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Beware the clunking fist

Ignore the conventional wisdom. The combination of an improving economy and Gordon Brown’s sheer blo

Conventional wisdom is a poor guide to the future.

At the end of the 20th century, few would have thought that the coming decade would see the election of a black US president, a power-sharing deal between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists, and the nationalisation of some of Britain’s biggest banks.

Yet, even in the face of such unexpected recent events, we still cling to the notion of political ­inevitability. It is now widely regarded as a certainty that Labour will lose the next election, with the Tories on course to form a large majority in the Commons.

A combination of sleaze, exhaustion and economic meltdown are said to have finished off the Labour government. Gordon Brown is seen as a political corpse. The only question to be decided at the polls, it seems, is the scale of his defeat.

But once more, conventional wisdom could be wrong. Labour might look doomed at the moment, in the febrile atmosphere created by the expenses scandal, but the picture could be very different next summer, if the worst of the charlatans have been kicked out of the cabinet and an economic recovery is under way. Moreover, a number of features of the structure of our political system are likely to benefit Labour in the run-up to the next general election.

Even now, in the midst of crisis, it is not all gloom for the government. On 21 May, Labour won a council by-election in Salford, the seat of the discredited Communities Secretary, Hazel Blears, whose conduct over her home allowances has been condemned by Brown as “totally unacceptable”.

Given Blears’s role at the centre of ­Scamalot, the Labour vote in Salford might have been expected to collapse dramatically, but it held up. Meanwhile, the Tory vote dropped, as the party’s candidate was overtaken by both Ukip and the BNP.

Indeed, the Conservatives have not been doing nearly as well in council by-elections as they should be for a party on the verge of government. In one poll at the start of May, in the Rossmere ward of Hartlepool, the Labour vote actually went up, while the Tories were consigned to fifth place.

The national opinion polls are, of course, bleak for the government, but then they also were at the time of the European elections in 2004, a year before Blair’s third triumph. The average Tory lead of 10-12 per cent in recent months might look healthy, but, in truth, if replicated at a general election, it would be barely enough to win. After three successive landslide defeats, the task facing the Conservatives at the next election is daunting.

Taking account of boundary changes, they have to gain at least 112 seats to form an overall majority in the Commons. That would require a 7.1 swing, the equivalent of an 11 per cent lead over Labour in the national British vote, far beyond the scale of anything achieved by a previous Tory opposition.

It is a remarkable historical fact that since the end of the Victorian age, the Conservatives have only once turned out a government which possessed a working majority in parliament. That occurred in 1970, when Ted Heath – defying conventional wisdom and the polls – defeated Harold Wilson’s government, though even then the swing was 4.7 per cent, significantly lower than that needed by Cameron.

Every other Tory victory since 1900 has been against a dying coalition or Labour government which had lost its majority, or never held one.

Nor do all of Cameron’s target seats appear to be in fertile territory for Conservatism. On the list are places such as Keighley, Dewsbury, Derby North, Rossendale and Dumfries and Galloway. It is difficult to envisage all of them turning blue, especially if the general election next year takes place against a backdrop of improving economic news.

When the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, announced in the pre-Budget report last year that recovery could start in the autumn of 2009, he was derided for his prediction. But this could be the reality. Such a recovery would not address the appalling state of the public finances, with levels of national indebtedness far worse than at any time in our history.

Yet it is unlikely that the ­question of the national debt will be a deciding factor at the next election. People will be much more influenced by their own job prospects and personal income. Most homeowners lucky enough to be in work have not suffered too badly in this recession because of the dramatic fall in ­interest rates. There is no sign that rates will increase over the coming year.

By next year, the impact of the expenses scandal and the Smeargate fiasco may have faded. All the opinion polls over the past two years demonstrate that Brown’s ratings improve when economic questions predominate. Again in defiance of conventional wisdom, the Prime Minister’s strange political personality might assist in Labour’s revival in the months before the next election.

His combination of bullying, indecisiveness, cowardice and lack of vision have rightly made him despised by large sections of the public. Yet his strongest trait, his aggressive partisanship, currently a vice, could in future become an asset to Labour.

