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Murdoch could have “media power unheard of in British history”

As the News Corporation takeover of BSkyB hangs in the balance, Joan Bakewell grills Mark Thompson,

I have known Mark Thompson since the mid- 1980s: he was one of a crop of bright young producers and presenters working on BBC2's Newsnight, for which I was the arts correspondent. They were a clever generation and many went on to have important roles in and out of the BBC: Mark Damazer, Mark Urban, Jana Bennett, Gavin Esler. Mark, however, was the one who most consistently put items about the arts in his editions of Newsnight. Whenever he was the producer of the day, he would come to my desk in search of a story, eager to report on the whole spectrum of the arts and their importance in the culture of the country. I was delighted. The arts usually have a rough time when it comes to current affairs, falling off the day's agenda and being dropped at the last minute as heavier news stories break.

Mark was as interested in ideas as events, and remains so. Later, as controller of BBC2, he invited me to make a series of programmes called My Generation. He was prompted by a book called Our Age by Noel Annan, which profiled his generation - the world of Bloomsbury, King's College, Cambridge, and beyond. Again, I was pleased. My series charted the outlook of those of us who grew up during the war and came to inherit the enlightenment agenda that nourished the postwar welfare state. My generation - now in our seventies - still stands by the vision we had of what society should be. A strong and independent BBC was part of that vision. Since then, Mark's path and mine have crossed infrequently but always congenially.
Joan Bakewell

Joan Bakewell I'll sock it to you right from the start. How many people from the BBC went to Glastonbury this year?
Mark Thompson I've no idea. We can find out.
JB I ask because it must be an annual assessment made by the Daily Mail.
MT If a rigger arrives a week early with a bit of scaffolding, they count that as one person. But there's no hospitality. I enjoy Glastonbury from the comfort of my sofa. (The family was divided - a Beyoncé audience downstairs and my elder son and I watching Queens of the Stone Age upstairs.) In the British press, the BBC sending a few hundred people to the Beijing Olympics was a national scandal. We sent about a tenth of the number sent by NBC, the US broadcaster. We're known internationally for the small numbers of people we send, but in a newspaper 100 sounds like a lot, in the way £7m for taxis does. It depends on the context. We should make sure we're doing these things with as few people as we can and I think we do.
JB People like a story that plays against the BBC.
MT Some newspapers certainly do. Ironically, if you ask the readers of the Daily Mail, the Times, the Daily Telegraph or the Sunday Times what they think about the BBC, they are among its strongest supporters. They give the BBC high marks for value for money and the quality of its services and they support the licence fee, so there's no correlation between the attitudes of these readers to the BBC and the editorial line of the papers.
JB There's a parallel with the National Health Service. Everybody loves the NHS but we're living through a time in which it is being deconstructed.
MT You can say that. I couldn't comment.
JB It's as though the large institutions are up for analysis, for criticism.
MT Many British institutions are experiencing a measurable loss in public confidence and support. It's not detectable in public attitudes to the BBC but the papers want you to believe that there's exactly such a loss of support.
JB What about government support?
MT I'll come to that. The BBC is almost unique - the NHS is, too - as an institution that has strong public support. To its critics among the print media, the BBC is a rival with an unfair advantage: public funding. To the public, the BBC is a provider of quality services that are available to everyone; in a time of national austerity, [this] is important. The BBC is more essential in terms of the provision of news than it used to be, because, although there's a multiplicity of sources of news, many of the other historically strong sources are much weaker. Something like 85 per cent of the UK population use the BBC's news every week.
JB But over the horizon comes the new deal with BSkyB and the [government's] decision about Rupert Murdoch's bid to take over the whole of BSkyB. Sky News is to be hived off under a non-executive chairman and some of the board are going to be non-executive for a period of only ten years. This has shifted the landscape for you, hasn't it?
MT Across Europe, we've seen the consolidation of commercial media. A pattern in many European countries is that there is only room for one major pay-television operator. If you are that operator, the amount of cash that's potentially thrown off by the business is colossal. In the UK, you have a pay-TV operator experiencing exactly this. Because of commercial decisions taken ten or 20 years ago, BSkyB is in
an utterly commanding position and will have far more money than the BBC or any other media player in the UK to spend on content.
JB What do you think of that?
