British soldiers leave Southhampton on the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 in April 1982. Photograph: Arnaud de Wildenberg
Show Hide image

The land that time forgot

As we mark the 30th anniversary of Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands, a former British diplomat

On the eve of the First World War, Argentina enjoyed the third-highest standard of living in the world. Today, after a hundred years of woeful misgovernment, this wonderful and immensely rich country is in 45th position. The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once lamented to me that his country had not been colonised by the British. "If only your invasion of 1806 had succeeded," he said, "today we would be like Australia."

I spent four years there from 1973 to 1977, one of the most tumultuous periods of Argentina's tumultuous history and the one in which it was worst misgoverned. As a diplomat at the British embassy in Buenos Aires, I was successively consul general and minister, and for two years chargé d'affaires. I arrived a few days after the return of Juan Perón from his long exile in Madrid. On his death in 1974, he was succeeded as president by his widow, Isabelita, a former cabaret dancer. She ruled the country for a year with the help of her sinister lover, José López Rega. It was a period of creeping anarchy and soaring inflation. The military finally put an end to the Perónist regime in March 1976 by mounting a coup, which was greeted at first with general relief.

The army restored order and firm government and took action against left-wing terrorist groups such as the Montoneros and the ERP, which had proliferated during the increasingly lawless years of the Peróns. Neither I nor any of the other foreign diplomats in Buenos Aires was aware of the extent of the military's anti-terrorist operations at the time or the beginning of the long "dirty war", though perhaps we should have been alerted to it by the occasional sounds of shots in the night.

Since its emergence from the ruins of the Spanish empire in 1816, Argentina had claimed the Falkland Islands as part of the new republic even though Spain had ceded the uninhabited islands to Britain in 1771. Despite protests from Buenos Aires, Britain formally settled the islands in 1833 and has occupied them ever since, with the exception of 74 days in 1982. Argentina has never relinquished its claim and although it never pursued it with any vigour until the junta took over in 1976, it became part of Argentine mythology. The Islas Malvinas, as they are called in Spanish, are shown on Argentine maps as being part of Argentina and at all schools in the country, even the highly regarded Anglo-Argentine ones such as St George's and St Andrew's, the day begins with the raising of the national flag and recital of the mantra that "las Islas Malvinas son argentinas".
Generations of Argentines have been brainwashed in this way. When our youngest son went to St Andrew's at the age of nine, he was taught in Spanish in the mornings and in English in the afternoons, as is the case at all Anglo-Argentine schools. So, the pupils learned that the islands were the Malvinas in the morning and the Falklands in the afternoon. The boy was understandably confused.

Soon after I arrived in Buenos Aires I made a visit to the Falkland Islands to learn more about the main problem that I should be dealing with at the embassy. Thanks to the Communications Agreement of 1971, it was now possible to fly there from Buenos Aires by a weekly commercial flight operated, sinisterly, by the Argentine air force. I flew to Stanley in an almost empty plane - there was little traffic in either direction - and was met by the governor at the airstrip in his official car, a converted London taxi, with a roof high enough to accommodate his plumed hat on ceremonial occasions. Suddenly, an hour or two away from the seething, modern metropolis of Buenos Aires, I found myself in a 19th-century English village whose inhabitants knew nothing of their Spanish-speaking neighbours 300 miles across the sea and wanted to keep it that way. Apart from discussions with the governor and islanders, I had one small duty to perform - to pass on a gentle rebuke to the governor from London about his method of disposing of confidential papers. After reading them, he was in the habit of flushing them down the lavatory at Government House. Legend had it that they would wash up on the shores around Stanley Harbour.

Off the fence

For the past hundred years the Falkland Islands issue has served successive Argentine administrations as a useful distraction in times of internal crisis. It has also proved a hugely successful rallying cry for a single Argentine identity, creating a nation out of immigrants. Having exterminated the original Indian inhabitants in the 19th century, the local Spanish settlers relied on vast immigration from Europe to fill their empty spaces.

Spain and Italy provided the largest proportion (half the population of Buenos Aires is of Italian origin) and further significant numbers arrived from Germany, Ireland, the Middle East ("Turcos") and, not least, the British mainland, the Scots and Welsh populating large parts of bleak, windswept Patagonia. The English, unlike the rest of these groups, arrived not as poor immigrants but as merchants, businessmen, industrialists, engineers (who built the railways) and remittance men, some of whom made good spectacularly - including a great-uncle of mine who founded Duperial, the largest subsidiary of ICI in South America.

Unlike the other immigrants, the English eschewed politics, regarding it as a thoroughly ungentlemanly business. So far as they were concerned, the Falklands belonged to whomever they happened to be talking to, British or Argentine. The events of 1982 forced most of them to come down off the fence on which they had been sitting for two centuries in favour of their country of origin. The other ethnic groups had no such inhibitions. A Buenos Aires taxi driver once attacked me over the Falklands when he discovered that I was English. "When are you going to give us back our islands?" he asked aggressively. He then confided that he had been born in Milan but his parents had emigrated to Argentina. Nationalism works.

