No Fidel, no problem?

Miami is planning a great party, and Bush's people expect dancing in the streets of Havana. But few

The wild party is already planned. CBS News has rented out a shop on Calle Ocho, the main drag in Little Havana, Miami, from which to anchor coverage of dancing in the streets. "No Fidel, No Problem", say the bumper stickers. Not just Little Havana, but now the entire city of Miami is planning a great party and concert at the Orange Bowl stadium to celebrate Fidel Castro's death. Tomás Regalado, the city's commissioner, explains: "He represents everything bad that has happened to the people of Cuba for 48 years. There is something to celebrate."

Fly a thousand miles back up north to Washington, however, and the mood is sober. Winds of change may be blowing through the new Democratic Congress, but I can find nobody in DC - in the Bush administration or Congress - who thinks that Fidel's apparently imminent demise will suddenly transform Cuba itself or markedly change US policy towards Cuba. The CIA has, after all, been predicting Castro's death from cancer since 1979.

I spoke, for example, to Jeff Flake, a highly influential 44-year-old Republican congressman from Arizona who has been to Cuba five times, and who in December led the biggest US congressional delegation - four Republicans and six Democrats - to Havana since 1959. Flake is an independent-minded Mormon unafraid to buck the party line. "What was striking, you know," he told me, "was that [the Bush administration's] policy has always been that as soon as Fidel goes, there'll be riots in the streets, people demanding free and fair elections, and we'll have a sea change.

"But anybody who's spent any time in Cuba realises that's not the case at all. That's surprising to people here who believe the administration's line. But there aren't riots in the streets, and to all intents and purposes they [the Cubans] have made the transition." The Bush administration, he says, "is going to have to be dragged kicking and screaming" if its intransigence towards Cuba is to change. Flake and the Democratic congressman Charlie Rangel have just jointly introduced a bill to lift the "travel ban" - supposedly free Americans can still be sent to prison for travelling to Cuba unless they fit into specific categories and are granted government permission - but that, so far, is the most revolutionary change on the books.

Succession scenario

Raú Castro has twice asked Washington for talks since he took over from his brother Fidel last July, but the hubristic Bush refrain has been all too familiar and potentially no less catastrophic than it has been elsewhere in the world: we do not talk to evil men. After Fidel stepped down, Bush described Cuba as an "outpost of tyranny", while John Bolton, his late and unlamented ambassador to the UN, called it the region's own "axis of evil". The White House says simply that it "sees no point" in holding negotiations with a "dictator-in-waiting" such as Raú.

Indeed, the state department dashed all hopes of progress when it said not only that "the US will not accept a succession scenario", but that "there will not be a succession". Tell that to 11.3 million Cubans.

Even many of the 1.5 million Cuban Americans (who live mainly in Florida and New Jersey) are dismayed by the prospect of the continuing isolation between their two homelands. Regardless of those plans for a high-jinks party in Miami, many of the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who poured in to Little Havana between 1959 and 1962 have now died and successive US-born generations of Cuban Americans are (contrary to long-standing myth) much less fanatical and obsessive. None the less, Cubans are still granted the unique privilege of being given automatic asylum, in effect, should they make the 90-mile journey to Florida.

Yet if George W Bush is to blame for such a hopeless impasse, so are the eight previous US presidents whom Castro has successfully defied. Ike ordered the CIA to destabilise Cuba when Fidel came to power in 1959, stopped buying Cuban sugar and ordered an embargo on selling oil to Cuba. As US ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson tried to persuade JFK to ameliorate relations with Fidel by giving the Cubans back the naval base in eastern Cuba that the US insisted on occupying. It was called Guantanamo.

Instead, JFK tried to demonstrate his manhood by ordering the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961, and since then US-Cuban economic and political relations have been virtually non-existent, the US always assuming that its combined policies of drastic economic embargoes, political isolationism and ongoing CIA attempts to foment insurgency would bring Castro down. Castro survived at least eight assassination attempts by the CIA or its agents between 1960 and 1965 alone, according to a US Senate intelligence committee report. They included such tragicomic efforts as putting explosives in his cigars and giving him a diving suit lined with carcinogenic materials.

