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The death of a dream

Andrew Brown has won the Orwell Prize for Fishing in Utopia, a memoir of life in Sweden. Here he tal

Sweden has become globally symbolic of the welfare state: high taxes, social policies for equality, sexual education and liberation. Part of that symbolic status was a peculiar national and collective narcissism: one way or another, most Swedes, and not only intellectuals or cultural critics, were preoccupied with trying to understand the social-democratic model and culture in which we lived. And no wonder. What happened between 1932 and 1976, the 44 years of unbroken Social Democratic Party rule, was, in the end, so unusual, and so revolutionary.

Andrew Brown’s book Fishing in Utopia (Granta) has won the Orwell Prize for political writing this year. It is an autobiographical account of living in Sweden in the late 1970s. Andrew, the child of diplomats and the product of private schooling, was, he says, entirely convinced at the time that Sweden represented the inevitable future. Nevertheless, going to live in Social Democratic Sweden and getting a manual job in a small pallet-making factory in the provinces was not a common journey for men of his background. Think of Bruce Chatwin in Sudan, or Rory Stewart in Afghanistan: those are the natural, and healing, stamping grounds for British travel writers.

Andrew’s journey is all the more exotic precisely because it is so understated, and takes him to a destination that is wrenchingly dull and lonely: “square, with shops set into the shabby concrete round two sides. There was a Konsum, a shoe shop, a florist, and an employment exchange.” “Faced with all this sterile silence my hair grew ragged and my beard grew melancholy; when I walked to the shops, some of the children would call after me, ‘Jesus’.”

Fishing became Andrew’s salvation, a relief from the repressively respectable silence in the poor little settlement where he lived. “I had no idea,” he says, “as, I would say, most people living in Stockholm would have no idea, of what life in the provinces was actually like. Fantastic rigidity, deep, backbone respectability. That was an enormous shock to me.”

Fishing is described in his book as not only meditative, but also faintly mystical, as though all the spiritual urges in Sweden are really pagan, located in the rivers and forest lakes, the skies and the rocks. Andrew (genuinely) wanted to understand the fish (some of the best parts of the book really are about fishing), but he also wanted to understand the Swedes, and the Swedish project, Folkhemmet, the Social Democratic term for the nation as the “home of the people”.

The Social Democrats remained in power for 44 years, between 1932 and 1976. Their policies included high taxes, centralised wage agreements, union power (linked to the party), employment security, safety in the workplace, support for women, environmental protection and third-way neutrality. They built a million new flats, to defeat, once and for all, rural poverty. The cottages of the rural poor were abandoned or became the second homes of the comfortably off, and general affluence and equality succeeded poverty and hierarchy.

They were genuinely interested in creating a fairer society, and, in many ways, did so, but they also created a society of conformity and concrete, state surveillance (the clandestine monitoring of communists was to become a national scandal) and joyless, mediocre schools. Maj Sjövall and Per Wahlöö wrote bleak and dystopian bestselling thrillers, the murderers always capitalists, distanced from ordinary people and ordinary decency. People shuffled forward in endless queues at Systembolaget, the state-monopoly alcohol outlet. The blacklisted alcoholics sat outside, soliciting people to buy them vodka. Rock bands sang about materialism and alienation, prostitution and addiction.

One of the pivots of the liberal critique of Social Democratic Sweden was the idea that the state took excessive numbers of children into care, and that at least a part of the state constituted, in effect, a repressive machinery where individual rights were potentially sacrificed to powerful social norms. The story of children taken into care was internationalised, unwittingly, by Andrew, who was by then working as a journalist: his story about one particular case bounced from a piece in the Daily Mail (mothers weeping, soulless bureaucrats), to Private Eye (jokes about Sweden), to Der Spiegel (“Swedish children’s Gulag”, an investigation based on six cases). Later, Andrew returned to the original case and concluded that the state had been right to take this particular boy, “Child A”, into care, and that the mother was in fact a psychopathic fantasist who posed a real danger to the child.

But consider this: Sweden in the 1980s seriously considered forcible quarantine for HIV-positive people. Between 1935 and 1976 about 60,000 Swedes – all poor – were victims of coerced sterilisation: travellers, the mentally subnormal, girls considered promiscuous, petty thieves and vagrants. That, too, was ultimately part of the Folkhemmet project.

In the mid-1980s the banking sector was extensively deregulated in Sweden, which led to a period of rapid credit expansion, followed by a spectacular bust in 1990. After that, everything changed. Crime statistics, particularly rape, have gone up, and immigrant alienation is palpable in some areas. “The very strong sense I was getting in Gothenburg recently,” Andrew says, “was that the central government is forcing policies on the regions that they don’t want, in particular polices about asylum-seekers, and that the nationalists will get seats in the next election, which is very frightening. The thing that really frightens me is that it would lead to a more violent politics – street battles between immigrant youths, anti-fascist action and pro-nationalists. Once politics gets turned into an affair for teenage gangs it’s hard to drag it back from that.”

