Of friendly bondage: Eno (left) and Perry won't relinquish their fascination with pushing boundaries. Image: Muir Vidler
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Brian Eno and Grayson Perry on how the internet taught us we are all perverts

Creativity, popularity and pornography – and why great art always involves losing control.

When the musician Brian Eno spoke to the New Statesman in May, he seemed to be irritated about the art world, its inflated prices and its critical language that so few people understand. When the potter and painter Grayson Perry began giving his Reith Lectures last month he paid tribute to Eno’s 1995 “sabotage” of a Marcel Duchamp urinal in New York (Eno siphoned his own urine into the artwork to explore whether the piece might be more valuable if it had been “worked upon” by two people). They had never met before but it made sense to try to bring them together in the New Statesman. They met at Perry’s studio in Islington, north London. Eno came with a Dictaphone and a magazine about electronic music; Perry was dressed as a man.

Brian Eno [Looking at Perry’s new kiln] That’s a big machine, isn’t it!

Grayson Perry Yes, if you want to make a big pot, you’ve got to have a big kiln.

BE So, what shall we talk about today?

GP That’s up to you. I have many well-travelled pathways in interviews, and in many ways I’d rather not go down any of them.

BE Me, too. I did have one idea, coming over, and that’s why I brought this keyboard magazine. I was thinking about the differences between the music and art worlds, and one thing that strikes me is that professional musicians are quite happy to share things with each other – their ideas and techniques, the tricks that made them famous. Is that something more characteristic of music than art?

GP Well, music is more collaborative. In the art world, originality is seen as a precious commodity and it’s increasingly difficult to get because the territory of art is so trampled. I always think that painters are fighting over the last original brushstroke. To find your own voice is incredibly hard. There’s very few people who have a revelatory, original thought; I think they’re almost mythical. Most people start off being someone else and then they make mistakes.

BE I find it interesting that artists are expected to be able to talk about their work in critical art language now – they have to have “personal statements”.

GP As someone who uses words a lot in my work, I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of it; but I’ve always been one for clarity, you know. As for the language of the art world – “International Art English” – I think obfuscation was part of its purpose, to protect what in fact was probably a fairly simple philosophical point, to keep some sort of mystery around it. There was a fear that if it was made understandable, it wouldn’t seem important.

BE Do you think it was primarily economic – in the sense that if you want to charge very high prices for things, you somehow have to make them appear very valuable?

GP Well, intellectual importance is directly linked to financial value in the art world. I mean, that’s the thing you really want – museum quality. You want to go down in the annals of art history.

BE I’ve been thinking recently about artists who were huge stars in their day who disappeared, like Sir Frank Brangwyn.

GP Or Thomas Kinkade. At one point he was the richest artist in the world. He made schmaltzy pictures of woodland scenes with cottages but he never sold the originals. He had a massive print thing going, and they reckon at one point one in six houses in the States had a Thomas Kinkade print. But he’s never going to feature in any art history.

BE It’s funny, because in pop music that kind of career path would be completely acceptable. First of all, we deal only in reproductions and the original doesn’t matter – there’s no difference between the master tape and what you hear on the CD.

GP No. I find myself thinking quite often that the art world has no equivalent of the popular, really. People always mention Jack Vettriano or Beryl Cook. Even Banksy, to a certain extent, is a very popular artist who’s not necessarily welcomed into the fine art world. But they’re exceptions, and they are not the people who line up their paintings on the railings in Bayswater.

BE The problem with fine art is that in most cases people have to make a special excursion to go and look at it: they can’t afford to own it. So it isn’t really part of their life in the way that music can be.

GP Well, in these sorts of conversations, the phrase “3D printer” always comes up – you know, musicians, authors and journalists have all been shat on by the software companies so it’s the artist’s turn soon, and people will just start downloading your works for themselves. I don’t see it happening just yet . . .

