The secrets of indoor shopping

The mall is back in town. No longer relegated to the suburbs, it is setting up shop again in our urb

Mother-daughter combos are doing the H&M run, bored dads hang around the Apple Store and the Build-a-Bear Workshop is babysitting the kids. It's a busy afternoon at the Arndale centre in Manchester, though not quite as chocka as 27 December last year - the busiest day in the centre's history, when 180,000 people piled in for the post-Christmas sales. By 5am, when Next opened, there were already a thousand people outside. Who said the future of retail was online?

For teenagers like me, growing up near Manchester in the 1980s, the Arndale was a grotty Saturday-afternoon Mecca. It drew nearly a million shoppers a week despite being the most spirit-sapping building, with an exterior of dirty yellow tiling aptly named "the longest lavatory wall in Europe". After an IRA bomb destroyed the centre's western end in June 1996, Mancunians waited a decent interval before lamenting that the bombers hadn't parked their car at the other end of Market Street, which might have destroyed the whole building. Now the entire Arndale has been redeveloped and expanded. Covering 1.4 million square feet of retail space, it is the largest urban shopping centre in Britain.

The Manchester bomb simply speeded up a process that is happening throughout the country: the shopping mall is back in town. The acreage of retail floor space under construction in the UK is larger than at any time since 1991. And, according to the British Council of Shopping Centres, more than half of it is in town centres, a proportion that has been rising gradually from a low of 14 per cent in 1994.

Two things have happened. First, the trend for building out-of-town malls that began in the Thatcher era - a combined effect of the urban property boom and the easing of planning restrictions on suburban sites - ended with the "town centres first" policy, introduced at the end of the John Major era. Second, retail has been tied to the vision of urban "regeneration", a word once used to describe the revival of troubled inner-city areas but now a catch-all term for any sort of commercial dev elopment. The game of the regeneration com panies that use public money to stimulate pri vate investment is boo sterism, which aims at presenting cities as happening, vibrant places in order to lure in "upmarket" consumers and "high-quality" investors. Indoor shopping centres seem to fit the bill because they offer the attractions of city life without its discomforts - a sort of cleaned-up urbanism minus the rain, traffic fumes and hassle.

Regeneration sees itself as a rootless process of "modernisation", apparently unaware that the rebuilding of city centres has a long history. Window-shopping and people-watching became popular pastimes in the beautiful iron-and-glass arcades built in Paris in the 19th century. Their appeal was twofold: shelter from the elements and refuge from hoi polloi. You can find modest versions of these posh 19th-century arcades that survive in Britain, such as Burlington in London and the Royal Exchange in Manchester.

After the Second World War, this vision of retail spaces took hold in Britain. In the 1950s, there were the pedestrianised outdoor precincts; then, inspired by the US suburban malls, came the 1960s dream of "coatless shopping" in temperature-controlled halls. These shopping centres were imagined as great civic spaces with tropical plants, ornamental fountains and aviaries of exotic birds. "Be amazed . . . there's nothing quite like it in the world," proclaimed the publicity film for the Birmingham Bull Ring, which opened in 1964. It promised uniformed valets to take care of shoppers' cars, pram parks for mothers, and soothing Muzak to create "a warm, gay and welcoming atmosphere . . . strains brought on by boredom are removed from staff, making service a real pleasure". Martin Parr's funny, sad book Boring Postcards (1999), with its interiors of the Crossgates Arndale Centre and Swansea's Quadrant Arcade, evokes this thrill of the new.

Yet the Manchester Arndale, a huge concrete box that flattened a maze of characterful Victorian streets, was loathed from the start. By the time it was completed in 1979, earlier similar shopping centres were already seen as planning disasters. In the 1990s, many of the old shopping centres were "de-Arndaled" - given new names to cast off these unfortunate associations. But the most notorious example has bravely stuck with its old name, even if it is now no longer a centre, but "Manchester Arndale".

In the original Arndale centres, the walkways were deliberately kept dark so that the lights from the shops would shine out like beacons, guiding consumers through the gloom into the inviting arms of W H Smith and C&A. Now all is light and space, with see-through elevators, glazed roofs and high ceilings to direct your gaze up to the upper levels, where units are usually harder to let. Concrete, the material of the older malls, suggested the solidity and permanence of the great provincial project. Glass, by contrast, is an invitation to look and consume.

Brand new world

Like a flâneur in the Parisian arcades, I stroll through Halle Square, Exchange Court and the Wintergarden. The different areas of the Arndale have been given place names that suggest metropolitan bustle and community. This is the urbanist orthodoxy inspired by Richard Rogers's Towards an Urban Renaissance (1999), which reimagined Britain's cities along the gregariously Continental model of boulevards, piazzas and ramblas. Even in America, where big-box malls originated, shopping centres have been given "mall-overs", their atria opened to the air in order to evoke the flavour of downtown.

The difference is that the shopping mall is private property, controlled by its management on their terms. The cultural critic John Fiske once described the mall excitedly as a "terrain of guerrilla warfare", waged between mall owners and stores (the occupying army) and individual shoppers (the guerrilla fighters), who could cannily enjoy the warmth, sensual stimulation and seating of the malls without actually spending anything. In the new malls, however, the guerrilla fighters have nowhere to regroup. In the 1980s, my peers would while away a Saturday running the wrong way up the escalators or staging water fights in the fountains. At the new Arndale, this kind of loitering has been discouraged by the simple ploy of getting rid of all the seats.

