We ain't seen nothin' yet'

The battle between Clinton and Obama has been peculiarly unpleasant. Just wait, says our US editor,

You can't even take your dog for a walk in Georgetown without seeing them. The signs for Senator Barack Obama's campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination that sprout from immaculately manicured lawns are strikingly simple: the legend "Obama '08" stands out from a dark-blue background, topped by a symbolic sun rising from patriotic red-and-white rays. It's the same in similarly all-white, wealthy DC neighbourhoods such as Cleveland Park or Chevy Chase. But drive a few minutes into almost entirely black or Latino areas of the city, and there is nary an Obama sign to be seen.

Yes, this is a truly complicated election. We will come to the convoluted role race is playing in it in a moment. But it is positively surreal, meantime, to be told by normally rational and informed friends in Britain that America is in the midst of a glorious democratic uprising that is being led by this phenomenally messianic figure called Barack Obama.

Even Jack Straw seemed to have caught this fever when he breezed in to town a few days ago and gushed to a DC audience about "your enviable notion of civic duty". When I pressed him about what he meant by this admirable American trait, he replied: "For example, an obligation to take part in the democratic system." It would not have seemed kind (and I was shut up by the chairman, in any case) to bring Straw back down to earth by telling him that only 70-75 per cent of Americans even bother to register to vote, or that voter turnout averages 76 per cent in Britain and 54 per cent in the US.

Perhaps it will be higher this year. But you know Brits do not fully understand what is going on here when William Rees-Mogg thunders in the Times that it is now "hard to see" who can stop Obama from becoming the next president because, "like Kennedy, he is young and speaks for the new generation of American politics". Eh? Never mind that JFK had won four Second World War medals, served six years in the House of Representatives, eight in the Senate, almost three years as US president, and was dead and buried before he had even reached Obama's present age.

Before we go any further, however, a reality check. National polls indicate that the next president will be . . . John McCain, Obama, or Clinton (in that order, but none separated by more than 2.4 percentage points, and all thus within statistical margins of error). At the time of writing, while the outcome of the Democratic primaries in Hawaii and Wisconsin is not yet clear, the latest amalgamated national polls for the Democrats have Obama at 45.2 per cent and Clinton at 43.2 per cent. The winning candidate must land the crucial figure of 2,025 delegates; last Monday evening, Obama had 1,302 delegates and Clinton 1,235. But it is all wildly volatile.

Clinton's team has been beset by internal squabbling, departures and money problems, sure signs that a campaign is in trouble. But polls (and, yes, they may change) suggest that Clinton is ahead of Obama in the next two critical primaries, in Texas and Ohio on 4 March (which have 389 delegates between them); yet even if she wins both, the Clinton campaign expects her still to be trailing Obama.

Deadlock

But then there will be 12 more primaries or caucuses still to come, the last in Puerto Rico on 7 June. If deadlock remains, the Obama and Clinton campaigns will fight a furious battle over whether Democrats in Michigan and Florida (with 366 delegates between them) should go to the polls again - or whether the votes in those states on 15 and 29 January respectively, which Clinton won by 15.5 and 16.7 points, should stand (but which party rules forbid).

Finally, the decision could be delayed until the party convention in Denver in August and lie in the hands of the 795 "super-delegates" whom both sides are now frantically wooing.

Not least, alas, by financial inducements. The non-partisan Centre for Responsive Politics says that Obama has doled out $698,200 to the campaign funds of super-delegates (via his political action or campaign committees) since 2005; 43 per cent of those pledged to support him have been recipients of Obama funds. Clinton's team has handed over $205,500 to super-delegates, meanwhile, and received only 13 per cent of pledges from recipients.

Yet, ironically, the US media is waking up to some of the realities about Obama just as British enthusiasm is peaking. Jake Tapper of ABC likens Obama's supporters to Hare Krishna chanters. Joel Stein of the Los Angeles Times says that at first he was mesmerised by Obama's nonsensical lines ("We are the ones we've been waiting for"), but now talks about the "Cult of Obama" and "Obamaphilia". The reality of Obama, Stein concludes, is that he is a politician who is "not a brave one taking risky positions like Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich, but a mainstream one".

That is the point which so many commentators, both here and in the UK, have been missing. You have to have lived here for a decade or two before you fully understand why the evil legacy of slavery will be extant for generations to come. You just have to read the 1848 "Black Code" of Georgetown to begin to comprehend the sheer wickedness of what was happening in my own neighbourhood 150 years ago.

Crucially, however, Obama is not a descendant of slaves. He is a biracial, prep-schooled Ivy Leaguer whose upbringing in Hawaii was in effect white; his entire political career has been choreographed by David Axelrod, a political tactician described by the New York Times as "post-ideological", from the day they first met when Obama was just 30 (and four years before the publication of his first memoirs).

Fast-forward to the 2008 election. David Greenberg, of Rutgers University, who is at present writing a book about political spin, says of Obama that "no one claims his agenda entails radical innovation or differs much from Hillary Clinton's", but that supporting Obama makes whites "feel good about themselves" and their country. "He lets them imagine that a nation founded for freedom yet built on slavery can be redeemed by pulling a lever," he says.

In contrast, Greenberg adds, the media barely noticed when Hillary Clinton became the first woman in US history to win a major-party primary. Exit-poll data bears out exactly the bias Greenberg detects. In Virginia - Virginia! - white men voted more for Obama than Clinton, as they also did in nine other states. Yet in racial melting-pot states such as Nevada, California, Massachusetts and New York, it was Clinton who won; it is the whitest states that are the wildest about Obama (such as Idaho, which the latest census figures show to be 96.8 per cent white, where he beat Clinton 79-17 per cent).

Those earning less than $50,000 a year are consistently voting for Clinton, while Obama is scoring resoundingly with the so-called "millennium generation" earning over $150,000; the journalists who have been so starry-eyed about Obama fit neatly into the latter demographic bracket themselves, and seem to have avoided scrutinising Obama's record lest they be accused of racism. Michelle Obama, too, is still being afforded constant favourable exposure. In contrast, it is open season on both Clintons, the most scrutinised couple in history; for Hillary's candidature, Bill and the prospect of his being back in the White House have become her biggest liabilities.

Perversely, therefore, the brilliance of the Axelrod strategy has meant that Obama has become the beneficiary of America's racist history, while Clinton has been the victim of its sexism. The Obama team's deft use of race has also worked magic. Hillary Clinton said on 7 January that Martin Luther King's dream needed to be realised in concert with Lyndon B Johnson's passage of the Civil Rights Act 1964, and on the same day her husband dismissed Obama's claims of consistent opposition to the Iraq War as "a fairy tale"; an Obama press aide seized the moment and put out a four-page memo that somehow accused the couple of using racist tactics against Obama.

A thorough swiftboating

That label has stuck ever since (although, char acteristically, Obama and Axelrod subsequently disowned the memo); and the African-American vote, which was once solidly Clinton's, swung dramatically to Obama. In what may have been a sign that he has lost his old touch, Bill Clinton later made the fatal mistake of likening Obama's victory in South Carolina to that of Jesse Jackson in 1988 - a comparison Jackson himself nonetheless thought perfectly reasonable - and the "racist" smear by Obama's camp had stuck for posterity.

Whether McCain's opponent is Obama or Clinton, however, either can expect a thorough swiftboating by the Republicans in the run-up to the 4 November election, just as the characters of Al Gore and John Kerry were torn to shreds in 2000 and 2004. Obama will be slain for his inexperience and for making things up in his memoirs; Clinton for being a "strident" woman (a sexist code word if ever there was one) who stayed inexplicably married to the biggest monster of all time, Bill.

The Republicans held their first 2008 electoral war conference at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel over the 16-18 February holiday weekend, and Axelrod's nemesis, Karl Rove, was in attendance. This year's battle between the Democrats is already peculiarly unpleasant. But, in the words of the legendary Old Gipper, whose name will be endlessly evoked by every Republican for the next nine months, we ain't seen nothing yet.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn

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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