Persuading the people

Now that the election has been postponed, Gordon Brown must start to define his vision for Britain f

In politics expectations are everything. Keep them low enough, and everyone stays happy. Raise them too high, and everyone's disappointed. That's why teasing the public with the promise of an exciting battle, and then cancelling, was bound to leave people angry. A leader who understood better than most how much trust and integrity matter in modern politics, how long they take to build up and how quickly they can evaporate, has begun his premiership with a nasty jolt.

Yet this could be one of the rare moments in politics when the official explanation - that Gordon Brown needed time to set out his vision - could turn out to be the right one. Elections should be moments when the music stops, and when, for a few seconds, millions of people make a rough judgement about what direction they want their society to go in. Good elections offer people real choices as the parties crystallise their policies and arguments into vivid primary colours.

Yet in October 2007 the parties weren't ready. A dozen years of new Labour, and a much briefer period of Tory strategy modelled on new Labour, have left the parties with fuzzy identities. They are cunning at making forays into enemy territory and adept at eliminating their "negatives", but cor respondingly poorer at articulating their positive vision of what a good society might look like. Brown is a man of strong convictions and has defined his premiership around the virtues of strength and trust. But at times it has looked as if both parties were following Elias Canetti's comment that the man with power "must be more reticent than anyone; no one must know his opinions or intentions".

Some governments are re-elected for being competent administrations, so long as their oppositions are sufficiently implausible. But centre-left governments have to do more: to persuade people there is a task for government, something that needs to be done. Here Brown's government is still struggling to define which compelling tasks will give it purpose. There is no shortage of policies. But the whole is less than the sum of its parts and Labour's candidates complained that they would have had no ready answer to the question why an election was necessary, or what mandate was being asked for.

Labour's lack of a clear argument for government action matters because the role of government remains the most profound dividing line in British politics. The best account of this was provided 20 years ago by the American social theorist Albert Hirschman, in a brilliant book on what he called "the rhetoric of reaction". He argued that only three types of ar gument lay behind the thousands of speeches, pamphlets and books that had fuelled the Thatcherite and Reaganite revolutions, and that these had been largely constant since the left/right division first took shape at the time of the French revolution. The "rhetoric of futility" claimed that any government actions to ameliorate society would not work. So efforts to raise social mobility were doomed, because some people are clever and others are stupid. The "rhetoric of jeopardy" claimed that government action would jeopardise valuable things such as the family. The "rhetoric of perversity" argued that if government action did have any effects, these would not be the ones intended. So wars on poverty would end up with more welfare dependants. A good society, it followed, was one where governments attempted relatively little, and left people to get on with their lives.

Hirschman didn't do a similar analysis of progressive arguments; but they turn out to be equally consistent. First comes the "rhetoric of justice" - the argument for righting wrongs and meeting needs, whether these be pensions or affordable housing. All centre-left parties draw their energy from this basic moral sense of fairness. Next comes the "rhetoric of progress", the idea that change is cumulative and dynamic: new reforms are needed to reinforce old ones, or to prevent backsliding. So, for example, new rights to maternity leave are essential to make a reality of past laws outlawing gender discrimination. Then, in a mirror to the rhetorics of reaction, comes the "rhetoric of tractability": the claim that government action works, and that whether the problem is unemployment or climate change, the right mix of what the current jargon calls action plans and delivery targets, levers and interventions, rolling out and scaling up, will do the trick.

In the political DNA

The three reactionary arguments and their three progressive counterparts pepper the speeches of Labour and Conservative politicians. They are written into the political DNA of most party members and MPs. Members at Blackpool and Bourne mouth may have learned to applaud dutifully as very different messages are sent over their heads to floating voters, and their heads tell them this is the price that has to be paid for power.

But their hearts beat to different rhythms. It doesn't take long at the bars or on the fringe circuit to see the persistence of the ancient division between a conservative sensibility - distrustful of change, ideas and radicalism - and a progressive one, eager for reform; or the equally persistent division between a party which sees inequality as natural and one which sees it as abhorrent.

The parties have worked hard to hide their true feelings; they distrust their instincts. No contemporary leader could say, as Richard Nixon once did of the American public: "They want to believe - that is the point, isn't it?" If anything, the public wants to doubt. Yet the public does seem to trust leaders who have the courage to lead, and having consistent beliefs is one of the markers that leaders are trustworthy. It is surely no coincidence that when governments have acted boldly on issues as varied as congestion charges or smoking bans, public support has quickly crystallised behind them.

Outside politics, most truly successful organisations work with their feelings, not against them, and my guess is that both the major parties will need to shape their programmes in ways that animate their values, rather than burying them. After all, even the big-government conservatives who rule in America, Australia, Germany or France remain very much conservatives, just as the centre-left parties that most ostentatiously flirted with right-wing ideas - such as New Zealand Labour - are now once again recognisably parties of the left.

For Labour here, too, the best prospects of sustained success lie less in self-denial, and not in defending the status quo of a highly unequal Britain, but rather in campaigning against ugly realities and showing why these warrant state action. That approach, too, offers the best chance of retaining the sensibility of the outsider (something that was visibly missing from the spin on this month's election discussions, which looked like a throwback to the most self-satisfied and manipulative excesses of new Labour's past). This isn't an argument for more taxes or spending - the sharp rises of recent years need to be translated into unambiguous results before the public will be ready for that - but it is an argument for showing where change is needed and governments can make a difference.