Every decision Brown makes is dictated, not by the national interests, but by his narrow determination to outflank the Tories. This has led him to absurdities like his notorious pledge of “British jobs for British workers”, but some of his negative campaigning may prove more fruitful.

The stark warnings about “Tory cuts” will be pounded home relentlessly over the next 12 months, and this message is bound to find a receptive audience among two key groups of voters: public-sector workers and welfare claimants, both of whom have done comparatively well from Labour rule. Together, these two groups have more than 12 million votes.

Brown’s partisanship will ensure that every aspect of the political system is ruthlessly exploited to Labour’s advantage. Labour’s turnout will be heavily boosted by postal voting, which, as a series of fraud scandals have proved, is open to corruption by agents and activists. One judge, presiding in 2005 over a case involving a municipal postal voting fraud in Birmingham, said the scale of abuses by six local Labour candidates would have “disgraced a banana republic”.

Indeed, the Labour government cynically introduced postal voting on demand without safeguards in 2000 precisely because it knew the party would be the big winner from such a flawed method. At the 2005 election, 6.5 million people voted by post. The figure will be even higher in 2010 and the misrepresentation even worse.

Similarly, the government will indulge in a wealth of feel-good propaganda over the next year, dressing up pro-Labour publicity as consultation and information exercises. Already the government is by far the biggest advertiser in the country, with the Central Office of Information holding a budget of £400m. Marketing by other pro-Labour public-sector organisations will be added to the political spin.

We can expect schools, hospitals, regeneration projects, community groups and Sure Start centres to start putting up signs at their entrances explaining how much the government has recently invested in their sites. In the same way, the £2.3bn regional development agencies, which the Tories have pledged to abolish, will have everything to gain by launching expensive billboard campaigns telling us about wonderful economic success ­stories in their regions.

Conventional wisdom holds that there will be a big anti-incumbency vote at the next election because of public disillusionment over the current House of Commons. But the opposite may be true. Sitting MPs have two great advantages.

First, their casework means that they have had supportive contact with thousands of voters. The huge increase in staffing allowances in the past decade means that they can often employ two or three assistants in the constituency working on behalf of their local public.

In the 1980s, Chris Smith managed to hang on to a wafer-thin majority in Islington South partly through his assiduity in handling an epic volume of casework, most of them housing issues that should really have been dealt with by local councillors. His winning slogan in the 1987 election was: “Everyone knows somebody who’s been helped by Chris Smith.”

This will be a theme taken up by a host of Labour MPs in 2010. The second advantage is the £10,000-a-year communications allowance, which enables incumbents to spread the gospel of their devotion to their constituents through glossy newsletters.

The changing demography of Britain will also help Labour. The phenomenal increase in mass immigration over the past decade has not only transformed the make-up of our urban society, but has undoubtedly been a significant boon to Labour. All studies show that the overwhelming majority of voters in migrant communities tend to vote Labour. Eighty per cent of black voters back the party and at least 60 per cent of Asians.

Tellingly, many of the highest concentrations of ethnic minorities are in the swaths of marginal seats in outer London, the West Midlands and South Yorkshire. According to the campaign group Operation Black Vote, as many as 70 marginals could be decided by black and Asian voters.

Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill, with its legalisation of positive discrimination in favour of minorities, will be a strong campaigning point for Labour. The influence of the ethnic vote on Labour thinking was graphically revealed in the diary of Chris Mullin, where in January 2004, he lamented how little the government had done to tackle immigration abuses. “We’ve barely touched the rackets that surround arranged marriages. What mugs we are.” Then he added a comment to the effect that there was the difficulty that “at least 20 Labour seats, including Jack Straw’s, depend on Asian votes”.

Brown’s campaign in 2010 may be desperate, cynical, even deceitful, but that does not mean it will not work. Negative campaigning has worked in the past, most famously in 1992 when the Tories’ demolition of “Labour’s tax bombshell” led to John Major’s victory and one of the biggest upsets in history. A discredited government in the fifth year of its third term can stil

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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