MT We're talking about a concentration of media power in the UK that's unheard of in British history and unheard of anywhere else in Europe. The combination of that kind of power with ownership of a significant part of the newspapers people read, as well as an internet service provider - this is extraordinary power. In the end, it's for the competition authorities . . .
JB Did you press for it to be referred to the competition authorities?
MT Last autumn, I rather famously co-signed a letter saying that the proposal of News Corporation to buy the remaining balance of the shares should be referred to the competition authorities. I also made the case in Edinburgh in the MacTaggart Lecture last year.
JB So what do you make of this settlement?
MT I don't want to say any more. It's unusual for me to want to do anything other than cover these stories in an impartial and objective way. Given the shape of what's happening - the relative decline of other sources of electronic news, the funding security of ITN, the ability of commercial radio to fund news, the difficulty newspapers are having in funding newsgathering - it is going to be more, not less, important that the BBC has sufficient resources to be able universally to deliver high-quality, strictly impartial news to the British public.
JB You've never faced such a big beast, have you?
MT The concentration of media power doesn't have to be a problem. The issue is whether governments and competition authorities look at the environment and continue to look at it.
JB Do you think they'll buy your talent?
MT The BBC historically has had far less money to spend on its services than other players around the world. We remain the biggest and most trusted international news provider in the world, not because we've got more money but because we've got a reputation. It's going to be tougher after last year's Spending Review (SR) settlement, but we do have the resources to deliver outstanding journalism.
JB But they can still buy your talent.
MT For decades, we've seen a steady stream of people who've grown up at the BBC going off to ITV. To some extent, that's the system working - one of the reasons you might want a BBC is as a nursery slope for talent.
JB Would you work for Murdoch?
MT (Laughs) I'm fully, fully engaged doing what I'm doing at the moment.
JB It's not a "no"?
MT I wouldn't regard it as a "yes", either. It's important to look at the shape and balance of our media sector, rather than trying to demonise anyone. I believe that BSkyB, in many ways, has been a positive force. It's good to see somebody else investing in British talent and that, alongside the BBC, you've got Sky Arts. But it's important that everyone realises that Sky Arts is a service for those who already know they like the arts. When we put the Proms on BBC television, we can get, not counting the last night, between ten and 12 million people to sample them. We take the arts and share them with an entire population. We're doing something very different from Sky. There's room for both.
JB The World Service suffered cuts recently. [The BBC has] a new chairman in Chris Patten, who I suspect made representations to government and got some of that rescinded. On the other hand, the World Service will be brought into the BBC's budget. I'm worried. The BBC won't ring-fence that money and there's a risk that the corporation will leach it away.
MT You say that the BBC "won't ring-fence" it, but once it's paid for by the licence fee, I expect to increase the funding of the World Service, not diminish it. I'm sure that increase will last to the end of the present charter period. I don't know how much I can increase it; I'll need to propose this to the BBC Trust.
JB The financing could have stayed with the Foreign Office, couldn't it?
MT It could. But one of the lessons I was beginning to draw last summer from conversations with the government concerning the SR was that the World Service's funding would be safer in the hands of the BBC than in the context of these once-every-three-years SRs.
JB Let's speak about local news. At one point, BBC Oxford News was going to be cut. Then you got a letter from David Cameron . . .
MT I had a nice letter from David Cameron [about this], which I replied to with another nice letter.
JB So there was a charming collusion here between two people who live in Oxford.
MT First, let's pull back a bit. We're in the middle of an open debate inside the BBC about its future. One idea was whether you could merge local radio with Radio 5 Live or reduce local radio in some way. Although local radio is relatively cheap to run, when you run 40 radio stations in England, you have to multiply the cost. The point of local radio is that if it's not local, it's not doing its job. It's reasonable for people to have a debate about merging or shutting local radio but that's not the way forward for the BBC. There's a number of people, particularly older people, for whom local radio is the main or only form of BBC radio they consume.
JB But wasn't it rather strange to get a letter from the Prime Minister about local radio?
MT If you want to pursue it, you must talk to him about it. I've had a number of letters from MPs raising concerns that have been put to them by their constituents about these rumours. The terms of the Prime Minister's letter were those raised by his constituents.
JB Did you write as emollient a letter back to each of those MPs?
MT I've written in similar, even identical terms to other MPs.
