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It matters if you’re black or whit­e

Segregated communities are the norm in the US and they seem to be spreading, aggravating social ineq

The consensus at Ian's Bakery, where the scones seem to take their inspiration from the Rocky Mountains framing us, is that the police should have shot back. Footage of the riots in England played for days on the news - a rare penetration of British news that isn't about the royal family into mainstream American consciousness.

A woman in London whose shop had been ran­sacked was shown pleading for police protection. The response was unanimous: give her a gun. "What the hell they doin'?" asked one man. "Shoot 'em." Admittedly this was the Mid­west, where the baker shoots bears in his spare time and hands out the roasted meat free with the breakfast burritos. Still, these people reflected a healthy dose of American opinion that simply would not have put up with what they were watching. They couldn't believe the shop owners were not allowed to defend them­selves, and shook their heads in amazement when I said the police were banned from shooting, too - not even plastic bullets or water cannon.

Another man, a retired army officer studying post-colonial literature - no honky-tonk cowboy - racked his brains to recall disorder of this sort in the US and came up with the Watts riots of 1965. There has been plenty of rioting in the US since then, but it largely occurs around colleges and in poor inner-city areas, so he had not noticed it. The reason why is evident in the suburbs, where I'm writing this: mile upon mile of tasteful clapboard, a low-density sprawl that the writer Eric Schlosser has described as "the architectural equivalent of fast food".

Over the past 20 years, immense subdivisions of small towns have sprung up all over Colorado: "the houses seem not to have been constructed by hand but manufactured by some gigantic machine, cast in the same mould and somehow dropped here fully made. You can easily get lost in these new subdivisions . . . without ever finding anything of significance to differentiate one block from another - except their numbers. Roads end without warning, and sidewalks run straight into the prairie, blocked by tall, wild grasses that have not yet been turned into lawns."

Here is where the white people live, segregated from black America. More than half of America lives in suburban areas; in Europe, two-thirds of us are urban. In tidy houses in neat suburbs, policed by small private armies of security guards and homeowners' committees, white America insulates itself from black.

House rules

With the new suburbs come rules: rules about the size of your trash can, the number of Christmas lights you may display, the colour of your curtains, the weight of the family dog. Professor Setha Low, a former president of the American Anthropological Association, says these rules entrench middle-class values. "Middle-class families imprint their landscapes with 'niceness', reflecting their own landscape aesthetic of orderliness, consistency and control," she observes in Behind the Gates: Life, Security and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America.
This homogeneity in effect excludes ethnic minorities. "Racist fears about the 'threat' of a visible minority, whether it is blacks, Latinos, 'Orientals', or Koreans, are remarkably similar. This is because many neighbourhoods in the US are racially homogeneous. Thus, the physical space of the neighbourhood and its racial composition become synonymous."

You can gate without putting in gates - property prices, residents' associations and just knowing one another's business act as effective barriers to outsiders. "Quiet laws" and indirect economic strategies limiting the minimum lot or house size, cul-de-sacs that allow for easy monitoring of who is where and social regulations complete the separation. In major metropolitan areas of the US, half of all new housing is built and sold as part of a collective regime, with privatised rubbish collection and security, and covenants regulated by governing bodies. One man was fined because his car leaked a spot of oil on the street. A woman was threatened with expulsion for kissing her boyfriend in the driveway. I may not hang out any washing, nor can I leave the rubbish bin out except on Fridays.

The zenith of this "nice, happy" American suburban living is the physically gated community, a "purified" environment where outsiders can be spotted immediately. A third of all new communities in southern California are gated, as is a similar proportion around Phoenix, Arizona, in the suburbs of Washington and parts of Florida. In Tampa, Florida, four out of five home sales valued at $300,000 or more are of prop­erties in gated communities. They come with gates, swipe cards and tight security. And they largely isolate the white middle and upper classes from poorer blacks.

Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans six years ago was an eye-opener for middle-class America. One Midwesterner bemoaned to me the television pictures of all those people "sitting on their fat black asses" and waiting for government help. A more liberal man noted that it was a "wake-up call" to white America, which did not normally see inside the black inner cities.

In the US, as in Asia, Latin America and South Africa, the separation and gating of communities is an accepted symbol of vastly unequal societies in which the winners must be physically protected from the losers. Figures from the US Economic Policy Institute show that, in 2009, the median net worth for white households in America was $97,860 (a fall of 27 per cent in five years); for black households, it was $2,170 (a fall of 84 per cent over the same period).

Black America is finding ways to fight back, with a trend towards flash-mob attacks in upscale department stores and the restaurant districts of cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago. On 29 July, two dozen youths, one as young as 11, beat up and robbed bystanders in central Philadelphia. The city has imposed a weekend curfew of 9pm for minors. In Chicago in June, up to 20 young men violently robbed people in Streeterville, a usually trouble-free area dominated by upmarket shops and skyscrapers. These forays into middle-class white American territory are rare, but becoming less so.

In Europe, we segregate less - and we are less unequal. Median total wealth per household in the UK, according to last year's National Equality Panel report, is £21,000 for black Africans, £76,000 for black Caribbeans and £221,000 for white British. For Bangladeshis, it is £15,000; for Muslims, £42,000; for Indians, £204,000. The figures are not directly comparable with those for the US, but the relative poverty levels are: black America is far poorer relative to white America than black Britain is to white Britain.

Not that we have anything to be smug about. The Equality Panel reported that, by 2008, the UK had the highest level of income inequality since soon after the Second World War. And the average household wealth of the top 10 per cent, at £853,000, was nearly 100 times higher than the wealth of the poorest 10 per cent, at less than £9,000. These figures include property, savings, cars and pension rights.

Geographical segregation, too, is increasing in the UK, not just between north and south, but within regions and local authorities. The north might be far poorer than the south - household wealth in the south-east is 1.7 times that in the north-west - but the variation in wealth is higher in the south and especially stark in London. There is some evidence that the social marginalisation of poorer wards is increasing all over England, with the gap widening between these areas and their locality in terms of health, education, employment and income.

Urban paranoia

The degree of geographical segregation and privatisation of public space in the US will never be matched in England. First, we do not have the space. As John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge point out in The Right Nation, the US has enough land to give every household an acre and still populate only one-twentieth of the continental United States (excluding Alaska). Second, we do not have the same culture of privatisation, even though our security-patrolled shopping centres mirror the trend and gated living is becoming more popular. The research is mixed as to whether it makes people feel more secure; some say their segregated communities make them feel safe, others have become more paranoid about strangers.
So, without segregation and without guns, what is to be Europe's solution to civic unrest in the face of soaring economic inequality? David Cameron has reached for an answer in the shape of Bill Bratton, the former New York City police chief hired to advise the Prime Minister. Bratton is associated with falling crime rates in US cities due to a "zero-tolerance" approach that Cameron has said he will adopt in the UK. He may be disappointed.

The economist Steven Levitt has conducted research suggesting that the decline in New York's crime rate had more to do with rising numbers of (armed) police, a higher prison population and the legalisation of abortion than Bratton's methods. The drop began before Bratton was appointed, Levitt argues, and other cities that did not employ his style of policing experienced similar falls in crime, once police numbers were taken into account.

Bratton may be a good headline, but he is not the solution. That leaves Cameron with the options of spending more on police and prisons
to match incarceration rates in the US, where black people are three times as likely to be jailed as in England and Wales. Or he could tackle inequality: in inherited wealth, in employment, in wages, in opportunity. But that, as Labour can painfully attest, is the hardest headline to win of them all.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?

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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