Diehard teen republicans

Matt Kennard reports from the Republican convention where he's already met with Republicans young an

As I got into St. Paul airport at about 1pm also arriving were the 50-strong Junior Statesman contingent from all over the United States. A collection of diehard teen Republicans who had come to meet lawmakers and officials for a week of festivities, they were noticeable a mile off.

I spoke first to preppy looking Matthew Zubrow, a 17-year-old from Fast Hills, New Jersey. “I believe in McCain because he is a fiscal and social conservative and he is right for America,” he said, like an automaton. “He has more experience than Obama.”

At this moment his friend sitting next to him got involved. A diminutive 15-year-old called Brendan Zehner he reeled off a scary and perfectly delivered set of Republican shibboleths. “I’m not pro-McCain but I definitely don’t want Obama winning,” he said. “McCain is too liberal for me,” he continued, “his energy plan, his cap-and trade policy fails economically, and he doesn’t support drilling in Alaska, that would make us much less dependent on oil from the Middle East and Venezuela. But at least he doesn’t want to tax the people creating the jobs,” said the 15-year-old.

Zubrow agreed. “In some respects McCain is too liberal. Overall I feel he is excellent and despite what I disagree with he’s a good, honest person; I know because I interned for the campaign this summer.”

But what do they think about Bush, the mega-unpopular Republican now in the White House. “In theory Bush is not the problem, he hasn’t been a bad President. It’s the way he does things that makes his policies seem bad,” said Zehner.

***

I moved on to the Convention in a shuttle full of octogenarian Republicans. They talked variously in the back about how “Fox News is too liberal”. One of the older women said, “I have a horrible feeling that Obama and his wife hate America.” As her husband was getting out he said: “Tell those liberals in the UK if they think Obama is gonna make it you’re dead wrong.”

The shuttle driver Abdi Mohamous, 26, came from Somalia in 1991 and said he was supporting Obama. “These Republicans are scary,” he said. “I have to listen to all their bullshit in the back, these 80-year-olds talking about how they want to bomb Iran and how they are disappointed because the Vice President is a woman.”

He dropped me off at home, and I went down to the convention centre to check out what I thought would be the raucous protests. In the end it was one guy with a “9/11 was an inside job” placard.

There was a surfeit of cops hanging around though doing pre-programmed routines marching about the place. Dave Morris, 25, was from Minneapolis, Minnesota. “I think the government planned 9/11 for it’s own political gain,” he said. “They did it so they could invade the Middle East, set up a police state, control the world drug trade, and all the other stuff.”

He was getting a fair about of media attention. “I’m just here to get people to wake up, spread the word,” he said.

Morris was standing at the main entrance, and not much was happening so I moved around to the media entrance where there was one placard that read McBlood and “No more wars for Israel”, alongside, without any seeming animosity, a pro-Israel placard of another protester.

After talking idly for a minute the atmosphere suddenly turned febrile and out passed us walked George W. Bush’s brain, Karl Rove. I followed him with my camera asking him why he’s a war criminal and what he thought of torture in Guantanamo, which was the signature issue of the Amnesty protesters, who I’d just been talking to. He gave no response and was surrounded by four burly guards. He got in the car with three women all decked in Red.

I walked back up the path and got into a conversation with the Ron Paul fans, a perennial fixture at any American political event these days. John Kusske, 30, from St. Paul was a slow talking but intelligent guy who believes in bringing the Republican Party back to the principles on which it was founded. “We have to make our presence know to the delegates,” he said. “There are a lot of people in there with ideas sympathetic to Ron Paul.”

So what was wrong with the current Republicans in power? “Two things,” he said, “Number one, they spend far too much, the Federal Reserve prints too much money, it’s spending money we don’t have; we need sound finances and I would like us to go back to the gold standard.”

He paused now consumed with an evangelical zeal that was a little scary. “And number two,” he declared, “we should not be going around the world invading other countries; we need to get rid of troops around the world and not declare war around the world without even going to Congress.”

***

That was it for the daytime convention, which was all taking place in the stuffy surroundings of the Excel Center, a gargantuan edifice surrounded by reams of barricades and surly police and tooled up secret service.

The real action everyone knew was happening in the evening in Minneapolis ten miles away where the party season was getting under way. I went along with my friend Eugene Mulero, who works for the wonkish D.C. weekly National Journal. He had got me in free to a $75 party and we got down there about 9 pm.

It was at a club called 1st Avenue on the main Minneapolis strip, which was full of cops and sprightly Republicans – not everyone’s idea of fun, but worth a try. Inside there was to be a performance by the music titan, Sammy Hagar, also know as the Red Rocker, who used to perform in Van Halen.

Inside there was the usual Republican fabric; out of the probably 300 people there wasn’t one black face. It was an open bar and everyone got jollier as the event drew on. Then came the video show that would be the intro to Hagar. Up flashed pictures of Mexico and young Americans kissing and fondling each other in Cabo, a popular Mexican resort for young frat types. Snoop Dogg’s pimp classic “Gin and Juice” then came on and the crowd looked a bit bemused. Then, strangely, a Banksy style rendering of Bush’s visage. Then the line: “Right now youth equals violence.” Then this one: “Right now Christians and Muslims don’t pray together”. Then more pictures of Mexico and the beach. Everyone looked as confused as I was.

Then up came the video and on came the prophet, Sammy Hagar, himself. A shaggy haired blond man in sandals and beach shorts and a “Cabo Wabo” T-shirt. The definition of an aging rocker his enthusiasm contrasted farcically with the depleted crowd on the floor. Behind him were fake plastic palm trees and it all felt a bit David Brent.

I talked to Marina Hockenberg, 52, from Minneapolis, who was part of the Katrina Relief Fund and selling T-shirt’s behind a table. “I think it’s a crime and unconscionable what the Bush administration did in New Orleans,” he said, while I looked around to see if anyone could hear us. She was obviously not a True Red. “The Republicans don’t seem in the mood to purchase this stuff so far,” she said. “Maybe they feel a bit guilty!”

Meanwhile the rockster was still on stage singing away and the crowd was getting behind him now. People were hi-fiving him on the stage and he was talking about his mom’s back yard in between songs and how all she wanted was a place to grow tomatoes; the Republicans cheered. He then did a song about chasing your dreams. My notebook at this point reads: “Fake palm trees – End Of The World.”

I then spoke to Jordan Russell, 22, a student from the University of Mississippi, and a College Republican. “I’m here because we have a war to win,” he said. “Palin has electrified young conservatives.” He paused: “We don’t want to be socialists,” he declared swigging his drink. “We want to be Americans!”

Hagar stopped his infernal racket after about two hours and the crowds seeped out onto the street. There was speculation that Republicans didn’t want to be seen to have fun while the South was bracing itself for a new hurricane, but judging by this show it’s going to take more than a category 4 to stop them.

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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?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge