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Letter from Dakar

When an awkward, mild-mannered geologist called Macky Sall won a landslide over his former boss Abdo

One Thursday morning in March, I watched as a bull was butchered outside the house of Macky Sall in Fenêtre Mermoz. The then Senegalese opposition leader was living in this affluent quarter of Dakar, close to the Atlantic-facing corniche and a regional office for Oxfam. In the alley behind the house, men spread out the skin of the bull in the dust close to an abandoned airport scanner machine. They piled hunks of meat into metal tubs. Inside the house stood a woman of uncertain portfolio, holding a Victoria’s Secret carrier bag.

The departure of Sall’s campaign convoy was scheduled that morning for 11 o’clock. The hour came and went. His press attaché, a slim man with protruding ears, became increasingly uncomfortable. Finally the candidate emerged; cufflinks fastened the sleeves of his gleaming white boubou, or ankle-length robe. Approximately 90 minutes late, Sall’s caravan struck out into Dakar on a mission to win a presidential election.

On 25 March Senegal, a former French possession on the west coast of Africa, held the second and concluding round of its presidential poll. The contest featured Abdoulaye Wade, the octogenarian incumbent and leader of the Parti Démocratique Sénégalais (PDS), who had been first elected to the post in 2000 and was reluctant to hand over power. There had been demonstrations against him in the city, an opposition movement had sprung up and some opponents had died in confrontations with the state security services that had turned violent.

The protests in Dakar before the Senegalese election led to speculation that this might be the beginning of a sub-Saharan African spring. I flew in to Dakar just before the run-off. In the first round on 26 February, Wade got 34.8 per cent of the votes, the highest total of any candidate, but not enough to secure an outright win. Macky Sall, a geologist by profession who held various portfolios in Wade’s government before breaking away to form his own Alliance pour la République (APR), was the highest-scoring opposition candidate in the first round, winning 26.6 per cent. The other 12 opposition candidates had formed a coalition with Sall with the intention of ousting Wade.

The vision thing

One afternoon, I absconded from the journalists’ minibus and rode on the back of Sall’s pick-up as his convoy toured the city. We entered Guédiawaye, a working-class suburb of Dakar where concrete-reinforcing iron rods prod out of roofs. A crowd surged on either side.

Sall seemed an uncomfortable campaigner. Bespectacled and in his white boubou, he stood in his truck and waved both fists in the air but his movements were awkward. At one stage, addressing the crowd in the Wolof language, he declared: “Guédiawaye – you have given me a victory in the first round. I know the second round will be a confirmation of what you gave me. I know Guédiawaye has already chosen its side. Victory has been proven, visible and realised. If ever Wade tries to snatch my victory, the population will revolt.”

Despite his anti-Wade rhetoric in Guédia­waye, Sall is in some respects the man’s protégé: he served as prime minister under Wade until 2007, and ran Wade’s successful re-election campaign that year. His break with Wade came after he questioned the actions of the old man’s son, Karim, who many thought was being groomed by his father to succeed him as president.

The next morning I swapped sides. The French-colonial-style presidential palace on what used to be called the Avenue Roume has a gleaming white frontage. Sculptures of lions stand outside. Sprinklers were at work on trim lawns. Soldiers in red tunics stood guard outside the gates.

The presidential stretch Mercedes S600 was parked and waiting. Around the sunroof ran a handrail, rather like the equipment installed in lavatories for the disabled. I noticed a dent, too, on the rear right wheel arch.

On the morning of Friday 23 March, the last day of the campaign, President Wade, dressed in white slippers and a brilliant blue boubou, went out to meet his people. He was officially 85 at the time of the election but many Senegalese believed him to be older. As his convoy passed through Dakar, his supporters chanted “Gorgui”, a Wolof term of respect meaning “elder” that has become a moniker for the PDS leader. A white woman appeared out of the roof of the S600. This was Viviane, Wade’s French wife, standing beside her man.

In the colourful Marché des HLM quarter, Wade addressed a crowd of voters. “The people used to have $500 in a year. Now it’s above $1,000. That’s what the UN says, not what I said. We are not a poor country any more.”

Wade is a complicated figure, one of the last few survivors of the post-independence generation of African leaders. As an opposition stalwart, he fought and lost four presidential elections against the dominant Parti Socialiste du Sénégal before unseating Abdou Diouf in 2000. His record in office was mixed: new roads were built, Dakar was modernised and work began on a new airport. But he was accused of cronyism and nepotism, especially when he appointed his son to a super-ministerial portfolio overseeing international co-operation, air transport and infrastructure.

The most apparent evidence of the eccentricity of the Wade years stands on a hilltop above the Atlantic in Dakar, close to the Mamelles Lighthouse. At 49 metres, the Monument of the African Renaissance is taller than the Statue of Liberty. The gigantic bronze edifice depicts a man holding a child aloft. A third figure, a woman with her skirts blown up as if by the wind, leans towards the man. It cost $27m to build the monument and took a year’s work by North Koreans.

