The smart fork and the crowding out of thought

The launch of a new device that seeks to "nudge" us towards healthier eating just emphasises how reluctant our politicians are to tackle the problem of obesity head-on.

One of the critical skills of any student of politics — professors, journalists, public servants, writers, politicians and interested members of the public included — is to somehow look beyond or beneath the bigger headlines and instead focus on those peripheral stories that may in fact tell us far more about the changing nature of society. It was in exactly this sense that I was drawn recently not to the "War in Whitehall" or Cameron’s speech on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union but to a story about the launch of a "smart fork". The "smart" feature being the existence of a shrill alarm which would inform its user if they were eating too quickly. This, I have quickly realized, is just the latest in a long stream of innovations that seek to nudge individuals towards making better choices about the way they lead their lives (eat less, save more, drive more slowly, etc.). And so it turns out that the "smart fork" is just one of a great series of new innovations that seeks to deliver a form of liberal-paternalism by somehow reconciling individual freedom and choice with an emphasis on collective responsibility and well-being. My favorite amongst these innovations was the "smart trolley": a supermarket trolley with sensors that beeped (and flashed) at the errant shopper who succumbed to the temptation to place a high-fat product in their trolley.

There was something about the idea of a smart fork, however, that I found particularly disturbing (or should I say "hard to swallow", "stuck in my gullet", "left a bad taste in my mouth", etc.?). My mind jumped back to Michael Sandel’s argument that "the problem with our politics is not too much moral argument but too little… Our politics is over-heated because it is mostly vacant." My concern with the launch of the "smart fork" is that it arguably reflects an unwillingness to deal with the moral arguments that underlie the obesity endemic in large parts of the developed world. If Sandel’s concern about the imposition of market values is that it could "crowd out of virtue" then my own concern is that behavioral economics revolution risks "crowding out thought" in the sense that new technologies may provide little more than an excuse or displacement activity for not accepting responsibility for one’s actions. In the twenty-first century do we really need a computerized fork or shopping trolley in order to tell us to eat less food more slowly, or to buy less high-fat food and exercise more?

The smart fork therefore forms little more than a metaphor for a society that appears to have lost a sense of self-control and personal responsibility. This, in turn, pushes us back to broader arguments concerning the emptiness of modern political debate and to the relative value of the public and private sectors. As Alain de Botton argued in Citizen Ethics in a Time of Crisis, we could ask whether individual freedom has really served us so well as the leitmotif of modern life. "In the chaos of the liberal free market we tend to lack not so much freedom [but] the chance to use it well’ de Botton writes; ‘We lack guidance, self-understanding, self-control… being left alone to ruin our lives as we please is not a liberty worth revering". Slavoj Žižek paints a similar argument across a broader canvas in his provocative work Living in the End Times. "The people wanted to have their cake and eat it," Žižek argues; "they wanted capitalist democratic freedom and material abundance but without paying the full price." He uses an advert on American TV for a chocolate laxative — "Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate" — to mock the modern public’s constant demand for results without ever having to suffer unpleasant side effects.

Although hidden far beneath the front-page headlines, the story of the launch of the smart fork (in Las Vegas — need I say more) highlights the existence of an underlying problem in the sense that most politicians appear either unwilling or unable (possibly both) to tackle the issue head-on. Between 1980 and 2000 obesity rates doubled in the United States to the extent that one in three adults (around sixty million people) are now clinically obese, with levels growing particularly amongst children and adolescents. In this context it may well be that individuals require — even want — not a nudge but a shove or a push towards a healthier lifestyle? If this is true, it is possible that we need to revisit certain baseline assumptions about the market and the state and not simply define the role of the latter as an inherently illegitimate, intrusive, and undesirable one. To make this point is not to trump the heavy hand of the state or to seek to promote some modern version of the enlightened dictator, but it is to inject a little balance into the debate about the individual and society. Is it possible that we ‘hate’ politics simply because, unlike those unfeasibly self-contained, sane, and reasonable grown-ups that we are assumed to be by liberal politicians, most of us still behave like disturbed children (or political infants) who simply don’t want to take responsibility for our actions or how they impact on the world around us? Or — to put the same point slightly differently — if the best response we have to the obesity crisis is an electric fork then in the long term we’re all forked.

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Parliamentary Government & Governance at the University of Sheffield. He was awarded the Political Communicator of the Year Award in 2012. Author of Defending Politics (2012), he is also co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of British Politics and author of Multi-Level Governance and Democratic DriftRead more of Matthew Flinders’s blog posts and find him on Twitter @PoliticalSpike. This post first appeared on the OUP blog, and is crossposted with their permission.

The "smart fork", which connects wireless to a computer that collects information about the diner's appetite. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.