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
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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.