On the margins

Most Scots live in the narrow corridor between Edinburgh and Glasgow, yet their country's identity s

Scotland the Brand has its easily identifiable markers: Balmoral, kilts, whisky and four-legged haggises. Scotland the Ridiculous has Billy Connolly and the Tartan Army. And Scotland the Political has the Barnett Formula, devised by the UK Treasury to ensure a fair allocation of public funds to the mysterious creatures north of the border, and seen by English taxpayers as a device for bleeding England dry.

But what of Scotland the Reality? The vast majority of Scots live in the narrow, 50-mile east-west corridor between Edinburgh and Glasgow. The world knows it well. It is the world of endemic sectarianism, Taggart, Trainspotting, grim housing estates, heart attacks and, almost incidentally, some of Britain's most renowned universities, medical schools and art galleries.

The Highlands, by contrast, are home to a tiny fraction of the population. Yet they contain a huge proportion of Scotland's land mass. On the two-hour journey from Perth to Inverness, the road skirts a chain of small towns to its east, but to the west lie only thousands of acres of hostile mountain and barren moorland. North of Inverness, the vast interiors of Caithness, Ross and Sutherland are virtually uninhabited. Mere fragments of the native population remain, as rare as the remnants of the great Caledonian Forest. Their ancient Gaelic language is lost, but the memory of past injustices still lingers.

Here, landowners are hated and poachers venerated, and crofters have jumped at the chance to arrange community buyouts of their native soil. The crofters of Assynt in north-west Sutherland set the precedent by buying out the loathed Vesteys.The people of the island of Gigha in the Inner Hebrides followed suit; and now crofter buyouts are flavour of the month. The days of Highland fiefdoms owned by City millionaires and reclusive pop stars are numbered. The land is going back to the people.

In the Highlands, distance renders prohibitive the cost of providing health clinics, ambulances and even GPs. Indeed, such is the cost of providing out-of-hours medical care that one Highland doctor is reputed to be the best-paid in Britain. The figure quoted is £300,000 a year: an exaggeration, no doubt, but denials are carefully worded.

In the Highlands, thousands of miles of road have to be maintained, under the most ferocious weather conditions, by a tiny number of council-tax payers. One redoubtable inhabitant of Raasay, an island adjacent to Skye, lobbied his local council for years asking for a road to his isolated hamlet. He eventually gave up, and started building the road himself. It was two miles long and 12 feet wide, up a steep, bouldered hillside, and he had only a succession of wheelbarrows (replaced as each one wore out), a sledgehammer, a shovel and a crowbar. It took him 20 years (1964-84), and the epic task was immortalised in a splendid book, Roger Hutchinson's Calum's Road.

This is the area, too, where the whole eco-nomy hinges on tourism. Once, hospitality to strangers was a sacred duty. Now, necessity has made it a commercial exercise. Crofts become caravan sites and homes become bed-and-breakfast establishments. The season is short, and at the mercy of the weather, the exchange rate and suicide bombers - and, while it lasts, the temptation to fill every vacant space with a lettable bed is well nigh irresistible.

On the margins of this Highland extremity lies another, even more extreme: the Western Isles. They have a population of 35,000 in total, and form a parliamentary constituency in their own right. Most Scots have never seen them. Fewer still understand them. This explains such stories as the one about the man from the north-west mainland who phoned NHS 24 (Scotland's NHS Direct) and was told to go to the A&E department of Lewis Hospital, a mere 30 miles away. NHS 24 didn't seem to know that this was 30 miles as the crow flies, and that even if he were a crow he would still have to fly over raging seas.

Electorally, this is one of Scotland's most marginal constituencies. The Tories have no support, apart from one of my sons, though it helps that their candidate is a local man able to chat up the cailleachs (Gaelic for venerable old ladies). There was such a Tory candidate once, in the Thatcher years, who had a fair old chat-up with one such voter. When he eventually rose to go. he said, "I'll be having your vote, then." "Yes, dear," said the cailleach warmly, "anything to get that woman out!" Her assumption had been that such a nice man couldn't possibly represent the Iron Lady.

