The hunt for the British Obama

Will all-minority shortlists produce a generation of British Barack Obamas - or simply ghettoise non

"There are plenty of British Obamas out there, but you will find them in the pulpits and other places of worship, not in parliament." Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote is certain that an "Obama effect" is boosting his drive for positive discrimination to ensure more non-white MPs. Introducing a bill to amend our race equality laws to allow parties to discriminate in favour of minorities, the Leicester MP Keith Vaz hailed Barack Obama as the "poster boy" for integration. How strange it would be if Obama's momentum were to propel British parties into adopting all-minority shortlists for parliamentary seats.

Obama himself has insisted on a generational shift: breaking the "black politician" mould to become a viable presidential candidate, and not one defined by race. In contrast, all-minority shortlists risk ghettoising Britain's next generation of non-white politicians and derailing the new politics of equality that we need.

The real credit for catapulting British minority representation up the political agenda belongs closer to home. Harriet Harman pledged a campaign for "four times more" minority MPs when she was running for Labour deputy leader, and has now commissioned Operation Black Vote to report on how all-minority lists could work. Harman's record on equality makes her a powerful champion. The politics of the issue have been transformed - but with little public scrutiny of the proposed means. The core argument does not amount to much beyond "something must be done", and that something was done for women. "This is not uncharted territory," says Woolley. All-women shortlists broke the glass ceiling. Extending the principle sounds logical.

But the analogy is weak. Women, 51 per cent of the population, can be found almost everywhere in roughly equal numbers to men. It is easy enough to work out who is a woman and who is not. Such factors do not apply to minority representation. The call for all-minority shortlists is rooted in 1970s thinking about "ethnic minorities". This is of ever-decreasing relevance to third- and fourth-generation multi-ethnic Britain (in which mixed-race people will outnumber those of any single minority group by 2015). All-minority shortlists might not be exactly unworkable, but they would take us backwards.

Where will all-minority lists be used? Advocates are clear that any "colour coding" of seats would be wrong. Woolley tells me that "in principle" any seat could have an all-minority shortlist, but that "in practice" the Outer Hebrides would not make sense. A list of the 100 seats with the largest ethnic-minority populations has been drawn up. Everybody anticipates that the top 20 or 30 seats with the most black and Asian voters will be used. That sounds like "colour coding" to me.

"Ethnic faces for ethnic voters" is a depressing step backwards (implying white MPs for the majority community, too). Yet Ashok Kumar has spent a decade as an archetypal hard-working, undemonstrative northern MP for his 98.6 per cent white Middlesbrough constituency. In 2001, Parmjit Dhanda was able to thank the voters of marginal Gloucester for disproving the local paper's prediction that they "lacked the advanced consciousness" to elect a "foreigner".

Now, future Dhandas and Kumars fear being packed off to Leicester or Ealing and told to wait for one of "their seats" to come up. Many believe that minority-only contests would focus more on ethnicity - and which community's "turn" it is to win a seat - than the candidate's qualities.

As Kashmiri Muslims form only the third-largest minority group in his Birmingham Perry Bar constituency, Khalid Mahmood believes that all-minority shortlists could have kept him out of parliament. But his objection is more fundamental: "This smacks of a colonial attitude that divides our population into different blocks and allocates representatives accordingly." The idea that Sikhs should represent Sikhs and Nigerians need Nigerian MPs amounts to "a form of political apartheid which will encourage division and segregation", he says.

In towns facing significant ethnic tensions, MPs - black, white or Asian - must win trust by speaking candidly to all sides. Shahid Malik's task in Dewsbury after the 7 July 2005 attacks would have been harder had he won a minority-only contest. Several non-white Labour MPs believe all-minority shortlists are necessary. Other MPs and candidates have doubts, but are wary of expressing them. Another minority MP who believes such lists would have prevented him getting to Westminster fears seeming to "pull up the ladder". This risks becoming a debate among minorities about minorities, because many white liberals are steering clear. Nobody wants to seem to oppose the goal of increased diversity.

The House of Commons is not a forum for community delegates. If only black and Asian MPs could pursue race equality, Britain would never have been a legislative pioneer. Repre sentative democracy does not mean a shallow "counting heads" multiculturalism. The principle that matters is "Equal chances and no unfair barriers". Significant under-representation of women and minorities should raise the alarm. A more diverse parliament should not be an end in itself, however, but must form part of a broader argument for social justice.

Competitive grievances

All-minority lists will not only hamper British Obamas, they will make it harder to build coalitions for social justice. As equality has returned to the Labour lexicon, the greatest threat to it is a "politics of competitive grievance", setting one disadvantaged group against another.

Advocates of all-minority shortlists claim that more non-white MPs would dramatically increase minority participation and turnout. Professor Shamit Saggar, Britain's leading academic expert on race and electoral politics, says there is "simply no evidence base" for this. Health, education and crime are much greater priorities for non-white voters.

Saggar points out that, viewed from a perspective of the national interest, the priority for a more representative parliament would be for the opposition parties to do much more to challenge Labour's virtual monopoly. David Cameron's Conservatives are making good progress from a low base, but should remember the lesson of last year's Ealing Southall by-election fiasco where, as Sunny Hundal of the Pickled Politics blog notes: "The Tory modernisers got sucked into the worst of communal politics", securing the bloc defection of five Sikh Labour councillors but not the voters they claimed to speak for. Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats seem to be lurching from doing almost nothing to pledging all-minority shortlists. Labour could welcome more black Tory or Lib Dem MPs, not fear them as an electoral threat. Concrete commitments to end child poverty and narrow the gap in schools should be Labour's central pitch to black and Asian voters.

Black candidates are increasingly confident about competing on equal terms. Though Vaz complains that all-women shortlists have yet to select non-white candidates, Rushanara Ali and Yasmin Qureshi won open contests in Bethnal Green and Bolton and are likely to become Lab our's first female Asian MPs. Chuka Umunna, just selected in Streatham, believes that defeating strong opposition from the Lambeth Council leader Steve Reed in an open contest will give him "a credibility boost". Like the Tooting MP Sadiq Khan, Umunna thinks hybrid shortlists - combining women and ethnic-minority men - could avoid legitimate concerns about ghettoisation while tackling under-representation.

For all their shortcomings, all-minority shortlists could have helped the first pioneers break through the steeper barriers 20 years ago. But as they have become politically possible, they have also become unnecessary. They might mildly speed up change between 2010 and 2030. More likely, they will offer a leg-up (with strings attached) to black and Asian Oxbridge graduates and lawyers who don't need extra help to get in.

The real issue - the missing link - is class. A comprehensive audit of selection barriers and action to level the playing field would benefit those from poorer non-white communities most, but not exclusively. The parties should think harder about that, but reject all-minority shortlists. Let's keep that door to a British Obama open.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?

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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