Mamadou Diouf, a Senegalese who is professor of African studies and history at Columbia University in New York, told me that Wade regarded himself as the best leader for Senegal. “It’s also a vision,” Diouf said. “He’s a man who believes he knows everything, and knows everything better than any Senegalese.”

But it was Wade’s actions before the elections that stirred the protests against him. In June last year, he attempted to pass a constitutional measure that would allow him to win the first round of a poll with only 25 per cent of the vote. Anger at this power grab gave birth to a protest group, the Mouvement du 23 juin (M23).

The day before the run-off vote in March, I arranged to meet Alioune Tine, one of the leaders of the M23, at the Pointe des Almadies, the westernmost point in mainland Africa. In a restaurant where the awnings advertised Beaufort beer, the 63-year-old literature professor, dressed in a robe, sat at a table. “The current constitution of Senegal has all the power with the president,” he said. “The National Assembly is very weak, the judiciary is very weak.”

Before the first round of the election, the M23 had failed to force Wade not to stand for a third term. Senegal established a two-term constitutional limit for presidents in 2001. Wade unilaterally decided that the limit should not apply to his first term in office, which started a year before the law was passed. Now the M23 had hitched itself to Sall’s coalition.

The protests against Wade before and during the election were restricted to a small number of events. Senegal does not have the large pools of disaffected and educated young people who were the kindling in the fires of the Arab spring. Yet it would be unfair to write off the movement altogether. Vincent Foucher, a civil rights researcher in Dakar, pointed out that for the first time in Senegalese history people’s participation in the campaign was based on conviction, rather than the expectation of largesse from a party boss. “I think it’s a very significant and important thing,” he told me; “it’s a new thing in Senegalese politics.”

Boo to the president

25 March Election day in Dakar began with lines in the sand – snakes of men and women whom I watched queue in the northern Parcelles Assainies quarter of the city. I failed to find a Wade supporter among them.

“We’ve had enough of him, though we know he’s done some great jobs,” said Gora Gaye, a tailor. “In 2000, in 2007, I voted for Wade, but now our hopes are dashed.”

Later, I went to see Wade vote in the Pointe E neighbourhood close to the seafront. There was tension. A marabout – one of the Muslim leaders who wield significant influence in Senegalese politics – had instructed his followers to come down to the polling station to show their support for the president. The authorities were struggling to control the crowd. Shortly after I arrived, police in black fatigues threw grenades of tear gas or smoke, it was unclear which. The violence did not escalate.

When Wade arrived to vote, he was wearing a white boubou. He had been booed when he voted in the first round, but not this time. Afterwards, he stood up through the sunroof of his car, looking backwards as it drove away, an old man all in white, retreating through the crowd like a piece of stage machinery.

By early evening, results were being announced on radio as they were posted at individual polling stations. It was not looking good for Wade. That night, I went to Macky Sall’s headquarters in the Scat Urbam quarter, home to large housing estates. Crowds had gathered outside. Some people had climbed trees; others were firing rockets; many were dancing. The atmosphere inside the building was party-like, APR and other opposition supporters excitedly massing.

At about half past nine, word filtered through that Wade had telephoned Sall to concede. Then when a rumour emerged that Sall would be at the Radisson Hotel on the corniche, I went over there. By the time I arrived, the French press corps had gathered. After midnight, Senegal’s new president appeared in a tent in the grounds of the hotel and addressed those gathered before him.

“We have shown in the face of the world that our democracy is mature,” Sall said. “I respect also those who voted for the other candidates.
I will be the president of all the Senegalese.”

When the final results were announced on 27 March, they showed that Sall had won a landslide victory, by 66 per cent against Wade’s 34. The peaceful transfer of power in an African election is an undeniable achievement. Overshadowing my time in Dakar were the events in neighbouring Mali. There, on 21 March, junior army officers launched a putsch that ousted the democratically elected government of Amadou Toumani Touré.

There is a strong democratic tradition in Senegal; it remains the only nation in mainland West Africa never to have experienced a coup since independence, which it won in 1960. Wade wanted to remain in power. However, unlike Laurent Gbagbo of Côte d’Ivoire, who refused to accept that he had lost an election in 2010 to Alassane Ouattara and caused a civil war, he had no choice other than to concede defeat in that night-time telephone call to his opponent. Wade would not have been able to command the loyalty of the military, and Senegal does not have the same kind of ethnic fissures to exploit as in Côte d’Ivoire. It also has a vigorous and free press, and its presidential election underlined the point Barack Obama once made to an audience of MPs in Ghana – that Africa needs strong and open democratic institutions, rather than more strong men.

Simon Akam is the Reuters correspondent based in Sierra Leone
 

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, European crisis

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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