by my friend in the dark suit. Having led me to the WC, he waited for me outside it, not unlike a prison escort. I'm sure that if I'd succumbed to a temptation to scribble something on the walls, he would have been through the door and snatching the Biro out of my hand before you could say Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is the style the Mormons favour. Very reasonably, they didn't want people defacing their temple after they'd just spent a reported £100 million on it. Spokesmen were coy about the exact price tag, which was odd considering they went out of their way to explain that only the best raw materials had been good enough, North American cherry and Austrian crystal finding their way to the site, at junction eight of the M61. A formula I heard from more than one pair of lips was, "The key question is not what it cost, but what it's worth". Funds came from the 10 per cent of income every follower gives the Mormons.

At every doorway, on every passage, the church's investment was protected by an "elder". This was something of a misnomer; with a buzzsaw haircut and corn-fed complexion, the typical elder was actually more like a younger. Brought over from the church's American heartland for the big launch, the elders looked and sounded like Navy Seals attending a dressy reception ashore.

Thousands of visitors have been anticipated from far and wide for what you might call the Mormon experience, most of them, admittedly, converts from the United States. The nearest town is Chorley, not necessarily the sort of place you'd bracket with Beaver, or so I guessed. But the youthful elder reassured me: "Chorley's a small town, it kind of reminds me of home."

As far as the Mormons are concerned, the temple is really an outpost of nearby Preston, the base of their oldest branch. In 1837 seven missionaries arrived from New York to look up relatives in the town. Before long, they were preaching and baptising new believers in the waters of the Ribble. The Mormons now claim 180,000 members in the British Isles. They believe that theirs is the true church, restored by God in the last century. Cecil O Samuelson Jr, the president of the Mormons in Britain, made a speech about an American called Joseph Smith bearing witness to "two personages whose brightness and glory defied all description". Samuelson had the steely hair of a Republican senator. He explained that further revelations led to the discovery of gold plates inscribed with what turned out to be the text of the Book of Mormon, a kind of addendum to the Bible. Whenever I looked up from my notepad, Samuelson's eyes were on me.

He led the way through the temple's rinsed air and artificial light to a baptismal font in the basement. Twelve life-size fibreglass oxen, one for each of the tribes of Israel, were supporting a sunken whirlpool bath. The domed ceiling was a Milky Way of shimmering bulbs. Mormons maintain that baptismal privileges can be conferred beyond the grave, entire family trees united in God's sight by the act of a believer standing in for his late relations at the hygienic foot-spa. This raised the interesting textural crux: what if a dead ancestor was perfectly happy not being a Mormon? While I was pondering this, the president said that the greatest number of people for whom he had acted as a baptismal proxy at one go was a dozen. Whites were worn during the ceremony. "We have a significant laundry challenge," said Samuelson. The pool gurgled.

The president of the church is a useful man to know if you're a Mormon. Most church events happen in relatively humble chapels, and not every follower may enter the temple of Preston. Select men and women will receive a "temple recommend", a sign that they are in good standing with a member of the rank of bishop.

On a different Chorley morning, the temple not yet finished, a roly-poly man had breathlessly propelled his recommend across a table to me. He said, "That's literally priceless, that. No money on earth can buy that."

Oh, I knew how difficult it was to get into the temple, alright. I discovered it that day, when the Mormons declined to admit me and even disappointed their own PR people, who had made the journey from London. We would all have to wait for the one-off press tour.

The temple was finished in Sardinian granite, which recalled the cliff-face of the palace erected by the Ceausescus in Bucharest; it was as much of a bunker as the abandoned American embassy in Saigon. On the face of it, though, the stakes were much higher in Chorley. Inside the temple, it was possible to learn the meaning of life, or so I gathered. There was even a taster of the ambrosial hereafter.

Despite their strict admissions policy, the Mormons were far from inhospitable. They were unfailingly courteous - almost creepily so, if that doesn't sound ungrateful - putting up with any number of irreverent questions. The spire of the temple was a tapering digit thrust 154 feet into the sky, capped by a golden trumpeter representing an angel called Moroni, but the rest of the structure had the undisguisable look of a municipal crematorium. I asked the roly-poly man: "Be honest, do you really think it's beautiful?"

He said, "I do, yes. But you could show the Taj Mahal to half a dozen people and they'd all have a different view."

The temple, and the coming of the Mormons to Lancashire in large numbers, have certainly provoked different views. One shopper told me, "I think it's great, actually. It's got people talking." Another said, "It's just opulence for opulence's sake."

"You know the film Independence Day, where the spaceship suddenly appears over the White House? It's like that with the temple," said Reverend Ian Dewar, vicar of All Saints Church in the village of Appleby Bridge. The Anglican church has joined forces with the Catholics, the Baptists and others to produce a leaflet challenging the Mormons' claims to be Christian. Reverend Don Gilkes made his parish church available while the temple was holding its open days, in case disoriented members of the public needed a stiffening shot of caffeine and a chat. He told me that the Mormons' views on doctrines such as baptism and heaven were at odds with established teaching. The churches in turn have been accused of running scared, outflanked by the Mormons' remorseless doorstep proselytising (they reckon to tread 1,000 front paths for every convert they make). The Mormons deny they will be staking out the porches of Chorley. They will be training missionaries, they say, not sending them out willy-nilly into the roads around the temple - which brings me back to the guided tour.

We were in the wedding guests' waiting room, among wipe-clean lacquered panels and scenes from the life of Christ. Devoted Mormon couples don't have to settle for pledging themselves to each other "till death us do part". They can cement their marriages for eternity in a "sealing room". Here, the conversation pieces included a bench with a doily over it and mirrors facing each other, allowing the bride and groom to observe themselves for as far as they could see in each direction, a representation of their timeless union.

Now we were penetrating the inner sanctum of the temple, the very heart of the Mormon creed. In the ordinance room, nothing less than the chronology of creation was brought to life. Samuelson said, "In this room we have the opportunity of learning the things to answer life's great questions: Where did we come from? Where are we going?"

Never mind that it was an antiseptic sort of chamber; not after a build-up like that. Unfortunately, there was a let-down on the way: it emerged that our party would not be vouchsafed the mysteries of the ordinance room. We had to be content with titbits.

Still, the best was yet to come, or so we had been given to understand: the celestial room, a place of beauty, peace, reverence; an appetiser for the afterlife. "We will ask that we don't have lots of dialogue in there," said Samuelson.

What to say of the vision of paradise presented by the celestial room? Picture a reception suite for the use of minor royalty, as envisaged by the set designers of a South American soap opera. It was done out in the vivid lemons of daytime television. There was a chandelier, which weighed 300 kilos.

The Mormons have now shut their doors to the outside world, and the ineffable comforts of the celestial room are reserved for the elite of the church. I wouldn't have missed the temple for anything, even though, by the end of my visit, the soul-searching riddle "What am I doing here?" had become a rhetorical question.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

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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.

***

 

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?

***

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