BE But even if it did happen, would it really matter? It just means you make work in a different way. People said that making records would take the life out of music, but then recording became a new kind of art. Now, of course, we’re in a slightly different phase where people are so unfascinated by recording that festivals are on the increase like nobody’s business.

GP Yeah, and I think that the art world benefits from the digital natives, too, because they want a live experience – to go to an art gallery, to be in the presence of an object. I think it goes right back to relics and idols. We learned how to look at art from religion. [The German art historian] Hans Belting thought our whole idea of “fine art” started about 1400, when objects weren’t just seen as religious artefacts any more and started to be appreciated as works themselves.

BE I think one of the big sources of confusion in any discussion about art is the difference between “intrinsic” value and conferred value. Nearly all art criticism is based on the idea that there’s such a thing as intrinsic value –

GP No, I would disagree with that. I think beauty’s a constructed notion, and it’s cocreated in the same way as conferred value. It goes back to that idea of looking at something as fine art: why does everyone think “that is a lovely thing”? Because they’ve been conditioned to do so. Different cultures have different ideas of what is beautiful. I’ve never been to China, but whenever I see Chinese art there’s something about their sense of colour, composition, texture, that for me is always slightly off – and I’m thinking, why don’t I just dive into that artwork and completely love it? It’s because I grew up as a westerner and we were completely separate We might as well have been on the moon for most of history.

BE Our experience of any painting is always the latest line in a long conversation we’ve been having with painting. There’s no way of looking at art as though you hadn’t seen art before.

GP Yeah – that’s why I have the rubbish dump test. When I was at college, one of the tutors used to say, “Oh, that won’t pass the rubbish dump test,” which is, if you throw your artwork on a rubbish dump, would people, members of the public, pick it up, thinking it was an artwork? It’s quite a cruel test but, you know . . .

BE I tried this with my friend [the South African artist] Beezy Bailey: we’d been doing some paintings together and we decided just to put some out on the street and see what people did. It was very funny. We hid behind a wall and watched people. Most of them didn’t pick them up.

GP With a lot of art, people wouldn’t! But I do think the Duchampian magic of bringing an outside object into a gallery seems fairly thin these days – what he did was amazing but at the same time, a hundred years later, I want something more. I always come back to the fact that all the urinals you see in the museums around the world, the so-called Duchamp urinals, they all had to be remade by a skilled potter.

BE Because they couldn’t find the original, could they?

GP Exactly! [Sing-song] Nah-nah-nah-nahnah! BEGood point.

GP I was talking to the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and he said, “When you appropriate something, you have to be smarter than it.” You’ve got to say, “I’m going to make that more rich, more complex, more elaborate . . .” you’ve got to do better with the thing you’re dragging into the gallery.

BE Well, some ideas don’t actually have that much extension left in them. There’s a whole branch of conceptual art that I was very much immersed in at the end of the Sixties and early Seventies, and it kind of petered out. A lot of things that are being done now I call “onelinerism”, where really the description of the work is as good as the work itself.

GP The YBAs did to a certain extent rehash the work of that late-Sixties, early-Seventies period, but what they did on top of it was make it very appealing, very sensual, and sort of covetable. They put it through an advertising agency, almost.

That said, I called it Theme Park Plus Sudoku. People wanted spectacle – they wanted big, shocking, engaging art, colourful and funny – but they wanted a little puzzle, too: “Hmm, what’s this about?” The problem is, the worst of that kind of art leaves you with a feeling of: “Is that it?”

BE One of the messages of contemporary art has been that, well, anyone could do it . . . GP Well, that’s something I would refute. But I was thinking about this – how do you become a contemporary artist? Well, you could just say you are one and start doing something, and in a purely literal sense you’ll be right. But you’re never going to have a career that way. As Constable said 200 years ago, the self-taught artists were taught by a very ignorant person. You have to go to art school. You don’t meet an artist in the art world who’s not been to art school. There will be undiscovered geniuses out there in Mali or Brazil or China because they’re not cultures that have been strip-mined by dealers and curators yet. But in the west [phone starts ringing] – Oh my God, sorry about this, it’s so rare for my phone to ring . . .

