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Where two kinds of wildness collide

In the second in a series of essays on nature and landscape, Richard Mabey sees a premonition of spr

Psychogeographers, the cognoscenti tell us, have been rebranded less dizzily as “deep topographers”. The BBC’s arts editor, Will Gompertz, is making a film about an aspiring new acolyte, and is asking me if I see myself as one of their company. We’re sitting on a bench in the Oxford Botanic Garden, surrounded by irises and service trees, and I answer, too snappily, no, I’m a shallow topographer. It’s a smart-arsed, irritable reflex at these tiresome abstractions but I realise that I’m serious.

I try to explain how, for me, landscapes are paramountly about their present life, their vivacious, protean, membranous surfaces, not some intangible, semi-mystical motherlode. By lucky chance there’s a visual aid on tap.  From where we’re sitting, the gate of the Botanic Gardens, built in 1633, was intended to perfectly frame the Great Tower of Magdalen College, and form a kind of Age of Enlightenment ley line. The wild card intervened and
the local builders misaligned it by a jarring five degrees.

I was being disingenuous, of course. Landscapes and nature work by a constant juggle ­between pattern and process, chaos and order. Rock meets weather. Evanescent greenleaf generates hardwood trunk. Instinct negotiates with opportunism. Migration becomes settlement. Above ancient seasonal rhythms and inscrutable connectivities, life skits about like a cursor on a ouija board, guided by chance and exuberant inventiveness as much as deep-rooted imperatives. And especially so in spring. Gretel Ehrlich, gazing over the Wyo­ming Hills at flocks of migrating finches, falls
of hail, crashings of orchard branches, concluded that in spring, “the general law of increasing disorder is on the take”.

I get disorderly and fidgety, too, after the months of rutted inertia, and wait for that day in early March when there is a kind of pre-spring overture, when the light seems to open out, lose the brittle clarity of winter sunshine and dust the leafless landscape with the merest hint of pollen. It happened on 2 March this year and, guessing where the action would be, I sped to the vast liminal marshlands of north Norfolk. The atmosphere on the coast was electric. The sky was full of jitterbugging birds, windblown flurries of lapwing, chattering, cantankerous mobs of brent geese, flocks of golden plover, invisible until they turned in synchrony and the sun tinselled the undersides of their wings. I soon saw one reason for their restlessness. A juvenile peregrine falcon, driven by rapacious instincts, adolescent hormones and sheer devilment, was repeatedly scything at 150mph through a shape-shifting plume of starlings – and missing every time. But I sensed another thrill running through the masses of birds. They were poised for their journey home, back to the northern tundra.

Do we still have this restless itch to move on somewhere deep in our own biology? We’re touched by migration, bird migration especially, more than can be explained by the simple associations it has with the new seasons. The pioneering US nature writer Aldo Leopold envisioned the migration of geese as a kind of eco-poetic commerce, the corn of the mid-west combining with the light of the tundra to generate “as net profit a wild poem dropped from the murky skies upon the muds of March”. Do the airy, swooping flights of swallows and other summer migrants from Africa, so different from the movements of northern birds, sound faint cultural – maybe even genetic – echoes of that warm southern landscape from which the first nomadic humans emerged? Most of these annual visitors are in alarming and inexplicable decline, and we can have no idea of what we may lose if that link with our origins finally vanishes.

In the summer of 2010, just a few miles east of where I watched the peregrine, archaeologists discovered the oldest evidence yet of human occupation in Britain, a cache of flint tools probably 900,000 years old. They identified the likely makers as Homo antecessor, a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers who had risked the journey up from the continent to what was probably the northernmost habitable part of the European land mass. Happisburgh, where the find was, is currently falling into the sea, but at that time was a bone-chilling boreal forest like northern Scandinavia. When the bitter 2010 winter struck, we locals took some pride in our antecessors’ gutsiness.

I migrated to Norfolk myself ten years ago, swapping beech-clad hills for windswept flatlands. With hindsight, my journey seems as serendipitous as H. antecessor’s. It was driven by necessity (I’d been ill and needed to move away) but guided by chance – fortunate encounters, tangy memories of once-visited spots and longed-for creatures. Wafted north-east like a speck of spindrift, I ended up in the Waveney Valley, where I’ve lived ever since. I see it as home but not as a place of new roots. It’s not that I now feel rootless but that I seem to have become capable of briefly putting down new tendrils anywhere I go. As Bruce Chatwin argued, we’re more nomadic as a species than it’s politically convenient to admit.