Clinton also pandered to the Cuban-American vote in his 1992 election campaign by saying that the US "must bring the hammer down" on Cuba. That same year, Congress passed the Cub an Democracy Act, which tightened restrictions on trade and travel. It was followed, four years later, by the even more swingeing Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, aka the Helms-Burton Act, after its authors, the late Senator Jesse Helms and Congressman Dan Burton (who is about to announce his candidacy for the Republican 2008 presidential nomination). This, among many other things, made it illegal under US law for foreign countries to trade with Cuba or for a US administration even to recognise a transitional government from Fidel to Raú.

Which brings us to 2007, a boneheaded administration in place until 2009, and a Senate and House with small Democratic majorities that are not enough to overturn presidential vetoes. If Congress attempted to abolish the Helms-Burton Act, for example, it would be stymied by a presidential veto. "The chances of getting any major legislative changes [over Cuba] emanating from the Congress that the president will accept are slim," said a senior adviser to a Democratic congressman who asked not to be identified. "But we control the agenda in terms of hearings, and that way we can raise the profile of discussion."

Thus, Congressman Bill Delahunt, the Democrat head of the oversight panel of the House foreign affairs committee, has already said that he will hold hearings on aid to Cuba. Rangel and Flake intend to persevere with reversing the travel ban and, in the Senate, Max Baucus and Joe Biden (the new chairs of the finance and foreign relations committees) plan high-profile hearings on Cuba.

To which, naturally, the Bush administration will remain adamantly deaf. In 2003, Dubbya set up the "Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba", the purpose of which (according to none other than Condoleezza Rice) was "to hasten the end of the dictatorship". It introduced yet more severe restrictions, making it illegal to send even clothing or soap to Cuba from the US.

Last year, the commission issued a 93-page report, some of which was redacted; its principal recommendation was that the US spend a further $80m to overthrow the Castros. The classified section is presumed to contain details of US military plans to invade Cuba (or even, yet again, to assassinate one or the other, or both, of the Castros). Fidel dismissed members of the commission as "shit-eaters who do not deserve the world's respect".

In addition, $35m of US tax dollars is still known to be budgeted annually for what is known as "democracy promotion" (in other words, destabilisation) in Cuba, although the isolationism has meant that US intelligence from inside Cuba is very low-grade indeed. The US has funded the truly pathetic TV and Radio Martí since 1985, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Cubans successfully jam the TV signal and all but shortwave radio transmissions. By Washington's own estimation, only 1.7 per cent of Cubans ever listen to Radio Martí.

The finest beaches I have ever seen are near the city of Santiago de Cuba on the island's eastern tip (close to Guantanamo) and are second only to those of Oman, in my experience. A nightmare scenario for me is that such idyllic places will suddenly be invaded by hordes of casino-bound US tourists chugging down their Cuba Libres.

But much of the thinking on the American right, as well as the left, is that more economic trade and tourism can only open up Cuba and simultaneously benefit relations with the US. "We need to give up the travel ban first and foremost. If it were up to me, obviously I'd lift the whole embargo," Congressman Flake told me. "Having [it] has been a tremendous advantage, in my view, for the old regime."

The ultimate sanction Congress can impose on a recalcitrant president is to withdraw funding for his policies, as some now want to do with financing the war in Iraq. But "I'd like to see [the travel ban bill] go through regular order and not have to amend appropriation bills," says Flake. "We still face a difficult time going through regular order, given the composition of the foreign affairs committee of the House."

Stalin, Mao, Kim Il-sung: successive US administrations sat back and assumed, wrongly, that once they had gone, magically democratic and pro-western leaders would materialise in their place. But it is not just Republican congressmen such as Flake or former CIA chiefs such as Porter Goss who see the departure of Fidel differently: General Michael Maples, director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, testified before the Senate recently that Raú Castro is firmly in control of a relatively stable, functioning Cuba and that no dramatic change should be expected soon.

US intelligence first reported that Fidel was dead in 1956, supposedly killed by Fulgencio Batista's forces in the Playa Las Coloradas rebellion. More than half a century later, according to World Health Organisation figures, life expectancy is higher and infant mortality rates lower in Castro's Cuba than in the US; it has diplomatic relations with more than 160 countries and (according to the CIA's own figures) its economic growth rate is 7.5 per cent. Perhaps that wild party at the Miami Orange Bowl will prove somewhat premature.

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 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia

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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