Colin Firth - extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview.

You've campaigned on social issues for years. What sparked your political interest?
Adolescent indignation. I've never grown out of it. My father's balanced and complex reasoning used to drive me insane. I now value it. Also travel, and having questioning parents.

In 1972-73 I was in the States. My father, being a lecturer in American history, sat me in front of the Watergate hearings and took me to hear Senator McGovern speak. My father was the chairman of the local Liberals and took me canvassing.

As a Liberal Democrat supporter, do you feel let down by the decision to form a coalition?
I approached the Lib Dems as an activist. So I didn't exactly feel like throwing confetti when I saw Nick Clegg on the lawn with David Cameron.

Who is your political hero, and why?
I'm always encouraged by people who get more radical as they get older, like Mark Twain and Howard Zinn. Also David Henry Thoreau: I love his undertaking to "live deliberately".

You recently set up Brightwide, a website that showcases political cinema. Why?
When my wife and I screened our documentary, In Prison My Whole Life, at film festivals the response was extraordinary -- particularly among young people. Answers as to how to direct that passion were in short supply. We were being asked, "Where do we march? What do we sign? Who do we join? Who do we write to?" It was all too evident that a 90-minute film had the power to motivate people, but that there was no satisfactory way to harness that motivation.

NGOs often rely on slogans, posters -- and celebrity campaigners -- which, in my experience, have less impact. Brightwide allows one to facilitate the other. The likes of me can shut up and let the stories speak for themselves. Civil society organisations and institutions can direct people towards films to help make their case and the audience can be guided to where the action is. It's supported by Amnesty International, Oxfam and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

What sparked your interest in refugees?
My parents and several grandparents [going back generations] were born in India. My sister was born in Nigeria. We travelled a great deal. It helped give me something of the perspective of the outsider. My mother campaigned for the rights of refugees, some of whom were guests in our house. You can't dismiss people as a political problem once you know them.

What influence can films have on the way we think about these issues?
"Issues" always have personal stories behind them. Film provides intimacy with those stories and a chance to weigh things up without being badgered by attitude. Oscar Wilde enjoyed dialogue because in using more than one voice, more than one point of view, he could take issue with himself. A genuinely good film is never purely polemical. Ninety minutes allows for conflicting points of view.

Can film have a social and political impact?
Yes. The banning of films throughout history, and the rage they can ignite in the press, shows that -- from Battleship Potemkin to Life of Brian. Think of the clamour in the right-wing press against The Wind that Shakes the Barley. I experienced it personally many years ago with a film about the Falklands war called Tumbledown. There were cries for it to be banned before it was screened. It was discussed in the Commons. Did it change anything? By itself, I doubt it. But I run into people who remember it and its impact on them. That's why we're screening a thematic film festival during Refugee Week.

Which films have that kind of impact for you?
The Grapes of Wrath, The Battle of Algiers. Most of all, Come and See, a Soviet-endorsed film by Elem Klimov. Currently, The Age of Stupid and The End of the Line, both of which you can see on Brightwide. I remember, when I was about eight, kids in the playground talking about All Quiet on the Western Front. Some had become rather sanctimonious and were lecturing the boys playing war games that they didn't "know what war is".

Which directors do you admire who work in this way, and on these subjects?
All those on Brightwide, obviously. That's why they're there: Michael Winterbottom, Franny Armstrong, Gini Reticker, Rupert Murray, John Akomfrah, Bahman Ghobadi. Also Lynne Ramsay, Antonia Bird, Nick Broomfield, John Crowley, Ken Loach, Mark Evans . . .

What do you most object to about how we respond to refugees in the UK?
I set up Brightwide so I wouldn't have to subject people to my own views. But if I were to say something, I'd mention the demonisation of refugees by the right-wing press. Labour and the Tories have let the tabloids frame their immigration policies. I'd say something about the lack of legal representation. The calculated impoverishment of asylum-seekers. The appalling practice of seizing and locking up asylum-seeking families in conditions proven to wreck their mental health even though it's known that families don't abscond. I'd also remind the new government that it has pledged to stop child detention, which needs to happen quickly.
But thankfully I don't have to say any of that. I can just urge you to go to Brightwide and watch films like Moving to Mars: a Million Miles from Burmaand No One Knows About Persian Cats.

Immigration became an important topic in the recent election campaign. How did you feel about the different parties' approaches?
The current system incentivises black-market labour and human trafficking. The amnesty would have made complete sense -- on both economic and compassionate grounds. It was very courageous of Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems to defend such an electorally costly idea during the election. I think they were punished for it.

What do you think about the proposed cap on immigration?
It's a pity for us. There are so many arguments about the figures relating to net contributions made by migrants, that it seems clear that people choose the maths which best suits their ideology or prejudice. By that reasoning -- and not being an economist -- I tend to go for the countless studies which find economic benefit in immigration. The humanitarian argument holds the balance.

Is our political/media culture a healthy one?
I wish the establishment was more courageous about the reactionary press. But I spend enough time in Italy to be thankful for what we have.

You have played a wide range of roles. What draws you to a particular part?
I love the quotation from Miles Davis, "Don't play what you know -- play what you don't know." Easier said than done. Typecasting always beckons.

You were nominated for an Oscar for your role in A Single Man. What was the motivation for doing that role?
Good tale. No self-pity. It seemed an exhilarating risk. Tom Ford is a very compelling individual.

Do you feel like you are still trying to shed the legacy of Mr Darcy?
People increasingly ask me about Mr Darcy as if he's dandruff. My memory isn't good enough to have any real feelings on the matter. I imagine people with dandruff are also blissfully unaware of what they're carrying around.

If you hadn't been an actor, what would you have done, or be doing?
I'd be a squeegee merchant on the Euston Road.

Will you always be an actor, or will you try something else?
I've tried writing. I'm still trying -- I've published one short story in 50 years. That gives you an idea of my pace.

Do the arts get enough support in the UK?
If you ask me, you'll only get special pleading. Gordon Brown pledged £45m to the BFI last year, which was significant. But there needs to be more to enable them to function fully. Anthony Minghella and Amanda Nevill fought very hard to get those funds in order to build a new Film Centre in London. I very much hope this will happen. It will be the first major, stand-alone, new cultural building in London for a very long time. It should be a proper home for the film industry, the BFI London Film Festival, the nation's film collections and their year-round programmes.
I'd love to see an international beacon for film in Britain. It's rather surprising that we don't already have such a thing.

Where is home?
London.

What would you like to forget?
A poor memory is a very good anaesthetic.

Is there a plan?
Not really. I'm sure you can tell.

Are we all doomed?
Oh, I think so -- but we ought to drag it out as long as possible.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

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?

***

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