Consumer adultery - the new British vice

In the UK we throw away more consumer products, and faster, than anywhere else in Europe. The result

Just as Britain tops the European league for marriage breakdowns, so it also now tops the league for falling in love with consumer products and then throwing them away when newer models come out.

This social trend, which product designers have termed "adulterous consumption", has given us the biggest methane-producing rubbish tip in Europe - and the biggest headache in deciding what to do with our waste.

Last month, Britain narrowly escaped a huge and embarrassing fine from the European Union by finally implementing the Brussels-inspired Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive. The directive seeks to prevent us from tossing any more of these products with highly toxic, non-degradable components into holes in the ground. From now on, manufacturers of everything from electric toothbrushes and hairdryers to kettles, lighting equipment and washing machines will be forced to take back their products for recycling.

While other European states - notably Germany and the Scandinavian countries - have seen the writing on the wall and have been recycling for more than two decades, Britain's binge borrowers have remained obstinately wedded to their credit cards and have gone on consuming and discarding with abandon.

We were the very last country in Europe to adopt the new law, and the problems with compliance seem insurmountable unless we return to a more conventional loyalty to consumer products.

British women discard their hairdryers after three years, usually in favour of another one that simply looks different. The average ownership of a mobile phone lasts 18 months. And manufacturers of DIY tools have calculated that most power drills are lost or abandoned after a single weekend.

"We don't throw things away because they are broken - it's usually because we have fallen out of love with them," says Jonathan Chapman, a senior lecturer in design at the University of Brighton, who is trying to promote what he calls "emotionally durable" design as a way of reducing the generation of toxic waste.

Researchers in the United States have calculated that only 1 per cent of all the materials flowing through their domestic economy goes into products which are still being used six months later. Chapman believes that, without a big shift in our attitude to the things we live with, the UK will soon catch up. "At the beginning of a relationship with a product, we consume it rampantly," he says. "Then consumption becomes routine, and then we stop thinking about it altogether and start noticing newer models. Often the relationship ends because the product is not doing something we want it to do, or it has started doing something we didn't think it would do, but not because it doesn't work. Unless we return to more sustainable relationships with these possessions we are going to have a really huge problem."

How to square this reckless attitude with the demands of the WEEE directive is a crisis of such proportions that no one has dared look at it.

All manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers of electrical equipment have until 15 March to register for WEEE compliance. They are required to provide precise information on the weight of the products on the market. They will then have to demonstrate that they are taking back and recycling an agreed quantity.

In practice, they will pay local authorities to provide "designated collection facilities" (DCFs), which will perform the laborious function of recovering, sorting and returning their products.

The British Retail Consortium has agreed to provide £10m to upgrade local-authority tips to DCFs, but this works out at roughly £6,000 per site - hardly enough to cover the purchase of the separate containers required, let alone wages for the vast armies of additional staff who will be needed to sort copper wire from cadmium and computer screens from lead components.

The only way the directive is likely to work is by somehow engendering a sense of collective social responsibility for waste management, yet there has been no public education campaign, and most consumers are unaware of the existence of the WEEE requirement.

Last month, a county council waste manager in West Sussex admitted that it is not clear where the facilities are to deal with the anticipated WEEE mountains. "We're not telling the public about this because we don't want them asking questions when we don't know the answers," she said.

This, coupled with our fragmented waste- disposal industry, and our usual hostility to any anonymous edict handed down from Brussels, is a recipe for chaos.

Others are exasperated at the lack of preparation. "Britain has known this electrical equipment directive was coming for a good ten to 15 years, but instead of getting properly prepared for it, the general response has been for people to stick their heads in the sand," says Cerys Ponting, whose work at Cardiff business school on the effects of the WEEE rules is to be published shortly.

Although she has found that most British consumers are oblivious to the implications of our throwaway culture, she does think attitudes will change. "It is like the early days of seat-belt laws, when people still didn't really see the point of them," she says. "Until now there has been little pressure from the government to recycle.

