A burnt out first floor window shows fire damage in the house where five people died. Photograph: Getty Images
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Letter from Harlow: Reaching for utopia

After the war, Harlow was supposed to offer east Londoners the chance of a fresh start and a stab at the good life. This month, it became the place where a suspicious fire killed six members of a Muslim family.

1.
Very early on the morning of Monday 15 October, residents on the Barn Mead estate in Harlow, Essex, were woken by screams and by the sound of a man in distress. One woman looked through the window and saw that the three bedroom, end-of-terrace house opposite was on fire and a man whom she recognised as Abdul Shakoor, who is 45 and a hospital doctor, was being restrained by neighbours as he struggled to get back inside the burning building where he lived with his wife and their five children. “My children are in there,” he was shouting, “my children.”

By the time emergency support vehicles arrived, the house was filled with thick, acrid smoke and fiercely ablaze. Dr Shakoor’s wife, Sabah Usmani, who was also a doctor, and three of their children were declared dead at the scene; two other children, both severely burned, were pulled from the house alive and taken to the local Princess Alexandra Hospital, where their father worked as an endocrinologist.

Muneeb, who was nine, died later that day; his younger sister, Maheen, at the age of three the baby of the family, was transferred to the burns unit at Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, the county town of Essex.

Dr Shakoor, who is suffering from profound trauma and smoke inhalation, was also moved to Broomfield: his wish was to be as close as possible to his daughter as doctors fought to keep her alive. On the evening of Thursday 18 October, it was announced that Maheen, too, had died. The tragedy was complete.

Essex Police have said that the fire, which started in the downstairs lounge, spread quickly and is “being treated as suspicious”, even though no evidence has been found to suggest that an accelerant was used. Shortly after the fire started at the house that Monday morning, a Ford Focus belonging to another local resident was also set alight in the street nearby. “By the time emergency services arrived the fire [at the house] was intense which implies it had been burning for a while,” Chief Inspector Justin Smith said.

“The car wasn’t burnt out, however. We now need to understand the timings, and how long the car had been alight compared to how long the house had been alight – that is a key point.”

There have been previous incidents of arson on the Barn Mead estate and the police are describing it as “more than a coincidence” that both the house and the car should have been set alight around the same time, if not simultaneously, and within close proximity. Were the Shakoors, who were devout Muslims and of Pakistani origin, the victims of a racist attack? Or was the previous occupant of the house, which the Shakoors had been renting for less than a year, the intended victim as has been suggested? (A friend of the Shakoors, a fellow Muslim named Safia Anwar, told me that the family, who for a period lived in Saudi Arabia, had been looking for a suitable property to buy in the town. They were settled in Harlow, their children attended the local Abbotsweld Primary School, and they wanted to stay on, she said.)

2.
I know the Barn Mead area well. My paternal grandfather used to live on the estate in a modest flat that overlooked a comprehensive school. “All day they’re coming in and out, in and out,” he used to complain of the pupils. From the outside, the flat seemed to be very much as it was when I used to visit him, and it’s just a few hundred yards from where the Shakoors lived. Close to the house they rented, on some local fields, are three recreational football pitches where I sometimes used to play on Sunday mornings as a young boy.

My grandfather moved to Harlow from Forest Gate, on the edges of Epping Forest, a strange, shadowy nowhere zone where the East End thins out and merges into Essex. He was retired, his wife had died, and he was suffering from tinnitus and wanted to be closer to his only child, my father, who, like so many aspirational east Londoners, had moved as a young man to the Essex new town, where land was plentiful and new family houses were abundant and available for rent or purchase. My grandfather stayed on in Harlow long after we left the town in the early Eighties.

Many of those who came to live in Harlow in the years after the war were in one way or another in flight from history – from the inner city, from the cramped Victorian terraced streets of their childhoods, from the bomb sites and ruined buildings – and Harlow offered them a new start, a new life in a centrally planned, socially engineered, semi-rural environment. One of the consequences of growing up in a new town as I did – always so much emphasis on novelty, on newness, on the here and now – was that you felt part of a kind of utopian social-democratic experiment. The state was providing for you and those around you, nearly all of whom were of similar background. It was as if the state had a vision of what the postwar good life should be and somewhere we all fitted into it.

“The town attracted progressives, community-minded people,” Ron Bill, a local historian and Labour Party activist, told me over tea and biscuits when I visited him at home in Harlow this past week. “Frederick Gibberd [the consultant architect planner for the Harlow development] was an example of such a person. That first wave of people who came to the town in the Fifties and Sixties – many of them socialists and communists – they wanted to build something. The trouble is there wasn’t a second wave equal to the first. And their children moved away, as children do.”

Harlow doesn’t, today, feel like the optimistic town it did when I was growing up there in the Seventies, when it had such an excellent infrastructure of new houses, roads, cycle tracks, playing fields and children’s play schemes. Back then, it had an Olympic-sized swimming pool (since closed and demolished), an exceptionally well-regarded multipurpose sports centre (since sold, flattened and replaced with houses), a dry-ski slope (long gone), a skating rink (now abandoned), a velodrome (gone) and an expansive, landscaped town park through which a river flowed (now sadly neglected).