In this constituency, language matters. It is the only one in the world where Gaelic is still a living tongue, and both the MP, Angus Brendan MacNeil, and the local MSP, Alasdair Morrison, are former stars of the Gaelic media. The SNP's candidate for the Scottish Parliament, Alasdair Allan, made history by being the first student ever to submit his PhD thesis in Gaelic. The one certainty in this election is that the successful candidate, whoever he is, will be sending his children to a Gaelic-medium school.

And here religion matters. The southern isles in the Hebridean chain are Catholic, the northern ones Presbyterian, but relations between them have never been marred by sectarian bigotry. On the other hand, neither group has been much impressed by Labour's record on so-called ethical issues. The islands will still not provide facilities for gay marriages and, in the current stand-off between Catholic adoption agencies and the government, Catholics and Protestants alike are backing the Church.

But religion will not be a key issue. This is a sophisticated electorate, its passions fuelled by incessant public debate. The issue currently dividing the community is the proposal to pepper the moors of Lewis with Europe's hugest windfarms. The opposition has formed itself into a powerful lobby group, Mointeach gun Mhuilinn ("Moorlands Without Turbines"), and there have been accusations of strong-arm tactics and intimidation. When one islander admitted his support for windfarms, the response was: "I'm glad to hear it. I'm for them, too, but I've been frightened to say it." A petition organised by Moorlands Without Turbines received 5,000 signatures; when Lewis Wind Power recently submitted a planning application for 181 turbines, there were 3,500 objections; and when the application was granted, the distinguished local broadsheet, the Stornoway Gazette, carried a whole page of letters, almost all of them anti.

Paradox of Union

One of the prevailing fears is the visual impact of these monsters, if situated close to villages. The obvious place for them would be the thousands of acres of uninhabitable peaty wilderness at the heart of the island, but there, it is said, the risk to birds is too great. As ever in the Highlands, we shall inconvenience the people instead.

For decades, the Western Isles was solidly Labour, the only rural constituency in Britain to show this trend. The socialist vote reflected the links between the islands and Glasgow, where Isles men worked in the shipyards and learned their politics from Red Clydesiders in the tradition of Keir Hardie, James Maxton and Emman uel Shinwell. Labour was the party of the poor.

It was also the party of the Union, and though the islands now teeter on the brink of separatism, this would have been unthinkable in the 1940s and 1950s. Decades of association with the Royal Navy, in peace and war, had bred a strong sense of Britishness. In fact, on the outbreak of the Second World War, a written answer in the House of Commons showed that one-quarter of Britain's naval reservists came from the Western Isles.

All this bred a lifelong pride in the British navy and a sense of Britishness that survived not only the Second World War, but also the fact that the casualty rate in the Western Isles was the highest in the country. Patriotism still flourished in the 1950s. I well remember one veteran expressing dismay at the weakness of the British response to some provocation from President Abdel Nasser. "And, of course," he said in disgust, "Britain sends a protest!" The man wanted to send a battleship. Few young islanders today could even begin to understand such a sentiment.

It is part of the paradox of the Union that the most neglected region in Scotland is the one closest to England: the Borders. Here is a farming community still traumatised by the most recent foot-and-mouth epidemic; and, in the midst of it, countless Edinburgh-dependent suburbs without a rail link to the capital.

How is this discontent manifesting itself? The odd thing is that it isn't. The Highlands have been eloquent advocates in their own cause, mobilising poets, novelists, journalists, dramatists and politicians to articulate their grievances. That's why the whole world knows about the Highland Clearances, Culloden and Glencoe. And that's why we've had the Highlands and Islands Development Board, the Crofters Commission, the Gaelic Broadcasting Committee, the Gaelic Books Council, Bòrd na Gàidhlig and even, for a time, a minister for the Highlands.

The Borders have had no such political structures. They've had their own clearances, their own land shortages and their own forced emigrations, but their discontent has found only a muted voice. They were once as famed for their minstrels as they were feared for their marauders, but the music has died on their lips. It probably died through loss of hope. The UK, including the rest of Scotland, feels guilty about the Highlands. It doesn't feel guilty about the Borders.

In the forthcoming election, the big battalions will be those of the central belt and of Scotland's media village. But Highlanders, Islanders and Borderers may hold the balance of power.

The author is is professor of systematic theology at the Free Church of Scotland College, Edinburgh

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?

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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