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False ending

Muammar Gaddafi is dead but the women of Libya remain fearful.

"I was one of the few women who went out to the first protest in Tripoli on 22 February, and shortly after that I joined 17 February Youth Coalition, a rebel group. We had a medical section, a communications section and later, of course, a military cell," says Mounia Al Saghir. She is 22, veiled, soft-spoken and fearless - a student, NGO worker and now a revolutionary.

We speak on 20 October, the evening of Muammar Gaddafi's death. Mounia says she is "overwhelmed", but she speaks calmly and steadily to describe her work for the Youth Coalition. She began on a guerrilla propaganda campaign, organising high-risk publicity stunts designed to prove that despite the bloody suppression of Tripoli's February uprising, the opposition movement was alive and unrepentant. Red, black and green balloons were released over Tripoli's skyline, opposition flags unfurled from high buildings and Gaddafi posters set alight in crowded public spaces.

When the military cell formed, the group's attention shifted. One female member helped organise a failed assassination attempt on Saif al Islam Gaddafi in July. She was later arrested, imprisoned and mercifully released, but not without suffering appalling abuse. "They electrocuted her, they beat her, she had 16 broken bones. She didn't drink, she didn't eat anything," Mounia says quietly.

Mounia too had a narrow escape after smuggling videos and instruction manuals abroad. When a police car pulled up outside her home, she was forced to spend a month in hiding while her father was repeatedly interrogated by secret services. "I was terrified, I thought they would beat or torture him," she says.

Her voice only falters once, when she describes why she joined the rebels. Her friend Ahmed had told her about the initial anti-government protests planned for the 17 February, but on the 11 February Ahmed was arrested. He died in prison. Only one of the thirty men in his cell survived to confirm the deaths. "So I joined because I had to," she explains. "For my friends who were killed, for me, for everyone who wanted to and didn't know how."

Mounia is a close friend. I met her in late 2008 when I first moved to Libya to work for the United Nations Development Programme, and until the uprising we met often, for dinner or coffee on sunny seaside terraces when Tripoli was still a sleepy Mediterranean town. Although she had spoken vaguely of her previous political work, I was unprepared for her stories. But war changes everything, a point that is boringly self-evident when considered in the abstract and yet takes on new meaning when, as I did, you watch unhappily and guiltily from the side-lines as your former home is ripped apart by brutal conflict.

Gaddafi's gory, televised death marked more than the removal of a figurehead, or even the dismantling of a political system: it tore through the fabric of Libyan society. In the coming months and years, Libyans will not only be renegotiating the relationship between citizens and the state, but also their relationships with each other. And women like Mounia, who worked alongside men in the anti-Gaddafi struggle, do not want to relinquish their new found freedom, power, and respect.

Politically, Libyan women had not fared too badly compared to other Arab states, in the sense that in his complete denial of any meaningful form of popular political expression, Gaddafi treated both sexes with equanimity. Women were not barred from any professions, female employment and education was slowly improving, forced marriage had been outlawed, and female divorce rights marginally strengthened. A handful of women even made it to high office, but figures like Huda 'the executioner' Ben Amer, who first earned Gaddafi's favour by tugging at the legs of a hanging dissident, had limited appeal as a role model for ambitious young women. In general, social conservatism proved a greater constraint on women than the legal system.

It was even okay to care about women's rights -- provided you adhered to Gaddafi's state-sponsored feminism. When Alaa Murabit formed a women's development NGO last year, things went "really well for the first month and a half", she says. She was excited when Watassemu, the charity headed by Gaddafi's daughter, Aisha, got in touch. "We thought we were going to get money," she explains, but instead they forced her to shut the organisation down.

Alaa's NGO, The Voice of Libyan Women, co-founded with her close friend Safiya El Harezi, now has around 60 signed-up members and a network of 1,500 volunteers. It developed from her activities during the revolution, when she began calling on the women of her hometown of Zawiya to help her smuggle medical supplies for her makeshift field clinic. This network of smugglers formed their initial membership base.