Following the return of the Peróns in 1973, Argentina began ratcheting up the fierce rhetoric over the Falklands once again. A shadowy nationalist group planted a bomb outside the British ambassador's residence that shattered most of the windows and blew to pieces the policeman on duty outside (his hat could still be seen several weeks later high up in the tree beside the front entrance). When Lord Shackleton led an official mission to the islands in 1975-76 to examine ways in which they could be developed, the Argentines' fury erupted. They withdrew their ambassador from London for "consultations", as the diplomatic phrasing goes. Britain did the same, and recalled its man in Buenos Aires. I was then propelled into the hot seat as chargé d'affaires for nearly two years while tensions between the two countries grew. The Foreign Office told me that it was sending out a team of "ex" SAS to be my personal bodyguard. When I protested that I had no need of such extreme measures and that it would only make me more conspicuous, I received a stinging rebuke. "The team will not be coming out to protect John Shakespeare," the telegram said tartly, "but to protect HMG from embarrassment in the event of his being kidnapped or killed."

For the whole of the past century, the Falklands issue has been at the bottom of every foreign secretary's in tray. It makes its way to the top only at times of exceptional turbulence in Anglo-Argentine relations, and the 1970s was one of those. As always, the British government hoped that the problem would just go away but this time it refused to do so because of the intransigence of the parties.

With the Argentine military now making the running, Britain agreed unhappily to negotiate. A variety of solutions was canvassed and tried out on the islanders and the Argentines, including leaseback (as with Hong Kong), condominium and joint development under a sovereignty umbrella, but with little success. We even found it hard to decide whether it was the wishes or "the best interests" of the islanders - two very different things - that should be paramount. The incoherence of our policies in the face of a brutal, fascist regime led inexorably to the invasion of the islands on 2 April 1982 and the near calamity that followed.

In 1976-77, two incidents occurred that in any other circumstances would have been casi belli, but were deliberately hushed up by a supine British government, desperate not to derail the negotiations. In February 1976 an Argentine destroyer fired on the British Antarctic Survey vessel Shackleton while it was in Falklands waters, with deliberate intent to sink it. The Shackleton was saved only by escaping into a bank of fog. I was instructed to deliver a limp slap on the wrist to the head of the Malvinas department at the foreign ministry, rather than to the foreign minister himself, as one would have expected. He was courteous but unapologetic.

Exactly a year later, another BAS vessel discovered that the Argentines had constructed a settlement on the small island of Southern Thule in the South Sandwich Islands, a British dependency 1,300 miles south-east of the Falklands. Once again, I was instructed to complain at the usual level; once again, I received the same response, with the added gloss that the Argentine navy was on the island "for research purposes" only.
But something even more bizarre happened while the Argentines were encroaching militarily on our position in the South Atlantic. We unwittingly encompassed our own destruction by trying to sell them the very weapons most capable of achieving it.

Tipping the balance

Argentina was in the market for new frigates and had already bought two Type 42 vessels from Vosper Thornycroft. Argentina was now interested in buying six of the new Type 21. In those days, trade was the name of the game where British foreign policy was concerned, and our embassy in Buenos Aires was instructed to give full support to Vosper Thornycroft. To that end, I hosted a lavish lunch at the residence in November 1976 - only a few months after the Shackleton incident and just one month before the discovery of the Argentine settlement on Southern Thule - to enable a sales team from Vosper Thornycroft to meet six senior Argentine admirals in the most agreeable circumstances.

I have never forgotten something that one of the admirals said to me at lunch and that I thought, wrongly, was a joke. "When we recover the Malvinas, the islanders will be able to go on with their traditional way of life undisturbed because no Argentine will ever want to live there," he said. (Ironically, the first and most detested action of the Buenos Aires-appointed military governor in 1982 was to impose driving on the right.)
The frigate negotiations got off to a good start but collapsed when Vosper Thornycroft declined to pay the requisite bribe into the naval officers' pension fund. It is chilling to think that, had it not been for this, the acquisition by their navy of six powerful, British-built warships could well have tipped the balance against our task force in 1982.

Now, once again, the Falkland Islands are in the news as the Argentine government steps up the pressure and our coalition government, unlike the Labour administration of the 1970s, digs in its heels. What has changed since then is the discovery of potentially huge reserves of oil in Falklands waters. Both sides realise that another attempt at imposing a military solution is out of the question - but both sides still have to show the necessary statesmanship that will lead, one hopes inevitably, to the joint exploitation of this new Eldorado.

John Shakespeare served as a diplomat in Argentina from 1973-77

John Shakespeare served as a diplomat in Argentina from 1973-77

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, France is my enemy

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

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?

***

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.

***

 

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?

***

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