Lighting up the subcontinent

New renewable energy schemes in India promise an end to power cuts, but only if they receive interna

It looks more like a home-made space station than the future of Indian energy. Three giant, silver golf balls direct a patchwork of mirrors towards a thick steel cube. Nearby, a white beehive sits at the top of a long, black ramp. Standing next to these futuristic objects is a smartly dressed, smiling man. "They're quite simple, really," he explains. "The parabolic mirrors concentrate the sun's rays to a single point." With a flourish, he places a plank in front of the cube and, in seconds, it begins to smoke. "The beehive is a solar dryer for food or clothing. We've got tamarind in there today, but garlic works just as well."

Father Paul Mariadass runs a renewable energy consultancy in Bihar, one of the poorest states in India. His company has recently installed two parabolic mirrors on the roof of the local hospital to sterilise surgical equipment. In a city where power cuts can last a week, reliability is crucial. Father Paul develops his projects in a small workshop that no longer needs the grid for its power. "I can leave the fans on all day and still operate all the heavy machinery except the welder," he says. I ask how he feels during a blackout, when the rest of the city is immersed in darkness. "When that happens, I feel like the most powerful man in Bihar."

Around 400 million people in India - the equivalent of the entire population of the United States - live without access to electricity. This energy poverty has an impact on every aspect of rural life, from road safety and snake­bites to adult literacy and local commerce. With the rapid onset of the tropical dusk, entire communities are forced to down tools; children have to put away their books; and shops must shut before darkness closes in.

A series of government-led power schemes is beginning to have an impact but, in a country of India's size, there will always be areas that are too remote to justify an expensive grid connection. Six hours from Father Paul's workshop lies one such village, Billouiri, which is surrounded by sodden green fields. Half a dozen men sit in the shade of a fragile straw roof, discussing the state elections and spitting volleys of bright-red paan. "We only get four hours now, but we were promised six," complains Sudhir Kumar, a 36-year-old farmer who is the most forthright of the group. "Of course, we're happy that the power plant has come, but we want to watch our televisions for longer."

Caste off

Six months ago, a company called Husk Power Systems arrived in the village with a proposition. For 80 rupees a month (just over £1), the villagers could receive six hours per day of just enough electricity to power two light bulbs and a mobile-phone charger. A few extra rupees allowed them to plug in a television. Several hundred households took up the offer and a small silver plant was built on the edge of the village to convert waste rice husk to a combustible gas that drives a small turbine.

This rapid development has shifted Kumar's priorities. I ask him to name the most significant issue facing his village in the state elections. "Caste," he replies, but then quickly checks himself. "No, irrigation. It used to be caste, but other things are more pressing now." Long-time observers of Bihar's political scene have noticed a big shift in these elections - a move away from the point-scoring of the past towards real discussion of infrastructure and development. The politics of birthright still looms large, but roads, schools and electricity are slowly beginning to take precedence.

For small companies such as Husk Power Systems, India's energy crisis is a tantalising business opportunity. One of its directors, Alok Bhushan, explains: "We understand the dynamics of the rural economy and the mentality of the people. Whatever hasn't been seen, whatever hasn't been heard - it takes time for an individual to perceive it, to understand it. But once it's up and running, people are happy to pay for reliable power."

Since its inception in 2007, the company has built 60 plants in Bihar, powering 125 villages. Bhushan has bold plans to expand across the state and into the rest of India; the company's latest target is for 2,014 plants by 2014.

If there's a catch, it is that Husk Power Systems is something of a one-off. Run by a team with an array of international MBAs, the company has won support from the World Bank, a US venture capital firm and the Shell Foundation. It is now applying for funding through the much-maligned Clean Development Mechanism, a demanding UN process for generating tradable carbon credits. All these applications require time and a detailed understanding of what will satisfy the moneymen in London and New York - an elite skill.

Green light

The priority for the Indian government must be to help other, less savvy companies to benefit from the coming wave of international support. The environment ministers who are meeting in the latest round of UN climate negotiations (COP16) in Cancún, Mexico, are attempting to atone for the disastrous lack of progress at Copenhagen last year. This year's summit, held between 29 November and 10 December, is focusing on finance - specifically, how to generate around $100bn annually to tackle climate change over the next decade.

Part of this money, if it materialises, is expected to provide low-interest loans and microfinance for small energy projects. Right now, the debate is stuck. Rich countries are refusing to commit to a definite figure until developing nations show exactly how the money will be spent.

This diplomatic dance in the UN meeting rooms will have a big impact on clean energy companies around the world. Siddharth Pathak, a policy expert at Greenpeace India, believes his country has a major role to play. "Huge developing economies such as India's are at a crossroads and they need to show the international community that the world has a choice. Down one path lie fossil fuels, outdated technology and high emissions. The other promises a new approach, with innovation in clean energy and a concerted effort to leapfrog the polluting industries of the past. But for this to happen, we need to see courage on both sides. A truly global perspective is the only thing that will break the deadlock."

It can be hard to cut through the jargon of fungible carbon credits and seed-stage funding to see what's at stake in these talks. At the end of our interview, Bhushan describes a recent trip through an area where his rice-husk plants are up and running.

“These villages are being lit up in the darkness and it gives you immense satisfaction. The best part is seeing individuals just doing what they are supposed to do. That is what drives me and the whole team. Kids would otherwise be hurting themselves badly. There have been so many examples of burns and deaths through kerosene; it's highly unsafe. Once you see all that changing, it's a really great feeling."

James Turner is a campaigner for Greenpeace

A COP out? From Kyoto to Cancún

Last December, the world's media watched as the climate summit in Copenhagen collapsed amid diplomatic wrangling and point-scoring. The end product was the Copenhagen Accord, which bound members to little more than "taking note" of the need to limit global temperature increases to 2°C.

With the Kyoto Protocol due to expire in 2012, the Cancún climate summit this month aims to lay the foundations for a binding agreement on carbon emissions that will extend beyond that year. Any deal has to be agreeable to rich and poor nations alike and, most significantly, the US and China, the world's two biggest polluters.

China - which some portray as the main obstacle to a successful deal in Copenhagen - has made positive noises over an agreement in Mexico, but
is expected to comply only if certain conditions are met.

The Copenhagen Accord contained pledges of $30bn for developing countries to fight climate change. Chinese concessions are dependent on this fund switching from pledges to reality.

A new UN plan to tax carbon emissions will be aired for the first time at the summit. Yet the chance of a binding deal is complicated by the US domestic political situation: a Republican-controlled Congress makes it unlikely such legislation will pass.
Duncan Robinson

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle

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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?

***

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