BE I’m interested that you don’t have a phalanx of assistants.

GP No. I have an assistant who fights email for me, but there’s not a lot I could delegate, really. I toy with the idea . . .

BE I’ve never been able to delegate either. I’ve tried so often to have somebody who can help me do music, and I just have to look over their shoulder too much, so it’s not comfortable for them, and it doesn’t save me any time.

GP My wife has this theory that the happiest people are people who say, “That will do.” Today, I went to buy a bin, just for the fricking kitchen here in the studio, you know, but the ones they had in the hardware shop I didn’t like, so I’m still without a bin and I’ll waste another hour trying to find the right bin somewhere.

Somebody who goes “that will do” is probably the happier person in the long run.

BE I do have one good working relationship at the moment, with a guy called Peter Chilvers, who’s a software code writer. We’ve been making apps together for iPad and iPhone, and that’s been a good collaboration because there are quite large areas of nonoverlap.

GP Yeah. I’m working on an architectural project where we’re building a house in Essex, and that’s been a pretty collaboration, too. I’d always wanted to make a place of pilgrimage. So I was looking at religious buildings, but I had to be talked down from some of my more kitsch fantasies by the architect, who had a better handle on the dignity of an object in the landscape.

BE Is it a private house?

GP It’ll be a holiday let. It has an altar and will have tapestries and sculptures, and the outside is going to be completely clad in tiles. I’m fascinated by the idea of pilgrimage, again going back to that idea that in a virtual world you want to experience the real thing. I think pilgrimage is more popular now than ever, whether people know it or not. When I rocked up at Santiago de Compostela on my bike, they gave me a form and it said, “Is your purpose spiritual, cultural or sport?” If you put “spiritual”, you got a really elaborate certificate, but I put cultural and sport so I got a much cheaper, more prosaic one. I loved the fact that it was so banal.

BE If you’re making a new place of pilgrimage, how do you make it seductive enough for people to want to go and spend time there? What do you call upon if you haven’t got religion?

GP I think one of the things people always do is have their photograph taken in front of something now. You’ve got to kind of think about what is realistic behaviour for modern people. When we were on the road to Santiago, I saw loads of people who were more likely to be there because of Paulo Coelho’s book than the Bible. I said, “I bet when we get there, you can get a bong with a Santiago St James shell on it” – the logo –and you could. Increasingly, contemporary art overlaps so much with religion. If you look at all the art centres being built over the past 20 years in Britain, they’re all trying in a way to build pilgrimage sites so they can get the tourists in. It’s a good tourist dollar, in a middle-class, organic-quiche-eating way.

BE But so many of the things we like doing really fall under the umbrella of surrender. That’s sort of what a pilgrimage is, isn’t it? We like putting ourselves into situations where we let go of some control and we’re swept along by something. You’re told what to do and you’re told that when you get there – or in the process – something will happen to you. If you think of sex, drugs, art, religion, they all actually offer you the chance to be taken over, or to let go.

GP Yes, because I think there’s a whole horror of not knowing what to do. But I think conservatism is quite a damaging mental health condition. Anybody worth their salt is up for a challenge. If you’ve got lots of things going and you’re willing to branch out, you’re more likely to survive dementia and all sorts of things. The major influence on me in the last 20 years has been psychotherapy. We look at all human activity through the lens of our emotions. The most brilliant people are often the most difficult, because they try and talk themselves out of this the whole time. But all problems need cleverness, and emotional intelligence is something different.

BE This is why the idea of surrender is so interesting to me, because surrendering is what we are most frightened of doing. Everything is telling you to stay in control. One of the really bad things that’s happened in the art world recently is the idea that a piece of work is as valuable as the amount it can be talked about. So these little pieces of paper you see beside every artwork, in every gallery: if you watch people, they look quickly at the painting, then they read for a long time, then look quickly at the painting again. The analytical mind always wants to say, “OK, I understand this. It’s no problem, it’s no threat.”

