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Life after Tom Hurndall

Jocelyn Hurndall - whose son Tom was unlawfully killed by the Israeli Defence Forces as he tried to

I first visited Israel more than three decades ago in 1971. A carefree 21 year-old, I worked as a volunteer for a couple of months on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights, right on the border with Lebanon.

Today, I can still vividly recall landing at what was then called Lod airport with a group of other volunteers and being driven north for several hours through the clear starry night.

As we approached our destination there was a change of speed and a sense of getting higher and higher. We had to hold on to the sides of the lorry as it revved and manoeuvred round the bumpy U-bends.

Around midnight we stopped on the border road with Lebanon and I could hear voices talking in Hebrew, shouting orders.

Glaring lights outlined armed soldiers milling around a parked tank and other military vehicles were silhouetted against the pitch-black. "There’s a curfew," someone explained. "It starts at seven o’clock in the evening. So the military will have to escort us along the road to the kibbutz." I had never been in a society controlled by the military before; it felt strange and mildly alarming.

Throughout the whole time that I was there working alongside young kibbutzniks picking peaches within yards of the wire fence that marked the Lebanese border, I never once thought to ask why we needed soldiers standing guard at the corners of the field. I gasp now at my early politically naivety, though I could never in a million years have foreseen how my family would later become so caught up in one of the world’s most complex and intractable conflicts.

Thirty-two years later my son, Tom, was the same age when, as a photo-journalist wanting to make a difference, he travelled down to Rafah after the killing of peace activist, Rachel Corrie and UN project Manager, Iain Hook, a few weeks earlier.

I can imagine my curious son after having met with a family two days before and learning of the shooting of two civilian Palestinians joining a Palestinian demonstration against IDF violence. That day three children came under fire from an Israeli position and Tom ran forward to carry a little boy to safety. As he returned for the two remaining girls he was shot in the head and died following 9 months in a coma.


In the wake of Tom's death, Jocelyn Hurndall has devoted herself to the cause of Palestinian education

As happens after such life-changing moments, a line was drawn. The span of my life was abruptly dislocated and past, present and future no longer seemed to bear any relation to each other. In the months that followed our small family was to take on Israel’s most powerful institution, the Israeli Defence Forces, in a search for the facts about the shooting of our son.

Although I have since been re-stringing my life the feeling of disorientation lasted until I at last found a way of piecing the fragments together in a job. A particular job. In April 2008 I became Development Director of Friends of Birzeit University, which has been supporting education in the West Bank since 1978. As a former teacher and Head of Learning Support, I am acutely aware of the right of young Palestinians to education, which is being severely jeopardised at a time when the creation of future leaders has never been more vital.

In my new position, my past interest in education inclusion has merged with a cause from which I am now inseparable.

At the beginning of June, I visited the University to see for myself the effects of the Occupation on the lives of ordinary students and staff. Since Tom was shot I have crossed many checkpoints but this was different. There was no hint of tension as the Palestinian taxi driver drove me alongside the 16-foot high concrete slabs forming the backdrop to the approach to Ramallah and all seemed quiet as we passed smoothly through the 'upgraded' Qalandiya checkpoint from Jerusalem into the West Bank. The wall on the ‘Israeli’ side has been overlaid with attractive brickwork and night-lighting and the crossing was so seamless that I only realized we’d passed through because of the sudden disintegration of the road surface and the swirl of dust in the air.

I had anticipated the bored, uninterested looks and occasional unprovoked harassment of the young Israeli soldiers. In the past, my British passport and the circumstances of my visits to Gaza had afforded no protection, but I knew any harassment I faced now would be nothing in comparison to the intimidation experienced by the students I was soon to meet.

Previously I had been concerned with the rules of engagement, now I was entering another sphere of human rights – the right to education.

This was a time for gathering facts and I was interested to learn from Rajai Zidat, the Scholarships Officer, of recent student detentions and harassment. I discovered that in December 2007 Fadi Ahmad, the Head of Birzeit University’s Student Council, had been charged with belonging to and ‘holding a position of responsibility’ in an ‘illegal organization’. He is currently in Ofer prison and will be incarcerated for at least a year on what appears to be a legalistic means to punish young Palestinians engaged in political activity.

Between January and March alone, one employee and eight students were arrested, including Fadi’s replacement, Abdullah Owais, who is being held on similar grounds but is still awaiting trial.

The process of Administrative Detention is a system of imprisonment without charge. Secret evidence from Israeli intelligence is shown to the military judge and used to justify incarceration for a period up to six months, on a renewable basis. The reasons given are not communicated to the student or his lawyer and one Birzeit undergraduate has been held in Administrative Detention for three years.

Many students, regardless of whether they’re involved in student activities, undergo arbitrary questioning and if they object they are harassed at checkpoints, denied work permits and exposed to house invasions. A shocking 30 per cent of the student population living in Birzeit village are subjected to such 'interviews'.

And it is not only the students who are suffering. I met with the warm Dr Liza Taraki, Dean of Graduate Studies, who described to me the hardships experienced by lecturers and their lack of professional development, which is resulting in a brain drain.

What she told me endorsed all I had learnt about the state of Israel’s de facto control over which students and teachers can access the University. Since the beginning of 2006, many thousands of Palestinians with foreign passports and other foreign nationals have been denied entry to visit, work or study in the OPTs or are being threatened with deportation. Israel holds responsibility for these areas under the Geneva conventions, but flouts agreements of reciprocity in diplomacy and immigration rules with other states.

The university is struggling to thrive against all odds and when I met its president, Dr Nabil Kassis, I was struck by his dignity, calmness and quiet conviction. Here was someone who was fully aware of the conflict between students’ right to education on the one hand and the prohibitions brought about by the Occupation on the other - and the need for international intervention.

During our meeting, there was a commotion outside and as he reached to close the window he said, “A student was shot last year. This week the students are remembering him. Everyone is affected when such tragedies happen.”

The University usually receives around USD$1.5m from the Palestinian Authority (PA) every year as part of the normal package given to all universities proportional to their size. However, during the economic blockade of the Hamas government after the Parliamentary elections in 2006, the PA could only transfer a mere drop of these funds, leaving the University short of USD$1.2m.

As a former teacher it was hard to take on board the fact that staff salaries were halved for two months, 3,000 students were unable to pay fees and went on strike, and the annual budget was severely affected. As Dr Kassis observed, “It’s contrary to everything you expect in the academic world. You expect the possibility of open-mindedness and this goes to the core of the principle of academic freedom”.

On my final day, I attended a morning of impressive professional training of the Schools Counsellors, who give excellent practical and psychological support to many students at Birzeit who have suffered from harassment and poverty and as my first visit to the University came to an end, I felt more strongly than ever that the three areas that should never be politicised – health, education and the civilian judiciary system – had indeed become deeply entangled.

Tom’s courage brought me here. We learn much from risk-takers and personal tragedy can bring great creativity – but how many risk-takers will there need to be before the international community is provoked into upholding international law with regard to the education rights of young Palestinians?

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
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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