"People somehow regard electronics as a clean industry and they don't understand how much of a problem it actually is. That is slowly changing and there is more and more public understanding of the need to be responsible. We are going to run out of landfill sites and many raw materials fairly soon. Local authorities recognise that, but they are still at the stage of experimenting with different methods of tackling the recycling issue."

Meanwhile the situation is becoming critical. We are producing one million tonnes of electrical wreckage annually, a volume that is rising by 5 per cent year on year - much faster than the generation of other types of waste.

The average British household contains 25 electrical products, of which at least five are thrown away every year. Two million personal computers are discarded annually. This voracious consumption is being fuelled by plummeting prices. According to the Office for National Statistics, the price of a personal computer has fallen by 93 per cent, in real terms, in the past decade. Prices of televisions, DVD players and vacuum cleaners have fallen by 45 per cent over the same timescale.

Because of an old, and somewhat irrational, resistance in this country to incinerating rubbish, the vast majority of our electronic junk is simply tipped into the disused quarries that conveniently pepper most of Britain's shire counties. Items that may have been used for just a few hours during their working lives are being left to sit underground for thousands of years, giving off copious amounts of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas that is 23 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

The proliferating volume of "large WEEE", as it is known in the industry, presents even more of a problem. Most people find it physically impossible to conceal washing machines and cookers in their dustbins, and there has been a slow move towards recycling the raw materials from such items - or at least not dumping them in holes in the ground.

Government waste advisers fear, however, that the new directive may simply lead to increasing quantities of such discarded goods being exported illegally to countries such as India or Nigeria, where desperate workforces will do just about anything for money, including stripping out heavy metals and other toxic materials from appliances by hand. A 2005 report from the European Commission described an enforcement operation, carried out in 17 European seaports, during which 140 waste shipments were found. Although almost half of these cargoes turned out to be totally illegal, there is no evidence of any major prosecutions. A 15-year-old UN convention, designed to prevent the export of hazardous waste from developed to developing nations, has been similarly ineffective.

Other academics have contrasted the growth of adulterous consumption with our paradoxical attachment to ancient jeans, old teddy bears and worn-out wooden spoons.

Tim Cooper, head of the Centre for Sustainable Consumption at Sheffield Hallam University, says harnessing this desire for connection to our possessions is the key to preventing disaster. He says that the WEEE directive and other legislation restricting the use of hazardous substances in manufactured items should eventually lead to a generation of more durable and repairable items that are not encased in the sealed units which prevent a long life anyway.

"People do like the idea of developing long-term relationships with their possessions; it is just that they have been prevented from doing so by industry, which is geared around stimulating a continuous sense of need for change in order to sell more and more," he says.

"It is true, though, that there has been no evidence so far of any trend to make things which last longer or which are even more recyclable, and it does look as if things will get considerably worse before they get better."

Five ways to dispose ethically

http://www.sofaproject.org.uk
The Bristol-based recycling charity Sofa sells on donated furniture and electrical appliances. Anyone can buy from the charity, but if you are on a low income you get a 25 per cent discount

http://www.createuk.com
Collects and recycles fridges, freezers, cookers and washing machines. Items suitable for reuse are separated and passed on to refurbishment operations

http://www.seek-it.co.uk
Computer and software disposal. Good for the security-conscious: Seek-it wipes hard drives. The items it collects are resold or reused as donations to projects in the UK and Africa through www.it-exchange.org

http://www.wasteonline.org.uk
A website that provides information on recommended companies throughout the UK that recycle and reuse electrical goods - from computers to lighting - as well as others specialising in industrial plastics and food

http://www.actionaidrecycling.org.uk
Collects ink and toner cartridges, mobile phones and PDAs. All are recycled in order to help fund ActionAid's charitable projects in the third world

Research by Lucy Knight

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
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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