Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir - extended interview

The Icelandic prime minister talks to the NS about scrambling to rescue an economy under pressure fr

Click here to see the interview as it appeared in this week's magazine.

How has your first year as prime minister been?
I have always worked hard, and seeing so many Icelanders make tremendous efforts to cope with difficult tasks and decisions inspires me to press for further reforms and to achieve concrete results. First, our aim is to revitalise the economy, balance the state finances and get troubled companies and families on their feet again. This cannot be done without facing the facts, identifying the reasons for the crash and determining who is responsible. Second, the government is taking decisions on law enforcement and changes in our governmental institutions in order to prevent a possible new meltdown in our financial system in the coming decades. Third, by reinforcing democratic processes, promoting better and more responsible governance and a reorganisation of the civil service, the government is opening a new path towards a better society, grounded in the ideals of the Nordic welfare state.

There is still a lot of anger in Iceland about the country's financial collapse. What are the next steps?
Feelings are mixed. Icelanders are both angry and full of sorrow and anxiety. They feel betrayed in many ways by the state, by the banks and by our allies. But the anger is also directed inwards - at ourselves as individuals and as a nation. Why did Icelanders let this happen? Sorting out those feelings will be a long and difficult process. This month, the findings of the parliamentary inquiry into the crash will be published and it's up to the Althing [national parliament] and the government to respond properly and in a trustworthy manner. An extensive judicial process into possible misconduct by financial institutions and other principal players is also ongoing. This will all take time but eventually the reckoning will take place and those suspected of misdoings will be prosecuted. At the same time, the government is pressing on with extensive reform of the financial markets and a radical restructuring of the civil service and the state institutions, in order to ensure that the collapse will not be repeated in the foreseeable future.

How is your relationship with Gordon Brown, given the disagreements over Icesave?
I met him briefly at the COP15 meeting in Copenhagen. We have exchanged letters and spoken on the telephone last week, and our officials have maintained contact. In our conversation last Tuesday, I explained the present situation in Iceland regarding the Icesave bill.

The Icesave bill, and the underlying agreement with Britain, was passed by the Icelandic parliament on 30 December, but the president of Iceland deferred the bill to a national referendum to be held less than two months from now. That is his constitutional right, albeit highly unusual usage of the presidential powers. Mr Gordon Brown was of course disappointed by this delay, but declared his will to continued co-operation with the Icelandic government concerning those difficult circumstances. He expressed the same sentiments regarding Iceland's EU bid, as Foreign Minister David Miliband also conveyed to Iceland's foreign minister, Össur Skarphéðinsson, last week.

Countries have interests and diplomacy is usually not personal, but many Icelanders feel that last year Prime Minister Brown went beyond what can be justified by the protection of British national interests. In addition, the application of anti-terror legislation against a peaceful neighbour and Nato ally is unprecedented. I am convinced that, in a similar situation, the government of the UK would not apply this particular legislation against a larger European country. All of this needs to be discussed openly, while we move forward in repairing bilateral relations.

Are you still seeking to discuss the Icesave issue with him face to face?
In my discussions with Prime Minister Brown, I declared myself ready to meet him if we [both] deemed it productive to clarify and mend the relations between our countries.

What do you expect the outcome of the referendum to be?
The national referendum is in accordance with Iceland's constitution, and that deserves to be respected both at home and in other democratic neighbour countries. I'm convinced that the Icelandic voters will reach the right decision and, on that basis, we will keep on with our recovery plan, hopefully in good co-operation with the international community. You don't contest the judgement of the voters in a democratic society.

Is the request that Iceland repay its bankers' debts reasonable?
Understandably, almost every Icelander finds it unreasonable that Icelandic taxpayers should have to pay thousands of pounds each for a failed private bank, because of mistakes the taxpayers had nothing to do with. But someone has to pay, and the question is really how this burden should be divided between the parties involved.

Iceland has always maintained that the EU regulation on depositors' insurance is flawed, in the sense that it doesn't have relevance in a system crisis where the financial institutions of a country crash at one go. The regulatory bodies of the Netherlands and Britain should also be held accountable for their faulty control of the Icelandic bank Landsbanki in their respective countries. Up to now, we have been pretty isolated in this view, but we will keep on speaking for our opinions on this issue.

If Iceland does not repay its bankers' debts, is there a risk that the country will become an international pariah?
The parliament and three successive governments have stated that Iceland remains committed to honouring its obligations. However, the Icesave case has been deeply contested in Iceland, given the enormous economic burden involved.

If you take into consideration Iceland's progress in 2009 in implementing the economic recovery programme supported by the International Monetary Fund, the prolongation of the conclusion of the Icesave issue is a certain setback. However, Iceland's fundamentals remain strong -- Iceland will recover. We stay in close contact with the governments of the UK and the Netherlands, Nordic and other partner countries, and with the EU and the IMF, in order to explain the issue and the next steps.

