A country for old men

When George W Bush gives his last State of the Union address, a milestone will be passed. But don't

On Monday 28 January, the increasingly pathetic figure of George W Bush will make his way slowly down the centre aisle of the House of Representatives for what, to the relief of most of the rest of the world, will be his last State of the Union address. This is one of those egregiously unreal American rituals where reality is turned on its head: America's 43rd president may have made America more hated than it has ever been before, caused mass slaughter in Iraq, and brought economic recession into millions of American homes, but he will be greeted with wild enthusiasm by backslapping Democrats and Republicans alike, as though he really is the cleverest fellow in the world.

Detachment from reality, though, is an innate American characteristic. It enables a country of 300 million people to convince itself it really is the progenitor of democracy and fine values across the globe, evidence notwithstanding. For exactly this reason, I must issue a government health warning: do not assume the Democrats will win this year's presidential election. The Republicans are not only better and more ruthless campaigners, but a new wind of hope is imperceptibly starting to sweep through their ranks.

In the past week, in fact, seismic but virtually unnoticed shifts have been happening in the polls. I will explain the fickleness and unpredictable chaos of the 2008 presidential campaign in a moment, but all of a sudden 71-year-old Senator John McCain is the Republican front-runner in all nine of the leading American polls I track - no fewer than 15 points ahead in the CBS News/ New York Times one, and by 14 in that of USA Today/Gallup. Hillary Clinton remains the Democratic front-runner in all nine polls, too.

But here's the real shocker: if you amalgamate the results of the four polling organisations that routinely pose the question, McCain would beat Clinton by four points in the 4 November election. Should Barack Obama be his opponent, McCain would still win by 1.3 points (don't ask me to explain the logic of this). The Republicans, meanwhile, still have three candidates - McCain, the former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, the former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, and the former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee. Fred Thompson, former senator, withdrew after a disappointing result in South Carolina and is expected to urge his (by no means negligible) supporters to switch to McCain, a close personal friend.

Few in the world hate Bush more viscerally than McCain, whose political insurgency among the Republicans in 2000 was destroyed when vicious rumours about him - for example, that his five and a half years as a prisoner of the Vietcong had left him mentally unstable, or that he had fathered a black child (actually a little girl from Bangladesh whom he and his wife had adopted) - were spread throughout South Carolina. Bush duly won the Republican primary in that vital first southern state, and from that moment his progression to the White House was assured.

McCain had the satisfaction of winning South Carolina eight years later on 19 January, leaving the Reverend Huckabee (he is also an ordained Baptist minister) trailing second in the Bible Belt state many expected him to take after his Iowa victory, and winning more than twice as many votes as either Romney or Giuliani. Exit polls also showed, crucially, that McCain cornered the moderate vote in his first primary victory in New Hampshire on 8 January, and those of the evangelicals in South Carolina - a potent combination.

Reality check

So, perhaps it's poetic justice that McCain has Bush to thank as much as anybody for this success. His support for the Iraq War seemed to have doomed him as recently as just before Christmas, but the American people really are increasingly convinced that the ludicrously meaningless "surge" in Iraq (an adroit PR trick dreamt up by Karl Rove, I'm told) is actually working - another example of America's ability to suspend its disbelief, and a notion we will doubtless hear echoed several times over by Bush in his State of the Union address. See, we knew it would all come out right in the end, didn't we?

But before we get carried away, let's have a reality check. The polls unanimously predicted that Obama would trounce Clinton in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire - which she, in fact, won by a clear margin. And in 2008, most conspicuously of all, the illogical system of caucuses and primaries is finally beginning to fall apart (just as I hear voices from across the Atlantic urging Britain to adopt the system). The caucuses and primaries that began this month will reach a crescendo on "Super Tuesday", 5 Feb ruary, when - by the latest count - voters in as many as 23 states will go to the polls, far more than ever before on a single day.

Democrats will probably hold contests in 22 states and one US territory on that crucial Tuesday, picking 52 per cent of their delegates who will go to the Democratic party convention at the Pepsi Centre in Denver on 25 to 28 August - pledged, in accordance with the electoral outcomes, to support one of the candidates and then enthrone him or her as the official Democratic presidential candidate. Republicans will probably vote in 21 states, choosing 41 per cent of their delegates pledged to do the same with their candidate at the Republican convention at the Xcel Energy Centre in St Paul, Minnesota, at the start of September. If you consider that only roughly 4 per cent of delegates have been chosen so far, two clear winners should have emerged by 6 February - long before the final primaries in South Dakota, New Mexico and Montana on 3 June. Dead easy. Good old American democracy will have triumphed again. But this is the presidential election where anything can happen: it's not inconceivable that one or both candidates will end up being selected in brokered conventions in what used to be called smoke-filled rooms.

I say "probably" about the voting on 5 February, because the chaos is such that states and parties are still squabbling over exactly who will vote and when. Rules and regulations differ in each party and state. The confusion is worse with the Democrats: Obama may have comfortably won the first Democratic caucus in Iowa on 3 January but, the next day, because of the Democrats' arcane procedures, Clinton had 215 delegates in the bag compared with his 126. Clinton then beat Obama in both New Hampshire and Nevada, but they won the same number of delegates in New Hampshire and Obama even came out one delegate ahead of Clinton in Nevada.

Or let's take another absurdity. The polls have Obama easily beating Clinton in South Carolina on 26 January and thus taking its 45 Democratic delegates. But then Clinton is streaking miles ahead of Obama in Florida for its 29 January primary, just as she was for Michigan's on 15 January. But Clinton will take none of Michigan's 174 or Florida's 210 delegates because each state jumped the gun in the race to hold the early primary elections, and Democratic Party rules mean that voting in both states must be ignored. Democrats in the hugely important states of Michigan and Florida have therefore, in effect, been disenfranchised in this year's crucial presidential primaries.

Roller coaster

Phew. These are just two of many possible examples that illustrate just how confusing and wild a roller coaster the 2008 presidential campaign is turning out to be. Less than a month ago, lest we forget, it was Giuliani who was soaring in all the Republican polls, only to sink without trace.

Yet it's too soon to write off even his chances: he took the strategic decision to concentrate most of his campaign funds and efforts on Florida rather than the other early states, and should he even scrape through there on 29 January he will win all 57 of Florida's Republican delegates. In one blow, that would hurtle him to the front of the Republican pack; with the same illogic as the Democrats, Romney has the most Republican delegates with 59, compared to Huckabee's 40 and McCain's 36.

The firmest prediction I have allowed myself is that the election in November will end up being between Clinton and Romney, and I see no reason to change, though the unpredictability of Campaign 2008 is such that I could easily be wrong on both counts. Following their increasingly rancorous exchanges, for example, Clinton and Obama could mutually self-destruct and let the former senator John Edwards in to take the Democratic nomination.

And the Republicans? McCain has that enviable ability to make you think you are a lifelong friend after only a few seconds' conversation, but has age against him, has battled with serious cancer and is ultimately a maverick and born insurgent; Romney is a less personally likeable company man, literally and figuratively, but has the backing of the Republican Establishment.

The Democrats must now unexpectedly face the fact that either would be difficult to beat in November, which is why Republicans are just beginning to stir and scent Democratic blood. Suddenly, the days of the man whose back they will slap with such fake enthusiasm on Monday night seem to be numbered; a milestone has quietly passed and, in less than a year, the nightmare of George W Bush will have receded and a new president will be in the White House.

If the current polls have caught the mood of the nation, it could just be a Republican one yet again.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer

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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