The Labour Party was powerful in the town and for many years controlled the council. The local playhouse was ambitious and sophisticated in the choice of films and plays it chose to show and put on. The large central library was superbly stocked with books and magazines, and it was there that I used to read the New Statesman and the Spectator.

It was a provincial boyhood and I yearned for greater adventure and excitement, but in retrospect – and it took me a long time to understand and accept this – I was fortunate to have lived in Harlow when I did. It offered me everything I needed, apart perhaps from a rigorous academic education; there was no local grammar school and by the mid-to-late Seventies most of the town’s eight comprehensive schools were, in ambition and attainment, becoming more like what Andrew Adonis now calls “secondary modern comprehensives”.

“Yes, some of the failures of Harlow are to do with the schools,” Ron Bill told me. “The larger problem was that the original New Towns Act of 1946 stipulated that the new town could keep its assets – from the industrial estate and the commercial side of the town centre – but this was reversed and the assets of the town went to private business and the Treasury.

“The whole aim of the new town was to give people a better life, to build family homes surrounded by green spaces. We wanted to satisfy the demands and aspirations of people – for a town swimming pool, say, or for a meals-on wheels service. But the swimming pool failed because it wasn’t being maintained properly. The sports centre was sold. There wasn’t the money to mend the ski slope. The rose beds in the town park . . . there wasn’t the funds for maintenance.

“If the industrial estate had funded the town it could have been different. But it was still lovely to be in Harlow; the corporation and council achieved a great deal. I suppose we tried for utopia but didn’t quite reach it.”

When I lived in Harlow, it felt resolutely mono-ethnic and socially narrow; there were no black boys in my year at school, and very few of Hong Kong Chinese or Indian or Pakistani origin. There were, however, several boys at the school who became members of the Inter City Firm, or ICF, the feared, ruthless and racist firm of hardcore West Ham hooligans. The National Front were active and were recruiting in the town for a while, and Ron recalls marching against them. Ultimately they were repulsed.

3.
When I spoke last week to Safia Anwar, who lives close to Barn Mead on the Woodcroft estate in Harlow, about her friends the Shakoors, she said they had been brought together by their children and shared Muslim faith. Like Sabah Usmani, Safia wears the hijab. “I saw the family every day – every day – because our children were at the same school,” she told me, in hesitant English. “They were good people and they had no trouble since they came to the town. They never spoke about any problems. We ourselves have had no problem with racism. Perhaps a little bit at the school, some of the children say things to my children . . . but this [the fire] cannot be racism.”

She paused and looked at me sadly. “My children have been asking about their friends – when are they coming back? They think the children will be back when they are better. They don’t imagine what is death.”

Woodcroft, Willowfield, Old Orchard, Five Acres: the names of what were once council or corporation estates surrounding Barn Mead are redolent of a pastoral idyll, or at least of the rural lands that were obliterated when the new town came. The actual estates, transformed by Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme, are perhaps shabbier than I remember and many of the houses need painting and care, but the streets are clean and when I visited council workers in yellow jackets were out sweeping the roads and collecting litter. In Barn Mead a mobile police station had been set up adjacent to the Shakoors’ fire-blackened house and search officers from across the county were fastidiously going about their business, knocking on doors, looking in bins and black rubbish sacks.

“We knew from day one that this could be a lengthy investigation and at this point there are no definitive answers or explanations,” said Chief Inspector Smith. “However, we are putting a huge amount of resources into this investigation. Never in my 24 years of service have we seen this level of resources – it is unprecedented.”

4.
A house fire and suspicions of a racist attack on the estate where my grandfather once lived were what brought me back to Harlow and all the memories it stirs, back to Ron Bill’s nearlyutopia. The morning of my return I parked my car outside my grandfather’s old flat and walked around streets that, even after all these years of absence, seemed so familiar. The school he used to complain about has since been renamed and relocated, and its former classrooms and offices are desolate, fenced in and boarded up. (The school was recently featured in the Channel 4 reality series Educating Essex, the title suggesting that this large and diverse county, stretching from the rural Suffolk borderlands that Constable painted to the edges of London’s East End, is a monoculture.) The local pub, the Archers Dart at Coppice Hatch, where my grandfather bought an occasional pint, was semi-derelict, its doors and windows also boarded up. These unused buildings together with the presence of so many police on the streets gave Barn Mead the feel of an estate under siege.

5.
I eventually left later that morning, feeling pretty despondent and desperately hoping that little Maheen would pull through. The next evening, I heard that she had not.

The funerals of Dr Usmani and her five children were held on Wednesday 24 October at the Harlow Islamic Centre, by which time Essex Police were no closer to solving the mystery of the house fire.

“My children,” Safia Anwar had said, “have been asking about their friends – when are they coming back? They think the children will be back when they are better. They don’t imagine what is death.”

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

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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?

***

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