That will be a necessary condition for a more clearly defined political landscape. But it won't be a sufficient one. The parties also need to sharpen up their thinking and break free from their habits of fudge and spin. Take culture. Is a good society one that upholds values of duty, family, hard work and obedience, or one that allows people the maximum freedom to shape their own lives? Cultural conservatism helped Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan win over millions of supporters from the other side, and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have been brilliant at winning some of them back, matching lib eralising moves with moves to uphold old values, even as David Cameron has gone in the opposite direction - matching tax breaks for marriage with socially liberal rhetoric on everything from drugs to hoodies. The result is that any clear water has soon disappeared.

Letting traditional images go

Or take the argument over whether a good society should be essentially homogeneous or diverse. Britain remains 90 per cent white, and uncomfortable with migration, but it is also becoming more diverse. So both main parties want to defend their flank by being tough on migration, but both also have to avoid cleaving too hard to a traditional image of Britain or England. Once again, there is little clear water to be found.

Then there is the question of whether a good society is one where work consumes all of our ambitions and energies. Both Thatcher and Brown were brought up to value the redemptive power of hard work. Yet it is an irony of 21st-century politics that the same forces of consumerist individualism that helped drive postwar economic growth are also now leading many to question it. Twenty years ago, Daniel Bell predicted that hedonistic individualism would eat away the foundations of a capitalism that really depends on old-fashioned duty, because people would choose pleasure over work, stimulation now over saving for the future. Focus groups show just how much people want a better balance between work and life, and that quite a few just want to have fun. Other European countries have taken some of their growth dividend in the form of more time off (like France, with its six-week holidays). In Australia, the Labor leader, Kevin Rudd (who looks poised to be elected prime minister in a few weeks' time), has made much of the damage that the market has done to family life. Yet here, once again, there is no clear point of division.

And what about localism: is our vision of a good society one where a thousand flowers of localism bloom, or where we have guaranteed national services policed by armies of regulators? Quite a few cabinet ministers have become deeply sceptical about Whitehall's ability to deliver local services well, and the parties now share a rhetorical commitment to devolution, but neither party dares establish clear water here, either.

The Liberal Democrats should find these issues easier, given that many are essentially about how liberal a society we want. Yet they, too, have felt impelled to muddy the waters. The result is a feeling of transition, a period when tactical manoeuvring has obscured the big strategic choices. We know, for example, that care for the elderly could absorb as much as 5 per cent of GDP within a generation, and a more grown-up debate is beginning, which recognises that governments will have to find more money and that people will have to forfeit their homes (and inheritances) to pay for care. But the debate is still sotto voce (who was willing to say that George Osborne's promises were not just mathematically dubious, but also likely to become beside the point for so many families?). We know that hard choices are coming on climate change, but neither of the big parties wants to be exposed as too far ahead of public opinion. We know, too, that class remains as vital a factor in British society as ever, and that too many things are going wrong with what can loosely be called the traditional white working class. Yet every party wants to be the party of aspiration, of a classless, meritocratic Britain.

Challenged by hard science

Any serious vision of a good society will need to grasp these issues and jump ahead of today's debates. But what could make the next few years unusually interesting is that the ideological arguments about what constitutes a good society will also be illuminated, and challenged, by some hard science. This summer the OECD held one of its biggest events, attended by presidents, prime ministers and professors, on the question of happiness. Its plenaries and seminars aired the voluminous evidence coming in on what makes people happy. For the left, it is reassuring to learn how important it is to provide people with jobs, health care, mutual trust and reasonably equal incomes. For the right, the heartening news is that it helps to have a stable family and weekly visits to church.

The precise policy implications of the new knowledge about happiness are still being worked out, and will be for many years. My own organisation, the Young Foundation, is engaged in a unique experiment testing a clutch of policies to improve public happiness with councils in three areas of England, along with several government departments, the local government agency IDeA and the London School of Economics. The sorts of issues coming to the fore - about cultivating resilience, recognition and relationships for people of all ages, and especially for those most on the margins - are still somewhat distant from the daily currency of Westminster politics, but they are fast moving towards the mainstream. Nor is it hard to see how the parties might meld their underlying instincts with a steady flow of new knowledge. For the left, a plausible position may be taking shape that is not far from what Brown hinted at over the summer: a position that values social order, the family and community, as well as an activist and redistributive welfare state that is tolerant of private behaviour but intolerant of behaviour with visible external harms (such as gambling, drugs and drunk). For the right, a plausible alternative might put more of a premium on personal freedoms and tax cuts and, perhaps, a stronger stance against migration.

Many other permutations are possible and may make sense for parties trying to assemble broad coalitions. But now that the election has been postponed, the leaders have time to define and articulate their visions for Britain - in ways that will lead public opinion, one hopes, rather than follow it. That will require fewer tactics and more strategy, fewer efforts to push every button and win over every interest, and more clarity about a few, simple things that really matter. After all, as any camper knows, tents that spread their base too wide risk collapsing at the first gust of wind.

Geoff Mulgan is director of the Young Foundation and author of "Good and Bad Power: the Ideals and Betrayals of Government", out now in paperback (Penguin, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, An abuse of power

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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