But if I’m less deep topographer than landscape tart, I still have my manor, an entirely subjective parish that encompasses the land within a roughly ten-mile radius of my home. And every so often I beat the bounds, see what’s up, what’s about. I’m not, I hope, laying any kind of claim, just acting out that old warp and weave of nomadic curiosity and territorial affection. I looked up the exact time of the spring equinox the night before: 20 March, 5.40am. And just as one often does with a flight to catch, I woke exactly at that moment. It was barely light and the world looked flat and
lifeless. I imagined the earth enjoying a brief moment of equipoise, just before it began to tilt again. What a hope!

I head west, out into the sand country. It’s a mild, sunny day but the drought is biting hard here. The ditches are empty and the hedges leafless – except that, thanks to another kind of migration, they’re foaming with the white blossom of cherry plum, “fools’ blackthorn”, brought here from the Middle East 1,000 years ago. Much of the farmland here looks as if it’s been imported from a Martian agribusiness. Immense fields are entirely shrouded in moisture-retaining plastic sheets, as shiny as mountain lakes. Bare-earth pig ranches are sprouting everywhere. Pigs in wooden pens, corrugated iron bungalows, canvas marquees like a porcine Glastonbury. Nothing deeper in the topography here than a hog wallow.

I drive past the farm where in February an animal-rights activist filmed the most horrific violence against stock that the RSPCA has ever seen. A few days later the farmer, an honourable and much-respected man by all accounts, killed himself. There has been no identification or even rumours about the workers responsible, but I notice that the ubiquitous billboards, urging us to “Support our higher welfare standards. Buy British pork” are beginning to disappear and be replaced by “Keep out” notices.

A few miles on, I climb over a fence, out toward a big sheep pasture, and hear the heart-stirring bubbling of curlews. I can’t see them, but a buzzard glides overhead. They’re now coming back to East Anglia, after generations of persecution by gamekeepers. Then I turn round and see a trapped magpie frantic in a cage I can’t even reach, and along the barbed wire round it a dozen shrivelling moles, impaled by their noses. Even William Blake might have seen this spot as some kind of psychogeographical axis mundi, where two different kinds of wildness have collided.

This is edgy country, nervous of water shortage, EU regulations and a public scrutiny unlike anything it has experienced before, and I’m relieved to move east and south into the clay country. It’s a gentler, more intimate countryside, with small fields and smallholdings, old lanes and even older echoes. When I first came to live here I was browsing a large-scale map and was astonished to see that all the ancient features – green lanes, wood edges, field boundaries – were roughly aligned in a north-west/ south-east direction. A few local historians had spotted it, too. This fragment of landscape, dating from the Iron Age, has a four-degree tilt to the west. It is invisible from ground level, so how it happened is a mystery. Thoreau had a theory that our species has a ­natural instinct to move in a westerly direction, following the course of the sun.

I follow my own instincts along this maze of lanes, through the village where, in the 1920s, two London socialists defied the local gentry and clergy and set up a community school that lasted until the outbreak of the Second World War. I find thin secluded valleys I’ve never been in before, pass fuzzy commons, snail farms, otter streams, craft studios, a whole magpie ecology blessedly free of a cage. These valleys and wet patches have been the protectors of East Anglia’s distinct sense of identity. They’ve kept the big roads away and people come to East Anglia, not through it.

I end up in one of these miniature flood-plain valleys, where I saw my first local barn owl, that ancient parish familiar. I haven’t seen one here for two years but just as the sun sets one skews out of a ditch. It flies off like the dismissive wave of a white cape, on an incompre­hensible course over a dog-walking green. Barn owls do not fly high, but if it had and had looked down on the parish I’d just circumnavigated, it would have seen a pattern that turned upside-down my glib dismissal of deep topography. The surface membrane, inert, plastic, barbed and private; and, flowing around and through it, these thin meandering ribbons of life, first carved out at the end of the Ice Age.

Richard Mabey’s latest book is “The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn” (Profile Books, £9.99)
 

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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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