Despite the invitations to conviviality posted up on the walls ("Come together in Exchange Court", "It's hip to be in the square"), it is hard to meet in these places other than at Starbucks or Costa Coffee, which presumably are quite happy about this. A few teenagers forlornly toy with skateboards, put each other in headlocks or crouch on the floor by the hoardings, but the "mall rat" is an endangered species. Some American shopping centres select their background music to discourage teenagers from hanging out there, Frank Sinatra and Mozart apparently being most effective. In Britain, they employ a simpler strategy: depriving them of anywhere to sit.

All you can really do in the new urban shopping centre is walk and shop. America has a tribe of people known as mall walkers - those of a certain age who stride purposefully through the malls for personal fitness or "mallercise". British shoppers prefer to meander purposelessly, apparently unaware of the designs that the mall has on them. We know this because, since the first urban malls were created in the 1960s, a new quasi-scholarly discipline has developed: retail anthropology, the study of shopper behaviour. In the old Arndales, customers complained of getting lost in the maze of dim corridors. Today, thanks to what retailers inevitably call "wayfinding solutions", getting about is much easier. Information desks and touch-screen maps guide you through the labyrinth, but you come across things in the order that the mall owners prefer.

The toilets in the new malls seem intentionally out of the way, forcing you to pass as many window displays as possible. The signs steer you subtly around corners and into less accessible areas. And as malls are essentially a rigged market, the composition of the stores can be carefully calibrated. The mix of fashion chains, accessories shops and "treat" stores such as Hotel Chocolat is gender-biased because, by my reckoning, women outnumber men by three to two. I see one pass the Shoe Zone shop, look at her feet, have a quick chat with her friend, and go inside. Retail anthropology in action.

The non-place to be

In return for being gently manipulated, you get ease and comfort. The French anthropologist Marc Augé has identified a kind of space in modern capitalist societies, the "non-place". Non-places are globally standardised mini-societies such as airports and shopping malls, where faceless, contractual obligations replace human interaction: "Have your boarding card ready", "Sign on the dotted line", "Key in your Pin". Non-places offer a super-comfortable, well-managed, anaesthetised version of daily life. Or, as one shopping widower told me outside Bershka while his wife and daughter shopped inside: "This place used to be the arsehole of Manchester. But at least it was our arsehole. Now it's just like Heathrow Airport."

I know what he means, but I still think the new Arndale is an improvement on the old one, which was just as bland and monocultural, except it came with litter, dirty floors and flooded toilets. (Arndale's new loos are all chrome and marble surrounds - worthy winners at the Loo of the Year Awards 2006.) Essential bodily functions are well catered for in the modern mall; inessential ones, like having to sit down, less so.

It's all a question of money and maths. In The Call of the Mall (2004), the retail anthropologist Paco Underhill argues that the shopping mall's main problem is its "lack of mercantile DNA". Malls might house retailers, but they are built, owned and run by property developers. They take on all the financial risk - buying the land, securing planning permission, hiring architects - and want the biggest return for the least investment. Their priority is not, as it might be for the retailers, making the mall an enticing place in its own right; instead, they worry about building it in the right place and doing the sums properly. They live by the axiom "Location, location, location", reputedly coined by Harold Samuel, founder of the Land Securities company, which has developed shopping malls since the 1960s.

One of the unstated agendas of urban regeneration is to rid the city centre of its "incongruous" elements. In Liverpool, this has meant displacing the informal enterprise economy: getting rid of the city's market stalls that cluttered the main pedestrianised street, the traders who sold yo-yos out of suitcases, and the beggars and Big Issue vendors. The mall represents this kind of retail cleansing in excelsis. When it reopened in September last year, the Arndale food hall was reinvented as a cross between a farmers' market and Covent Garden, with a minimalist design and cool-blue colour scheme. Not that I am complaining about the sushi bars and posh bread shops, but I do feel sorry for the market traders who weren't chichi enough for the make-over.

The arguments are the same as those advanced when the old shopping centres were built in the 1960s. Northern towns must adapt because of the loss of old industries, the competition from out of town and the "drift to the south". Designer chains and bijou stores, perhaps even a glut of such shops, are essential for the jobs they provide, the high rates they pay and the kudos they bring. When hopes for urban renewal are invested in the nebulous qualities of investor confidence and the consumer feel-good factor, the effect can be peculiarly passive and infanti lising. The big news in a northern city is when an "upmarket" store deigns to open a branch outside London. Why, Mr Selfridge, you are really spoiling us.

Now every town in Britain seems to be expanding and refurbishing its shopping centre or building a new one, invariably described as "bright" and "contemporary". As online shopping takes over the business of routine provisioning, mall owners are putting their faith in what they call "experiential retail" - shopping for fun and relaxation. But I wonder whether the smaller towns can sustain this much shopping, and hope that these bright, contemporary spaces will not become the raw material for another book of Boring Postcards, circa 2037. If the new malls are not producing the same kind of utopian excitement as the Bull Ring did, perhaps it is because real-estate investment, rather than the demands of consumers, is pushing the growth of retail space. Given the hard calculations of the property market, the new malls offer rather less magical forms of "experiential retail" than the Parisian arcades. You can literally shop till you drop - but it would be nice if you also had somewhere to sit.

Joe Moran's "Queuing for Beginners" is published by Profile Books in May (£14.99)

Record-beating malls

86 number of crates of crystal transported from China for the Great Hall chandelier, Trafford Centre, Manchester - said to be world's biggest

7.1 million number of square feet covered by the South China Mall in Dongguan, Guangdong Province. The mall is the world's largest

40 million yearly number of people who visit the Mall of America in Minnesota, making it the most visited in the world

£95 average amount spent by shoppers on a single visit to Lakeside Shopping Centre, Essex

50 million number of cappuccinos drunk at Bluewater since it opened in 1999

Research by Lucy Knight

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war

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