How will Iceland's economy change, post-crash?
In future, the Icelandic economy will be based on sustainable use of its fishing stocks and energy resources, and the ingenuity and strength of its well-educated, vibrant, young population. The economy will not return to the flammable combination of high leverage and unbridled risk-taking that drove us into the financial crisis we are now overcoming.

Our international competitive sectors, including tourism, have rapidly become more important over the past 12 months. These sectors will continue to be of high importance and push the economy onwards to rapid recovery. Most importantly, we are restructuring a more stable economy that is returning to its roots as a Nordic welfare state.

To this end, I put great faith in the EU accession negotiations that we hope will start in early 2010. Membership of the European Union and adoption of the euro would secure the already extensive success we have made in restructuring and rebuilding our economy.

What benefits would EU membership bring?
Our goal in the membership negotiations is to reach an agreement that is in accordance with Iceland's fundamental interests as defined by the Althing. Recent polls indicate that public opinion is divided about EU membership, but I expect the nation to approve an agreement if a solution is found regarding fisheries and agriculture. We have been members of the European Single Market for 15 years through the European Economic Area Agreement, as well as being members of the Schengen Agreement, and I believe that the benefits are appreciated in my country.

EU membership will build confidence as regards the future of the Icelandic economy and give a clear sign of direction. This is very important in the light of the circumstances. In addition, we would gain a voice within EU institutions and be able to rely on European solidarity. Prices of certain consumer goods should fall, and the EU's regional policy would be beneficial to the remote regions of Iceland.

Membership would also allow for adoption of the euro, which would reduce the costs we pay to maintain the world's smallest independent currency. We would expect less economic volatility, lower interest rates and funding costs closer to those enjoyed by other European economies.

Your economic "stability pact" received a mixed response from trade unions. As a former union organiser, do you still feel loyal to them?
Times in Iceland are hard for everyone and the trade unions feel the burden of accepting wage cuts, cuts in social expenditure and the rise in income taxes. Nevertheless, they are taking full part in stabilising the economy for the common good.

The trade unions participate in managing the pensions funds, which are fully funded by 10 per cent of the pool of wages each year, and they manage capital the equivalent of 150 per cent of GNP. These funds play an important role in Iceland, as they give us means to invest in large-scale infrastructure programmes, which will raise the employment level in the difficult times ahead. I have given my word on implementing the stability pact, and despite all obstacles I will do my best.

Your government is 50 per cent female. Is equality important to your vision for Iceland?
Definitely! My long experience in politics tells me that egalitarian policies are the best way to unite and empower people, and are also a necessary counterweight to the sometimes dividing and detrimental influence of market forces. A society that does not use the intellectual power of its female population fully is not a wise society. Women are now the majority of students in the Icelandic universities, and 43 per cent of our MPs.

We have to use all our resources to bounce back from the recession and we expect women to take their full part in the new era. Most women are not as tainted by mistakes in the conduct of the economy as the male population, and now they deserve an opportunity. We are determined to achieve gender equality in the political sphere but, unfortunately, the corporate side is still lacking. This is odd, because international research shows that companies with a sound gender policy are better run and more profitable than male-dominated companies. We are prepared to introduce legislation that would actively encourage the private sector to adopt a wiser and more effective gender policy.

By the way, it's not a coincidence that the World Economic Forum recently ranked Iceland first in its annual, 134-country survey of gender equality, followed closely by Norway, Finland and Sweden. We would like to keep that position!

You called for Davíð Oddsson, the former head of Iceland's Central Bank, to stand down. He now edits the Morgunblaðið newspaper. How do you feel about his current job?
It has become a quite common view that he has turned Morgunblaðið into a campaign organ for his own views, rather than a broad-minded newspaper on the right. His assignment is a decision the owners of Morgunblaðið have to stand by, and is not for me to comment on.

Iceland is already experiencing signs of climate change. What moves is your government making to combat it? How can those be reconciled with the need to focus on the economy?
The Icelandic government will soon publish its action plan for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, recovering wetlands and increasing forestation. In Iceland, renewable energy has supplied 90 per cent of the primary energy needs since 1999 -- proportionally more than any other country. Geothermal sources are also used to heat 89 per cent of our buildings.

Our aim is to become completely energy-independent, using 100 per cent renewable energy sources. This will take time but makes ecological and economic sense.

Following the oil crises in the 1970s, Iceland turned geothermal, and this has led to great savings in the national economy. Some estimates say Iceland is saving as much as a year's national income every 11 to 12 years by virtue of that foresight.

Is there a plan?
A plan provides focus, but it is not an end in itself.

What would you like to forget?
I would like to remember all and be able to forgive everything -- in due course!

Are we all doomed?
Our time is limited, but the spirit is free.

Click here to see the interview as it appeared in this week's magazine.

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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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