It is not impossible. While Sweden generally is thought of as a peaceful society, there have been episodes of violence. In February 1986, Olof Palme, the prime minister, was shot dead on the street as he was walking home from the cinema with his wife. In 2003, Anna Lindh, the minister for foreign affairs, was stabbed to death at NK, Sweden’s equivalent of Harrods. Like Olof Palme, she was not protected by bodyguards at the time of her attack.

In 1989, neo-Nazis murdered a trade union activist and two policemen, in separate incidents. The same year, neo-Nazi car bombs blinded a policeman and almost killed a journalist. The three founders of the far-right organisation NRA committed an armed bank robbery in 1999. They wounded two policemen and then shot them dead at close range, in what became known as the “Malexander murders”. And these were no innocents: one of them had already been indicted for war crimes in Bosnia, one of the many amateur mercenaries drawn to those killing fields.

In a bizarre twist, it turned out that one of the others, Tony Olsson, had been given permission from prison to take part in a rehearsal for a play, entitled 7:3, by one of Sweden’s most famous playwrights, Lars Norén, about the neo-Nazi movement. The name derives from a paragraph in the prison code about prisoners likely to attempt escape; Olsson duly did escape from the theatre, and went on to commit robbery and murder. The “actors” in the play were actual neo-Nazis, given neo-Nazi lines. It was put on at the National Theatre.

It is hard to imagine a similar scenario in Britain. Nor would one expect neo-Nazis to complain on national TV about the lack of rehabilitation facilities for Nazis. Only in Sweden is the political belief system so normative that people on the extreme right themselves believe that they are acting out individual pathologies.

The northern European path of peace, openness and minimal security led, ultimately, to the death of one prime minister, one foreign minister and two policemen, with many others wounded. Unlike in Germany, Denmark and Italy, the terrorists of Sweden were from the right, not the left. That meant that they had no real connections with groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the IRA, or with Palestinian groups. They were linked only to other neo-Nazis, crazy white-power zealots from Germany, Russia and the Anglo-Saxon world.

I talk to Andrew about the shock of the Palme murder. “In a way,” he says, “I was more shocked by the quite stupefying incompetence of the police afterwards.” The police investigation initially focused almost exclusively on the Kurds, and included the illegal surveillance of Kurdish immigrants. It is almost certain that the PKK had nothing to do with it, and that the real culprit was Christer Pettersson, a drug addict with a history of violence who was convicted of the murder, though later released on a technicality.

Many eminent people in Sweden, however, believe that the murder was planned by apartheid South Africa. Eugene de Kock, the policeman in charge of the infamous Vlakplaas, where dozens of anti-apartheid activists were tortured and killed, has publicly stated that Craig Williamson, a South African spy who had special links to Sweden, did it. And it may well be so. The struggle against apartheid was one of Palme’s causes, and Sweden donated millions of dollars to the ANC via the International University Exchange Fund (infiltrated by Williamson) and other channels. Though we may never know for sure.

“The Social Democrats now,” Andrew says, “have a reputation as extremely boring technocrats, but they did understand politics as theatre. It was perhaps when the theatre went out of it that it went wrong.” Or perhaps it went wrong – or right – when the opposition finally got its act together and formed a viable coalition. When you look back at Swedish elections since 1932, it is striking how even the results are. The Social Democrats won every election from 1932 to 1976, comfortably fluctuating between 40 and 54 per cent of the votes. In 1976, their share of the vote decreased by less than 1 per cent, but the new liberal-conservative coalition broke the hegemony.

I recently found stuffed in my bookcase an old edition of Palme’s speeches and articles from 1968 to 1974. They are not, on the whole, a pleasure to read. His speech to the party congress in 1969, for example, is 20 pages long, stilted and intense. His address to the Social Democratic Youth Organisation in 1972 is 15 pages long. He must have bored the party into submission. And yet his speeches about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, or the American bombing of Hanoi, are genuinely moving.

The cultural history of Sweden is always written with reference to Folkhemmet, and popular notions of Sweden are permanently steeped in ideas of sexual liberation, equality and affluence, with a dash of dystopian gloom added by crime writers such as Stieg Larsson or Henning Mankell. Perhaps now the time has come to write something based on other terms of reference, though what that would be, I have no idea. Fishing might be a good place to start.

Sigrid Rausing is the publisher of Granta

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape

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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