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I believe in yesterday

The history of the recent past is more popular with readers than ever – and just as well, because it

"All history is contemporary history," the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce once said, meaning, no doubt, that all history was written from the point of view of contemporary preoccupations. Inevitably, perhaps, we look at the past through the eyes of the present. Even so, until very recently, contemporary history was regarded with suspicion by the professionals. When A J P Taylor read history at Oxford in the 1920s, most of his time was spent studying the medieval period. When he reached the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, his tutor told him, "You know all the rest from your work at school, so we do not need to do any more." The further one gets from the present, the more "scholarly" one becomes.

Yet the contemporary history of Britain flourishes as never before, as shown by the success of historians such as David Kynaston and Dominic Sandbrook. The public feels a need to understand the age in which it lives. Surely part of the appeal of the 1950s is straightforward nostalgia for that lost Elysium when, supposedly, the young knew their place, crime was confined to scrumping apples, and good-natured policemen patrolled every street. Modern novels are difficult to understand, and rarely end happily. Why not put on rose-coloured spectacles and escape to the past?

But there is more to it than this. For contemporary history has a vital civic and educative function. To cast one's vote intelligently, one must understand something of the history of the welfare state, the interwar depression and the rise of Thatcherism. Opening his first education summer school at Dartington Hall in 2002, the Prince of Wales reminded the audience of Cicero's comment that "to remain ignorant of what happened before you is to remain a child". It is also to lack the equipment to make the complex judgements a modern democracy demands of its citizens. "Historical ignorance," Dan Jones has said, "breeds political apathy." The contemporary historian, therefore, need in no way feel embarrassed by his task, but can reply as François Guizot did when reproached for writing about recent events: "Thucydides and Machiavelli wrote and published contemporary history. Why shouldn't I try it?"

Naturally, contemporary history engages the passions in a way that the distant past generally does not. Most of us care little about William the Conqueror or the Crusades, but we do have strong feelings about Margaret Thatcher and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Yet there is no reason why the historian should not overcome partiality, as, for example, Richard Vinen did in his recent book on Thatcherism, Thatcher's Britain, and Alan Milward did in his official history of Britain's relations with Europe, The Rise and Fall of a National Strategy, 1945-1963. It may be difficult to be objective when writing contemporary history, but these books show that it is not impossible.

The contemporary historian has some compensation for the extra difficulties that he faces. For he generally enjoys some living contact or participation in the events he is describing. The best of the modern volumes in the Oxford History of England series, that on the years 1870-1914, was written by Sir Robert Ensor, a Fabian with personal knowledge of the men of whom he was writing - Ramsay MacDonald, David Lloyd George and Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Even if writing about a period not personally experienced, such as the Attlee government, one finds that contact with one's grandparents' generation will yield a personal touch not available to the medievalist or Tudor historian.

But the contemporary historian faces a difficulty that his colleagues dealing with earlier periods can avoid. If he is to write the history of a democratic age, he has to write the history of the people, not just of the elite. In his Oxford history, A J P Taylor tells us that a law-abiding Englishman could, until 1914, pass most of his life without stumbling upon the existence of the state. It was not until the First World War that, in his words, "the history of the English state and the English people merged for the first time". Historians of the recent past, such as Kynaston and Sandbrook, are right to emphasise popular attitudes. For, in a democracy, as Sir Robert Worcester, the doyen of survey research, insists, public opinion is king. Therefore, the history of modern times must be a history not only of political leadership, but also of how the rest of us lived our lives.
Fortunately, the contemporary historian has the great advantage that he can study public opinion scientifically. On 1 January 1937, Dr Henry Durant began publishing regular Gallup polls in Britain, under the auspices of the British Institute of Public Opinion. Today, scarcely a month goes by without the pollsters inquiring as to the popularity of the prime minister and the government.

Sponsors of the published polls, the media, use them to predict election results, even though they purport to offer no more than a snapshot of opinion at a particular moment in time. But survey evidence also tells us what the public actually thought rather than what its leaders believed or hoped that it thought. As David Butler and Richard Rose, pioneers in the study of contemporary history, declared in their book on the 1959 general election: "There has never been anything comparable to sample polls as a tool for advancing understanding of mass political behaviour."

There is, therefore, no longer any need for the historian to rely on the hunches of members of the elite, remote from the people. But the views of the people cannot be discovered from anecdotal evidence or the impressionism of organisations such as Mass Observation, whose interviews have been well described by Bob Worcester as "chance encounters", in which the investigators tried "unobtrusively to strike up friendships with the natives by buying them drinks". It is difficult to imagine anything less authentic or statistically reliable. By contrast, looking at the trends over time in the Gallup files can prove highly rewarding. Indeed, I am sometimes tempted to say that one could write the history of Britain over the past 70 years from survey evidence alone. Sometimes, the results are surprising. The most popular prime minister in the 20th century was Anthony Eden in the summer of 1955, and the most unpopular Margaret Thatcher before the Falklands war.

Politicians and the public alike would have been less often surprised had they taken notice of the polls. In February 1945, for example, although 85 per cent were satisfied with Churchill and 77 per cent with the government's conduct of the war, Labour had an 18 per cent lead over the Conservatives well before the election campaign had begun. Churchill's "Gestapo" speech, in which he said that socialism could be introduced only with the aid of a secret police, probably had less effect than is generally imagined, because the Conservatives actually narrowed the gap between February 1945 and election day in June.

Polls also tend to disprove "golden age" theories of politics, usually espoused by the elderly, who will insist on telling the rest of us how much better things were in their day. Yet, in our grandparents' time - for example, during the 1950 general election campaign in the Greenwich constituency - only a quarter could name their local MP, and just half knew which party he belonged to. The level of civic knowledge was pitiful.
It is, I suspect, the left that has suffered the most from the scientific study of public opinion. For the left has always prided itself on having
a peculiarly intimate relationship with the people. In the 1950s, Aneurin Bevan denounced opinion polls for taking the poetry out of politics. He knew what the people wanted, simply by looking into his own heart. The trouble was, sadly, that the people often did not want what he thought they ought to want.

In 1982, during the great debate on sending a task force to the Falklands, Tony Benn waved a handful of letters in the Commons and declared that public opinion was swinging massively against the war. He was quickly contradicted by a MORI finding published in the Economist a few days later, showing that 78 per cent of the British public was in favour of it.

In 1983, Bevan's disciple Michael Foot, shortly before Margaret Thatcher's landslide victory, insisted that the real election was not that described by the polls, showing a huge lead for the Conservatives, but was to be found instead in the cheering crowds who attended his election meetings. All too often, the left lives within a closed world of its own. It can be successful only when, as in 1945 and 1997, it is in tune with popular aspirations, not when it seeks to impose its own prejudices upon the people.

More than 150 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville noticed that democracy was a new kind of society requiring a new kind of history. It is the
development of the scientific study of public opinion that enables this new kind of history to be written.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University. His book "The New British Constitution" was published in June by Hart (£17.95)

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

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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