JB You've got a new chairman, a strong character, who is taking an interest in the World Service and the pay scales in the BBC. A lot of people would agree that flak has come the way of the BBC because of management salaries. That's undeniable, people have got it in for you. There's a paradox: those who are paid high salaries are often in high-risk jobs, so the salaries are a compensation for that risk - but BBC jobs are for life, with good pensions.
MT Have you looked at actuarial tables for BBC directors general in terms of high-risk jobs?
JB They go on to better things, perhaps.
MT Give me an example. (Laughs)
JB Where did Greg [Dyke] go?
MT Yeah. Just mull over that. William Haley became editor of the Times when he left the job in 1952. That's it. (Laughs)
JB The point, Mark, is that it's done the BBC a lot of damage. The press and the public have taken against the idea that there are "fat cats".
MT It's clearly controversial. Each year, we ask people whether, over the course of the year, their opinion of the BBC has gone up or down. What percentage of the UK population would you say cites senior pay as the reason for why their opinion of the BBC went down last year?
JB A lot of people won't know [about it].
MT It's about 1.5 per cent of people.
JB Including [the crime writer and Conservative peer] P D James.
MT Most people in broadcasting understand that if you compare pay at the BBC with other broadcasting pay, it's much lower. Compared to other public bodies, it's very high. The BBC is a big institution and requires management. We've already committed to reducing the number of senior managers. When I became director general in 2004, there were about 700 senior managers - there are just below 500 now. Two hundred have gone already. You will see in the coming weeks a further, significant planned fall in the numbers of senior managers.
JB And pay?
MT Pay has come down significantly. We were the first - or one of the first - public bodies to freeze pay. I've never taken a bonus in this
job. Long before bonuses became contentious, I was waiving my bonus. We've frozen bonuses for all jobs; we've had a pay freeze for these jobs; we've removed pension supplements for senior managers. I think you will go on seeing a period of reform, but if the BBC cuts itself off from the way in which people in the rest of the media are paid . . . it's not a healthy way to run a great broadcaster. We are beginning to see executives leaving the BBC for jobs where they are being paid double or more. Once they move, it becomes very hard to come back.
JB The parallel is not with the commercial sector; it is with other public institutions.
MT All of our competition for the people we want to get is with other broadcasters.
JB You can take in managers from other industries, at private and public institutions.
MT Most of our external appointments are from the private, not public, sector. Other public bodies - local councils, even cultural institutions - aren't offering people the skills and experiences we need. The big area of growth in recent years has been the digital space, which is almost entirely in the private sector. We're having to recruit internationally and pay is in a different order. The BBC is trying to straddle the reality of finding people with what the public expects of public-sector pay. You will see more movement in the months to come.
JB In terms of management and cutting down?
MT Yes. I think we've now got the smallest top management board the BBC has ever had. I would hope that we will get to a point where the population of senior managers at the BBC is at or below 1 per cent of the staff.
JB Let's move on. Post-Hutton, post-Jonathan Ross, there's a sense that the BBC has grown timid and the fire in the belly has died.
MT Did you see the Panorama on care homes?
JB Yes, and I made a Panorama, too [on care for the elderly]. I'm aware that there are exceptions, but there's a sense that creative risk-taking has been constrained. I know this because we all have to fill in these compliance forms.
MT There are several different issues here. One is whether we've got the courage to do brilliant, cutting-edge comedy and great investigative journalism. I think we do. There were things that not every New Statesman reader will think were right - for example, recognising that we should have members of the British National Party on Question Time. We are about to broadcast a three-part documentary on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. I can't see any evidence that, in our output, we are any less . . .
JB I'll give you the evidence.
MT No, hang on. We did, in the light of the Russell Brand show and the trouble with compe­titions, put in place more explicit methods of compliance: forms to fill in, programmes to be listened to by more than one person. Why? Because we've had some really quite bad slip-ups, which demonstrated that the existing systems of compliance weren't being properly conducted. Have we got to the point where we should look at those systems and say, "Can we simplify them?" Yes. It's very easy rhetorically to turn this into: "The BBC has lost its nerve."
JB I'm talking about me. I'm having my vocabulary checked and modulated.
MT I'm amazed anyone's got the nerve . . . I'm the editor-in-chief. I can give you permission. What won't they let you say? Swear words?
