New Media Awards - How to freshen up democracy

Imagine tracking your tax form, following a planning inquiry or lobbying your MP, all from home. Pat

Jack Straw's secret is now thrillingly out in the open. Against all expectations, the new draft freedom of information bill is the most radical departure this government has yet undertaken. Straw and his advisers have rejected the old and apparently bold white paper he took over from David Clark as being too 20th century for the 21st century we are about to enter.

Straw's bill, introducing what the Home Secretary calls "open-book government", will give everyone in reach of a PC, a digital TV or a telephone direct interactive access to policy information and their own personal files. Central government, local authorities, all public bodies and other significant institutions in modern Britain will have to adopt the Home Secretary's vision.

So anyone trying to piece together official policies and data will be able to do it for themselves, without relying on official gatekeepers in government or media interpretations of the news. Everyone dealing with a government department, local council or other public authority - over, say, their income tax, an immigration decision, a pension or welfare benefit - will be able to discover how their own case is being handled. Using a personal identification number, they will be able to find what stage their application has reached and who is handling it, without having to phone officials or visit government offices to find out what is happening.

Straw's bill includes funding to provide PC access points in all major public libraries, town halls and neighbourhood offices, social security offices, citizen's advice bureaux and other advice agencies.

In our dreams. Unfortunately, Straw adheres firmly to mid- century beliefs about the role of the state. The man (or woman) in Whitehall may no longer know best, but much of what he or she knows is best kept secret, and especially so if they are in the Home Office, the security forces or the police. So freedom of information legislation will probably be a far more conservative version of Clark's white paper plans, and will make little or no reference to the potential for electronic transparency and accountability.

But we should not assume that ministers can hold back the tide indefinitely. Government departments are constantly compared with private corporations in how they handle inquiries, complaints and access to information. If you send a parcel overseas via DHL, you get a code number that allows you to access the company's databases and track its progress, and if the parcel is going the wrong way, a simple e-mail to DHL ensures that it is redirected correctly and you are compensated. If these service standards become commonplace in the private sector, government can hardly stand aloof.

People who pay tax, who want to track a relative's application to enter Britain, or who apply (electronically) for a state benefit will increasingly expect to receive an immediate code reference - and to be able to dial up and track the progress of their "transaction". Claimants need never again be told that their giro is "in the post". It won't matter if a tax inspector is in or out of the office, you should still be able to find out exactly what is going on.

What we are talking about here is "open-book government". And it would reveal much more information about how government operates, how complex it is and how arcane many processes are. It would thus surely lead to better government.

This is the potential that should be driving reform. But what are the obstacles? First, the official mindset regards new information technology at best as a faster and cheaper means of doing what has always been done. When government systems were first computerised they were not "re-engineered" to make them simple and efficient - they were just shifted over as they were. The Conservative government's passion for contracting out government IT systems made things worse - civil servants no longer fully understand their own departments' systems, let alone know how to restructure them. Rather than put in new investment or system renewals, the government simply passed the mess on to the major IT companies.

Second, Whitehall by and large still regards the web as a small-scale change, a new opportunity for PR, a convenient place to store ministers' biographies, current departmental press releases and odd bits of public information, updated once or twice every three years. Despite pressure from Alastair Campbell's strategic communications unit for a unified "front end" for British government as a whole, government on the web remains an eclectic mess of different departments' and agencies' approaches. Whitehall cannot even get its act together to give the full information on the quangocrats who run the quango state, as recent Democratic Audit studies have shown. Yet that was one of Labour's pre-election pledges.

The existing government websites (and more so, local authority sites) are virtually all stand-alone, discrete operations - insulated from any connection to the actual working databases of departments and agencies. Whitehall officials react with horror to the idea that citizens might want to get beyond a public relations annex and gain access to core systems themselves. But that is what "open-book" systems are going to mean more and more in the private sector. So-called "web-enabled systems" are being used by corporations to create what they term "zero-touch" processes, which allow customers to access files electronically, place orders, pay and receive goods automatically - without a single employee so much as touching a keyboard. All this requires that web access goes straight into the company's main working systems. Sophisticated security systems protect companies' confidential information, rather than crude physical separation, as in Whitehall. The potential costs of freedom of information already trouble civil servants, but open-book government promises a self-funding, or even possibly a cost-saving, future for Whitehall.