"To ask for rights, women have to do something," Alaa explains. "And during the revolution they did that, they did everything a man could do, so now no-one can say 'you don't deserve this, you can't handle this.' We saw an opportunity in that."

For every woman smuggling weapons, information or medicines, planning bomb attacks or fighting alongside rebels, there were countless other women taking up vital, sometimes equally dangerous, support roles. Women stitched opposition flags and operated safe-houses and the famous 'mothers for all rebel fighters' cooked for hundreds of soldiers. With the men at war, women broke widely-accepted social rules against driving, grocery shopping and running the household without male oversight.

This has changed women's self-perception, says Issraa Murabit, a 19 year old medical student and citizen journalist. "Women are starting to realise that their importance doesn't rely on the men in their lives," she observes. Mounia agrees the biggest transformation has been internal: "Now, if a man talks to a woman on the street she speaks back clearly, she's confident and not scared anymore. Women were shot or raped, they saw all sorts of things, so they are not frightened anymore."

The women I speak to all reject the 'MTV model' of female liberation that has made such a profound, often confused, impression on the Arab world. They are more interested in choice and education than in sexual liberation, more concerned with freedom than with imposing any particular lifestyle on women. "I want to be clear that everyone's model of liberation is different. We're not telling anyone to go out and work if they don't want to, we're just saying 'know that you have a choice'," says Alaa. "My parents were very strict about going to friends' houses or parties, but if I'd said 'I have to go to the moon to get educated' they would have said 'fine'. And that's the kind of model we're pushing for. I'm not saying let your daughter go out partying all night, I'm just saying 'let them have an education, give them the same opportunities as your son'."

A small number of women protesters have made it into Libya's National Transitional Council. Najla El Mangoush, a mother of two, lawyer and university professor, was one of a handful of women to join the first public demonstrations in Benghazi in February and is now head of public engagement. She insists she is not interested in political power. "A political role is not my dream. My dream is to play a big role in my community, to give something to my country, to be in a position where I can make a difference. A lot of women are like me. Political ideas are new for Libyan women. Women don't have any experience of this; they feel like it is not right for them to be there. And most Libyans lived normal lives, in a closed community, they don't have dreams to be something political, because we feel all these years that those involved in politics are bad men."

The women interviewed represent a small yet influential segment of the population: highly educated, politically aware and from the relatively liberal coastal cities. The deeper you travel into the desert hinterland and the further you stray from urban areas, the more conservative Libya becomes. What has become, I wonder, of the shy, cloistered women I met in the oasis town of Kufra, where I didn't see a single woman walking on the streets? Or the forgotten Libyans living in abject poverty in the desert -- the Bedouin family I came across who, in the absence of healthcare, were forced to amputate their three year old child's leg without anaesthetic to save him from a snake bite -- what say will they have in Free Libya?

Despite their hopes, none of the women I speak to feel optimistic for the future. The Libya liberation speech issued by the head of the NTC, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, on 23 October has not helped. The Voice of Libyan Women has already issued an angry response. It wrote: "He had so many more important issues to address. However, he focused on polygamy, and not only that but [he] thanked women for their roles as "mothers, sisters and wives." Need we remind him of the countless women who got arrested, killed and raped during this revolution?"

Mounia sounds sad when I call her after the speech. "Sometimes I worry that things could get worse for women, rather than better," she says. But she is also defiant: "I will keep on fighting for women's rights. They can throw me in prison, I'm not scared," she adds, and I know that she means it.

The women know that ultimately success will be measured in years, not months. "I always tell people you should be more patient. You waited more than 40 years, we suffered a lot. But now if we want to build Libya, we'll build it from zero," says Najla.

The aftermath of Libya's devastating civil war and revolution presents both near-endless opportunity and near-endless risk for Libyan men and women alike. But the Libyan women who risked their lives in the hope of freedom wouldn't want it any other way.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?

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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