French electricity pylons. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Shock horror: people will take serious pain over phoneless boredom

Left alone in a sparsely furnished room for 15 minutes, stripped of all electronic distractions but one, boredom made the electric-shock machine irresistible.

It is perhaps the most terrifying discovery of the year so far: people would rather give themselves unpleasant electric shocks than be left alone with their thoughts. Roughly 400 undergraduate students at the University of Virginia were first given a shock so powerful that three-quarters of them said they would pay not to experience it a second time. Then they were left alone in a sparsely furnished room for 15 minutes, stripped of all electronic distractions but one. The boredom made the electric shock machine irresistible.

It’s tempting to use this finding to support suspicions that digital technologies are creating a generation of idiots but we don’t have to. We know, for instance, that the experience of pain releases a surge of feel-good, pain-relieving chemicals into our bloodstream. This endorphin rush is one of the reasons that eating a painfully hot curry can be pleasurable.

We also know that our body’s relationship with electricity is more than skin-deep. Every biological cell is a tiny battery, with charges flowing in and out. Map your whole body and you’ll find an intricate web of electrical fields that are vital to maintaining your health. That is why we can accelerate or halt the process of wound-healing by applying voltages across breaks in the skin. Get the voltage and the orientation of the electric field right and the cells that carry out repairs are guided to the affected area more efficiently.

Looking deeper in the body, we are finding that electric currents could offer a path to curing some diseases. A number of conditions, including cancer, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, are associated with the disrupted flow of electricity across cell walls. Researchers are working on microelectronic devices that will address these disruptions by pushing just a few charges into or out of cells. No one believes that it will be easy to develop such innovations but there are strong incentives in place for those who want to try.

Last year, the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline announced a $1m reward for the first researchers to create a truly useful implantable “electroceutical” device, which can exchange electrical signals with the body. This month, the US National Institutes of Health announced $248m of new funding for research into mapping the body’s electrical fields and finding ways to tap into their health-care potential.

Perhaps the most advanced programmes are studies of how electricity can affect the brain’s performance. Tests carried out by US military researchers have shown that feeding a small current through the skull can provoke enormous gains in focus. Transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) has applications in improving snipers’ performance – it doubles the speed with which they spot a threat – but could be applied much more widely if proved to be safe and effective. Research has shown that it could accelerate learning and even improve the efficiency with which people walk.

No one is yet quite sure how TDCS works but the tiny current seems to excite neurons, preparing them to fire more quickly and in a more co-ordinated fashion. So let’s assume, for the sake of maintaining our species’ dignity, that the University of Virginia students were exploring hidden paths to self-improvement. That will make us feel better than facing up to the attention-deficit disaster.

Michael Brooks’s “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” is published by Profile (£12.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

Show Hide image

New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.


This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times