This is the nub of it. Standard-issue freedom of information would make the quangos, as well as government at all levels, more transparent. But citizens would still have no access to meetings, to inspect minutes and verbatim transcripts of meetings, to know what meetings take place with interest groups, and so on. Add open-book government to the formula and suddenly the whole process moves far faster. The policies and decisions of the expert committees that rule on the safety of food and drugs, and control genetic experiments in the environment, hazardous substances, nuclear activities and waste, would at once be made open to peer-group review and public debate. The secret dealings that government departments and other authorities, including local councils, have with major national and local interest groups could be weighed against wider concepts of public consultation and interest.

Open-book government could also form a significant part of a new era of "electronic democracy". It need not simply improve access and transparency to government, but it could also help give new life and meaning to representative democracy as we know it. The same electronic advances could make public consultation and participation wider, easier and more diverse; and provide new media opportunities which could both focus and diversify the information people receive and obtain for themselves, as the old media fragment into more and more apolitical and specialised forms - sports channels, gardening channels, fashion channels, golf channels and so on.

A wonderful example of the potential here was the BBC's Election 97 website, which on election night itself recorded more than 1.5 million "hits". During the election, the website not only provided far more reliable basic information than any conventional mass media source, but it also allowed people to e-mail queries and get answers. As supposed experts in politics, we were stunned by the quality of the questions submitted, the insights they contained and the appetite for information and debate that they revealed - party policies, opinion polls, electoral trajectories and key issues were clarified and debated in depth. The site earned the BBC great credit. But not the aftermath. The site was briefly made permanent as "Politics 97", but has since been swept away in a Birtian re-modelling, cost-cutting and dumbing down of the BBC's entire web output.

Yet this and other innovations have shown the enormous potential for greater "discursive democracy". Government departments, local councils and other public bodies can make clear how they shape their policies and invite interested citizens and specialists to participate directly in determining them. Interactive question-and-answer sessions, policy forums, panels and discussion groups, planning consultations, chat-lines, even tabloid-style votes can all generate a great deal more information that policy-makers should consider. They could also give far more in-depth information more cheaply and conveniently, respond to people's questions and ideas and encourage the public to submit proposals for action.

Already the BSE inquiry has shown the way, transferring daily transcripts of its proceedings to the web within hours of witnesses having spoken. The potential for other public inquiries, parliamentary select committees and other central government bodies to do the same is immense. And at local level the possibilities for handling local planning decisions, plans for reorganising secondary schools or healthcare proposals are endless.

Electronic democracy opens up bigger questions about the relationship between politics and the media. Some commentators insist that the media perform an independent role, while critics allege that they are subject to a variety of pressures, including state dominance and political spin. But it is not too cynical to state that newspaper, TV and radio coverage is always mediated by forces and powers that are far from transparent; that the media reinforce powerful views and interests rather more often than they interrogate them; and that they seek to entertain rather than to inform.

Ten years from now, the media will be highly diversified, television viewers will be spoilt for choice, and the press will be a very special product indeed. But the new electronic media just might offer much more unmediated information - just as some television time will give raw access not only to major news dramas but also more specialised political and social happenings. Sky, for example, made a feature of unedited party political news conferences at the last election.

The government has a duty to kick-start the momentum for more diversified citizen access by introducing genuinely radical freedom of information laws and ending the era of closed-book government. The pressures for democratisation are running strongly in parallel with the desire for more efficient and effective government. Will new Labour seize the moment?

Patrick Dunleavy is professor of government at the London School of Economics; Stuart Weir is director of the Democratic Audit, University of Essex

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

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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