London Special - Congestion

The capital has led the way on road pricing with the congestion charge and, despite the doomsayers,

The 1.8 million signatures on the recent road pricing petition is the least of the problems facing supporters of the concept. The plan to introduce a workable pay-as-you-drive scheme is pitted with so many potholes that it is difficult to see how politicians will ever manage to drive it through and implement anything like a comprehensive national system.

And I say "a" rather than "the" system, because there is no model, let alone a detailed scheme for it. That besides, the petition was a thoroughly dishonest exercise and was based on an email campaign which suggested that a very precise plan set a tariff of £1.30 per mile, with the additional cost of the "tag" - the GPS equipment on board that calculates the distance travelled - to be £200.

The ideas for road pricing that have been floated are various, but we are years away from any decision on charging rates or how the tags would be paid for. Given that no scheme exists, the petition was really an exercise in enlisting people who are against paying a supposedly new tax - and a man with more courage than Tony Blair would have said so.

There is no worked-out model because a national system would look very different from the only large-scale scheme currently in operation: London's congestion charge. London is exceptional for many reasons, not least the excellence of its public transport, with 12 Tube lines and 700 bus routes and a low rate of car usage. Since it came into operation in 2003 the initial congestion charge has, indeed, been a success in reducing traffic by 20 per cent, even though, at a cost of £161.7m, it has been expensive to introduce.

The western extension, controversially introduced last month to double the congestion charge's catchment area, has shakier foundations and may prove damaging to perceptions of the scheme's success.

It takes in an area that is largely residential - few people travel to work there - and the decision to allow residents a 90 per cent discount to drive in the whole area gave the affluent residents of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea leave to enter the original charging area for less than they were paying before. That the good burghers of Kensington held protests at their town hall suggests the relationship between brains and wealth is as tenuous as ever, even in these meritocratic times - a case of turkeys failing to support the abolition of Christmas.

The most telling phrase in Tony Blair's answer to the online petitioners was that "it would be ten years or more before any national scheme was technologically, never mind politically, feasible". 'Twas ever thus. Road pricing has always been ten years off. In 1993 the then transport secretary, John MacGregor, voiced commitment to introduce a scheme within a decade. Labour ministers have been saying the same thing for the past few years, seemingly unaware of the passage of time.

Blair is technologically illiterate and his response is dishonest. The technology to introduce a national scheme is available and already being used in Germany, where all lorries are charged to use the motorways. Nine out of ten pay through a sophisticated tagging system with an on-board unit that uses the US satellite system Toll Collect to calculate distance travelled. Operated by T-Systems, a subsidiary of T-Mobile, Toll Collect is 99 per cent accurate, and has been shown to function properly even in urban areas where there were concerns that tall buildings would cause black spots.

Lorry lobby

In Britain, a similar system was planned to assuage complaints by the road haulage industry that foreign lorries were getting a free ride on our motorways. However, in 2005, Alistair Darling, the then transport secretary, abruptly cancelled the proposed lorry road charging scheme, arguing that it would get in the way of the national scheme being proposed for all motorists - which, of course, he said would be ten years down the line.

This explanation does not hold water. The lorry scheme would have been an incredibly useful trial run for the wider implementation of the system. Instead it revealed political cowardice from a minister who had been sent to the Department for Transport to keep the ministry out of the headlines following the negative coverage that his immediate pre decessor, Stephen Byers, had managed to produce.

Despite making the scheme acceptable to hauliers by promising it would replace existing forms of taxation, and therefore be revenue-neutral, Darling was simply too scared of potential resistance from hauliers, a group that has terrified government ministers since the fuel protests of 2000, which almost brought the country to a standstill. This was a lost opportunity to soften up public opinion and sort out the technology.

This episode demonstrates that the biggest obstacle in implementing a national road pri-cing scheme is political, not technical. And it leads to the crucial question: What would be the purpose of a national road charging scheme? For a while ministers, ever fearful of the Jeremy Clarkson brigade, seemed to imply that it would be revenue-neutral, simply replacing fuel tax and vehicle excise duty.

That did not make sense at the time and makes even less now. The enormous costs and the political capital needed to introduce a national road pricing scheme would be disproportionate if its aim were simply to reduce congestion a tad on a few overcrowded roads. The sole rationale for imposing such an expensive and far-reaching measure would be to reduce the environmental damage caused by cars and induce a shift to other, greener, forms of transport.

Lack of political will

Here, however, there appears to be further trouble ahead as the incoherence of wider government transport policy is horribly exposed. At present, rail fares are being allowed to rise by 1 per cent above inflation. For the buses, too, fare increases above inflation in the deregulated and privatised sector are the norm. But Britain has in the past invested far less of its GDP in transport infrastructure than other comparable European economies - with the result that people induced out of their cars by the stick of heavy taxation have few carrots of nice, shiny trains or fleets of state-of-the-art buses with which to console themselves.

Aware of this, ministers tried to offload the political risk of implementing the scheme on to local authorities, offering generous bribes in the form of a Transport Infrastructure Fund that comes in two parts: the first to fund feasibility studies and the second for the implementation of schemes. Local authorities in large conurbations such as Manchester and Birmingham came back saying: "Give us lots of money to pay for better public transport, and then we will im plement road pricing." Even those areas which have been allocated money for feasibility studies, such as Norfolk, are worried about actually spending the money because of fears of a hostile local response.

Given such a reaction on the ground, and the ease with which motorists' fear of extra taxation can be roused by public campaigns, road pricing in Britain is likely to be mired in endless discussion, documents and feasibility studies for far longer than a decade.

A national scheme would require great courage and conviction, and there are few signs of either from the Department for Transport. Without that, and, more importantly, without strong political leadership, a scheme that could reduce congestion and reduce carbon emissions will forever remain "ten years away".

Christian Wolmar's book on the history of the railways, "Fire and Steam", will be published by Atlantic Books in September (priced £19.99)

Road pricing facts and figures

1.8 million people signed e-petition against road pricing
33 million cars currently on UK roads
25% increase in congestion predicted by 2015
£22bn value of time wasted in England due to congestion by 2025
£62bn set-up cost of road pricing scheme
£8bn to administer scheme every year
£1.50 per mile toll planned for busiest roads during rush hour
21% of UK carbon emissions come from road traffic
£140bn investment on public transport by 2015
£28bn annual benefit to the UK economy
Research by Mosarrof Hussain

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The great generational robbery

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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