GP Well, it’s the classic result of the fact that we hate not knowing. I feel it in myself. I want to tidy things up in my mind. My ideal artwork is one where I have the complete idea, it’s watertight, it’s going to look beautiful: all I’ve got to do is craft it; I can relax and put the radio on. And that would be a dream for me, my own tradition. I’m jealous of those artists who rock up in the studio every morning and do a version a tiny little bit different from what they did the day before.

BE Albert Irvin. I love his work, and I look at it and think: “How nice to go into your old age knowing what you’re going to do every day.”

GP One of the things I really enjoy doing is drawing with only half my mind on it – so I’ll have a couple of beers and get my pens out, and I’ll sit in front of X Factor, and I’m half watching the telly and half drawing. I don’t give a damn; I’m really free. And at the same time I’m operating because I’ve got my lifetime of experience to bear on it.

BE Yes, sure – in a way, you liberate that experience.

GP Yes. I wish I’d stop having fricking ideas and trying to make work that’s got somehow socially applicable.

BE Do you finish everything?

GP Not everything, not nowadays. I used to.

BE I finish so few of the things I start. A lot of the stuff that I’m doing is just seeing how new tools work. So, in order to do that, I try to make a piece of music with it. And often it produces a notebook sketch, really.

GP Yeah, I am loath to make a cock-up! But creativity is mistakes and if you can’t accept that, don’t get involved.

BE So that’s a way of saying creativity is letting yourself lose control?

GP Yeah, you’ve got to do risk. When I was young, I smashed a lot of my early pots because they were crap. In your twenties, you’ve got all that energy, and it’s wild and uncontrolled; in your thirties, you corral it somehow; then in your forties you make the money out of it, and in your fifties, you’re suddenly confronted with being secure. And you’ve got your reputation and you suddenly think, “Well, I could just churn out this work.”

BE I want it to keep me alive, actually, I don’t want to be the person keeping it alive.

GP That’s a lovely thought. I was thinking about Henry Darger the other day. Do you know him?

BE Yeah. Fifteen thousand pictures, they found, when he died?

GP Yes, he never lived to see his work selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars but it gave him a rich life. And I thought, “Wow, nobody even knew he did it, pretty much.” You look at his paintings, and he’s obviously got some art-historical knowledge, he’s not completely innocent. But I don’t think any outsider art is completely isolated.

BE I always had the impression it was probably a totally hermetic, personal thing for him. Like someone generating their own pornography; they don’t particularly want to show it to anyone else. Another very interesting area of outsider art now is drawn pornography. God, there’s some amazing things going on. They’re using semi-real images, but they’re just extending the bits they want more of, you know – or much further than that. I’ve started collecting them.

GP Careful! Speaking as a pervert myself, what the internet did was tell you that you weren’t alone. And it was shocking. When I was young, when I was about ten years old, I used to have this fantasy, which used to turn me on greatly, of being in a body cast – lying in hospital, motionless, unable to move. And then when the internet came along, one day I just thought, “I wonder,” and then I just googled “plaster casts” and like – eugh! There’s websites called things like Cast Your Enthusiasm. It’s an offshoot of bondage.

BE It’s an offshoot of surrendering, as well – the same thing. You’re deliberately losing control.

GP And it’s kind of a loving thing, I think. It has to be. If you think about giving up to God, God is always there and is a parental presence, a parental projection. In bondage, there is always somewhere in the fantasy the loving but cruel parent figure.

BE The loving dominator.

GP Yes, we’re all gimps to a certain extent. Often when we look at perversions, you’re seeing an extreme, ritualised version of what everyone else has latent in them.

I see a lot of religious practices as offshoots of kinky sex. If you look at Catholicism and elements of Islam – well, I’ve got quite a thing about headscarves and I’m certainly not alone there. And I remember once, very early on in the age of the internet, I googled “headscarf fetish”, you know, and woohoo! It all comes out.

The fourth and last of Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 5 November (9am)

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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