JB It's to do with an attitude that I was expressing towards a public institution. They said, "Perhaps it would be safer to say . . ." Now, when a producer says that . . .
MT The finer points of a line in a script has got nothing to do with . . .
JB It's the end result of a climate of thinking that makes people feel . . .
MT Come, come!
JB I'm telling the truth! I'm on the front line.
MT In drama, comedy and investigative journalism, I think we are braver now than ever.
JB What about the era of Ken Loach, Dennis Potter, David Mercer - a whole swath of socially challenging drama?
MT Did you see Five Daughters last year, which we put on BBC1? An incredibly powerful drama about the Ipswich murders. If you listen to and watch what we're up to, we're doing that. The Russell Brand show was identified as a programme that had an editorial risk and nobody bothered to listen to it. You clamp down to make sure something like that doesn't happen again. If you're saying that this can lead to an over-concern about individual phrases - let's look at that. But to try to build that up . . .
JB I wonder if it's a fear of political bias.
MT I think we are more anxious about impartiality now than we have been in the past. One of the things that the public wants us to be is strictly impartial. Impartiality is the reason we had the BNP on Question Time. Sometimes, a concern for impartiality requires quite brave decisions. We don't have the right to exclude any party that has a significant, demonstrative electoral support, up to a certain level. There have been occasions, I believe, in the past, when the BBC has had limitations. For example, I think there were some years when the BBC, like the rest of the UK media, was very reticent about talking about immigration.
JB Why do you think that was?
MT There was an anxiety whether or not you might be playing into a political agenda if you did items about immigration. In the 2010 election campaign, none of the parties was talking about immigration. We believed we should deal with it, because the public - not everyone, but a significant proportion - was saying to us that it was a real issue. We've got a duty, even if issues are sensitive and difficult to get right, to confront what the public want. I don't like the idea of topics that are taboo.
JB What on earth is Thought for the Day doing in the middle of a news magazine?
MT With Radio 4, like all of our services, you've got a shape that has been built up over decades of expectations and usage, which the public likes. Not all of it fits into a sort of PowerPoint slide, with neat divisions of genre. What you've got are living services.
JB This is an eccentric leftover, isn't it?
MT The idea of a moment for reflection in the middle of a topical few hours is interesting.
JB Do you listen?
MT When I can, I do listen. The only people who are anxious about it are people who are anxious, as you are, to make a point about it. There are people for whom it is very symbolic, one way or the other, and that's to be respected and worked through.
JB You're a Catholic, aren't you?
MT The last time I looked, yes.
JB How does your life shape up with your faith and your work?
MT I've worked in broadcasting with people with every combination of belief, non-belief, or ethical value system. Most people bring the whole of themselves in some way to bear, but at the same time my job, as editor-in-chief, is to keep this organisation open to perspectives.
JB I was asking something internal about you. Does your faith find fulfilment at the BBC?
MT I don't think there's a tension between the idea of being Catholic, or an Oxford resident, or a not-very-good amateur pianist, and being editor-in-chief of the BBC. What I try to bring is a sense of the values that I think you need to discharge this job properly - commitment to impartiality, integrity and truthfulness.
JB I present the Radio 3 programme Belief [the format invites individuals to discuss their spiritual world-view] and I mentioned to you once that we were thinking of interviewing a witch and you thought that would be fine.
MT I said that, did I?
JB Then I said - seeing how far we could push the boundaries: "What about a Scientologist?" And you shook your head.
MT If I shook my head, I don't think I meant it. I take Belief to mean what it says on the tin.
JB We also had a conversation some time ago about ageism. I set out the case that the BBC had no older women reading the news and that reinforced a biased attitude towards older women in society. You took the point. A little later, modest changes were made and we now occasionally have older women reading the news. Then Miriam O'Reilly won her case against the BBC for ageism, when she was sacked from Countryfile. A lot of older women rejoiced. Were you surprised by that?
MT I learned a lot about the case as it was taking place. More than that, I think that I and the BBC have learned from and need to go on learning from the verdict. As you know, this was something I was quite concerned about before the O'Reilly case came up. But that case confirmed to me that the BBC is well placed and has a responsibility to do something about it.
JB So it remains on the agenda.
MT Very much so.

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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