Good friends slip on a banana skin

Iraq is not the only target for US sanctions; so is Britain, at least as far as sheep's milk, candle

The French journalist could barely contain his satisfaction. It was the day after the United States had stopped bombing Iraq, with the able assistance of the RAF, and Britain's little-noticed reward was the announcement in Washington of a list of trade sanctions against the European Union, which will actually bear heaviest on America's most loyal ally. This is in pursuit of a trade war which, if it goes ahead, will be one of the most grotesque if not malign of recent times. If no solution is found, we are just a month away from a war between the US and EU. Over bananas.

This absurd conflict is over the import licences of bananas. Former European colonies (mainly British and French) get slightly preferential treatment over central American producers exporting bananas to the EU. The banana is a crop which the US does not export to Europe - but many of the Latin American bananas, or"dollar bananas", happen to be grown on estancias owned by US companies. The crop plays a minuscule part in annual trade between Europe and America; the quarrel over its export to the EU will cost jobs in British industries whose only connection with the fruit is in the lunchboxes of its employees.

It all makes for a notable test for the World Trade Organisation, set up in 1994, which is supposed to handle disputes like this but which may have expected its first big challenge between two of the world's largest trading blocs to arise from something rather more significant, particularly in a time of international economic crisis. Our government's much vaunted closeness to Bill Clinton has availed us absolutely nothing. We will be hit hardest by the American sanctions imposed as a result of the dispute. When it comes down to it, Washington knows on which side its fruit is peeled.

Hence the Frenchman's suave question to the European Commission in Brussels: "Are the sanctions a mark of the special relationship?" he asked smugly. "Or is this Britain's reward for supporting the United States' action in the Gulf?"

The Commission estimates that the list of unilateral sanctions the US government announced on 21 December will cost industries in the European Union about £350 million a year, nearly £85 million of that in the UK alone. The products targeted for the imposition of 100 per cent tariffs are a bizarre mix whose only uniting characteristic is that none of them has the remotest link with bananas, or any other fruit for that matter.

In the ponderously exact prose of the US Trade Department, it includes: "Pecorino cheese, from sheep's milk, in original loaves, not suitable for grating, sweet biscuits, bath preparations, other than bath salts, candles, tapers and the like, handbags, with or without shoulder straps, articles of a kind normally carried in the pocket or handbag with outer surface of reinforced or laminated plastics, uncoated felt paper and paperboard in rolls or sheets, folding cartons, printed cards (except postcards) . . ."

Take that! The rationale in Washington for the list is that it represents the equivalent value in trade of what it estimates US banana companies are losing in Europe. What is really happening, though, is that the American administration is threatening the eclectic mix of goods in pursuit of the right of its own multinational fruit exporters, chiefly the Cincinatti-based company Chiquita, to obtain what would effectively be monopoly rights over the 3.7 million tonnes of bananas consumed in the EU each year.

The EU's banana regime has long been a source of contention. It was devised to give a certain amount of protection to bananas produced in former colonies, not just in the West Indies but also places such as the Ivory Coast and the Canaries. The American view is that this has handicapped access to European markets for the "dollar bananas" - thus threatening the sacred profit-making potential of US companies. This has not stopped those companies cornering 70 per cent of the banana trade with the EU. As Sir Leon Brittan, the EU Trade Commissioner, sniffed: "They don't seem to be doing too badly out of it."

The US itself does not export a single banana to Europe. Politics is behind its stance: the rhetoric from the US has increased markedly since November's Congressional elections. Although the US first started muttering about bananas under George Bush, it is the Clinton administration that has really pursued the matter. When it made a complaint to the WTO, within 24 hours, the Chiquita chairman, Carl H Lindner Jnr, who had previously made donations only to the Republican Party, suddenly started giving away money to the Democrats as well.

Lindner is a religious man and one who apparently likes to give out gold-embossed cards bearing his philosophy: "I like to do my giving while I'm living so I know where it's going." His company is estimated to be worth $14 billion.

If his company and its fellows such as Del Monte get their way, small, independent banana-growers in some of the most impoverished islands of the Caribbean are likely to be pushed out of business. They may then turn to other, more profitable, products with a readier market in the US, such as cocaine. Some believe that Chiquita's complaint followed its ill-advised decision to sell its Caribbean plantations six years ago.

The American multinationals produce their bananas - larger and less sweet than Caribbean ones - on large estates in central and Latin America where their record as employers is distinctly unsavoury.

Peter Scher, the US administration's special trade ambassador, disavows any notion of wanting to harm the Caribbean banana trade. The regrettable necessity was that Europe had to be punished for not opening its markets sufficiently in accordance with a ruling by the WTO in Geneva. "We are showing there is a cost to pay for Europe's failure to comply with its obligations," he said. "This is about a much broader issue than bananas. It is about whether the WTO system will work. If it fails, there will be pressure in this country to act unilaterally."

The WTO panel ruled in September 1997 that the US was justified in its complaint that the EU's fiendishly complicated banana import regulations amounted to unfair discrimination and that the rules must be changed. The Caribbean countries were not allowed to give evidence as they were not a direct party to the issue. The panel, chaired by a former US congressman, contained a Japanese representative but no one from the developing world.

The EU claims it has now changed its rules in ten respects. The US contends that not enough has been done to make access fair. Bananas merely head a rising number of complaints from US producers against the EU and its regulatory approach over issues such as genetically modified crops and meat reared using hormones and antibiotics.

Sir Leon claims the US is defying the spirit of the WTO by imposing unilateral duties. The US claims it is entitled to do so because the EU failed to meet its responsibilities by obeying the WTO ruling against it. The only thing standing in the way of hostilities is a request by Ecuador that the WTO panel should reconvene to decide whether the EU's revised regulations do indeed comply with the ruling.

That will be a big test of the WTO's authority. Should European consumers be free to choose bananas from the Windward Islands? Or should an elderly American billionaire be licensed to extend his empire as a domestic political trade-off? One is tempted to say that it's a banana skin on which the WTO should not be allowed to slip.

Stephen Bates is European affairs editor of the "Guardian"

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium

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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