Hard-boiled Swede

In Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels – and their home-grown TV version – Sweden is scruffy, violent

The trouble with television is that, sometimes, it spoils the pictures inside your head. You notice this first, of course, as a child. In 1977, when I was eight, the BBC adapted The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden, a book I loved. Disaster! No one looked like I wanted them to, and yet when I went back to the novel, the images I had conjured myself were distorted, as fuzzy as a fading dream. One of my characters would suddenly begin talking to one of theirs; one of their rooms would morph into one of mine, and over the course of a single paragraph, too. The only constant, porkers being what they are, was the pig. So I learned to avoid adaptations of favourite books until, in 1981, ITV screened Brideshead Revisited, a temptation I couldn't resist. Lucky, then, that it was so very good. When, even now, I read the passage in which Julia Flyte realises that her love for Charles Ryder is impossible, and I still see only Diana Quick sitting on a stone step, tears ploshing towards her beautiful upper lip, I can't say that I mind one bit.

When to resist, and when to give in? Readers of Henning Mankell have a particular problem on their hands in this regard. The BBC recently finished screening a second series of Wallander, based on the Swedish crime writer's novels about a lonely, very angry detective called Kurt Wallander, and a third has been commissioned. These films star the Oscar-nominated Kenneth Branagh as Wallander and are filmed on location in Ystad, the small town near Malmö where the character lives and works, and everyone seems to like them: critics, award committees (Wallander has won five Baftas), even Mankell. But still, there are some fans out there - I had dinner with one last night - who have so far resisted the temptation to tune in. These readers fear finding their hero . . . what? Too blonde? Too polite? Insufficiently crumpled? All of these things, and the rest. "He cries a lot, this Wal­lander," I said to my friend over supper. She wrinkled her nose. "Wallander doesn't want to cry," she said. "He's against that."

The dilemma - to watch, or not to watch - is exacerbated by the existence of a Swedish television Wallander, which has been shown on BBC4. Actually, by the existence of two Swedish television Wallanders. Between 1995 and 2007, the nine Wallander novels were made into films starring Rolf Lassgård, an actor best known here for his role in After the Wedding (the Oscar-nominated drama directed by Susanne Bier). And between 2005 and 2009, two dozen more films were made, this time starring Krister Henriksson as Wallander.

The films starring Henriksson, shot as two series, are not based on Mankell's novels; these are original stories, based on plots written specifically for television by the author. In Sweden, reaction to them has been mixed: the first and last films in each series are made for cinema release, and thus usually better than the soggier middle episodes. For Mankell, however, the actors inhabit his characters powerfully well. When Johanna Sällström, who played Linda, Wallander's daughter, committed suicide in 2007 - she had been suffering from a depression following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which she and her daughter survived by clinging to a tree - Mankell abandoned a planned trilogy of novels based around the character after only one book; his grief and guilt were, he insisted, too great. It is the first Henriksson series that has been aired in the UK.

I like the Wallander novels an awful lot but, right from the beginning, I decided that I would watch the TV versions, too; however much I enjoy a detective story, the nature of the beast is that I'm unlikely to read it again. Still, this is a strange business. Which of these two - Branagh, or Henriksson - is my Wallander? Oh, it's difficult. Generally, I like Branagh, and there is no doubting that the BBC has gone to town with its Wallander; from the moment the sunflower yellow title sequence begins to roll, you know you are watching Top-Class Television.

But sometimes, Top-Class is not quite what is required. Read Mankell, and the most striking thing about the books is how straight­forward, how pared down they are, even by the standards of the police procedural. I've no idea whether Dashiell Hammett is among his influences, but Mankell's prose is every bit as spare, and its motor, like Hammett's, is - to borrow from the historian of the detective novel Julian Symons - a kind of "wistful cynicism". Wallander is hard and stoic, but this toughness is lookout guy for a longing - for a drink, for his ex-wife, for some kind of peace - that leaves him existentially worn out.

Branagh, to be sure, looks worn out. But he tries too hard. You can see him acting. He's the king of the show, whereas Mankell's Wallander - like Henriksson's - would far rather fade into the background. And Branagh is still handsome, for all that in Wallander he gamely sports a paunch. Henriksson, on the other hand, really isn't, which somehow captures his creator's pitilessness, because in the novels, Mankell won't give Wallander a break; it's almost as if he wants to humiliate him: "He ate a hamburger special. He ate it so fast that it gave him diarrhoea. As he sat on the toilet, he noticed that he ought to change his underwear . . . " Henriksson, with his loose skin and his bloodhound eyes, looks humiliated; Branagh looks agonised, which is quite different.

Admittedly, there is snobbery at play here. The experience of watching Wallander in Swedish, with subtitles, subtly flatters the viewer. (Which of us doesn't read subtitles, and feel his brain swell?) And the Swedes allow their Wallander to listen to opera, as he does in the books; the BBC ditched this, fearing it would make him too much like Morse. But I would rather hear Swedish than listen to Branagh and his colleagues talking in flat voices, as if they were reading a poor translation, and I like the way this Sweden looks and feels. The small-town mentality is essential to Mankell's Wallander, but the BBC insists on making the police station a shouty hive; in the Swedish version, its offices are more like sleepy cupboards. Branagh's Wallander is often to be seen clutching an expensive paper cup of coffee. In the Swedish series, the detectives must use the world's creakiest machine, and they drink from pathetic plastic thimbles.

On the other hand, Ystad, however small, is not a town in aspic. Even though Mankell lived in Africa when he began writing Wallander, and still spends half his year there, he doesn't have an exile's feeling for the country of his birth. He doesn't romanticise it. Mankell thinks the writing is on the wall, that Sweden's democracy is as beset with problems as any other. He is appalled by its growing racism and greed, by the low salaries of public-sector employees. He only created Wallander in the first place as a way in to writing about xenophobia (the first novel, Faceless Killers, involves a fire at a refugee centre and the murder of a Somali immigrant).

Upsetting murders apart, the BBC's Ystad is a place where its audience might fantasise about having a holiday home. The streets are pristine. Desirable Gustavian furniture abounds. There is something swept clean about it, for sure; but only rarely do you get to see where the rubbish is left to rot. In the Swedish version, however, there is a sense - albeit subtle - of loss, of change, of the world closing in. Once people left their back doors open; now a light in an empty farmhouse is only cause for alarm. All are suspicious, no one is safe. Wallander goes to investigate a murder, and it is his childhood sweetheart whose body he must watch the pathologist examining.

This is a Sweden where soldiers - the same soldiers who will shortly travel abroad on peacekeeping missions - rampage like thugs during their annual exercises, where traumatised immigrants have no option but to seek their own revenge on those who have abused them, where gypsies are sexually abused by those charged with their care and are forced to live in freezing cold caravans on the edge of town.

Pretty quickly, you stop being taken in by appearances. "Do you want to have a life, or just burrow in, like a mole?" says Wallander to Linda when she tells him that she, too, wants to be a detective. He is referring to his workload, but there's something else going on here, too. Poor Kurt. Now he's down there, he can't imagine ever seeing light at the end of the tunnel.

Rachel Cooke is the New Statesman's TV critic.

A DVD edition of series one and two of the BBC "Wallander" is released on 8 February (£39.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven

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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