Sony's Walkman first freed Londoners to travel in a private sound world. Photograph: Contrasto/Eyevine
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Tunnel visions: Krautrock on the Underground

Paul Morley recalls 1979, and travelling on the London Underground with his first ever Walkman, listening to the other-worldly sound of Can.

In 1979, my girlfriend, Karen, brought me a present from Japan, where she had been working. It was a Sony Walkman, able to play, but not record on, cassettes, in stereo, with relatively decent sound quality. It was a little smaller than a paperback book, so therefore not much bigger than a cassette, which seemed some sort of miracle – that the workings required to power the machine and produce the sound could be incorporated into such a compact casing.

Perhaps the most significant thing, along with the removal of an internal loudspeaker, was the 50-gram, or 1.7-ounce, weight of the headphones, which were in scale with the player itself, replacing the usual eighttimes ‑as‑heavy, bulbous, ear-covering headphones. You could now take music with you wherever you went, and somehow, at the time, even though there were machines that could have done this job, and there had been tiny transistor radios for years, this seemed incredibly exciting. Not least because you couldn’t take a radio on the Tube, if you wanted to, because there would be no signal.

Not only did I consider myself the first person to own the fabulously cool new Walkman, but I also imagined that I was the first person to sit on the Tube listening to music of my own choosing. I can’t remember what the very first cassette was that I played on the Bakerloo Line, but thinking about where I was and where the music I mostly listened to was in the late 1970s, I can take a very good guess. It could have been something released in 1979 that was already not only my favourite album of the year but of all time, because this was – if you were approaching music from the point of view of someone my age, with my interests, my levels of anxiety and ardour and with my job on the New Musical Express – a year of considerable transition and purfication. Elsewhere, and perhaps this new music abstractly, nervously diagnosed this, the once-promising countercultural energy of the 1960s had dissipated, and a conservative countercultural revolution was looming, leading to the emergence, along the tracks, around the corner, through the next tunnel, of the controlling, fanatically moralistic New Right of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

This keyed-up, highly charged pre-digital new music also anticipated a world that was about to be cut into gleaming pieces by technology, television, ideology, assisted by its fancy pleasure-seeking slave, the music video, which, what with one thing and another through roaring tunnels that stretched back to the invention of the telephone and forward to the introduction of the Sony Walkman, eventually led to the all-change free-for-all of Facebook and Twitter.

In 1979 – before this post-internet vortex of pressure and pleasure – certain currents and principles had made the disruptive, avant-garde end of rock music particularly engaging. There was still an almost chaste belief in progress, a natural craving for a violent renewal of meanings, and a treatment of influences that was midway between the reverential and the murderous. It was a culmination, rearrangement, refinement of experimental ideas, sounds and principles instigated by punk.

This music was labelled, possibly first of all by me, in the NME (perhaps thought up while daydreaming on the Bakerloo Line stuck outside Oxford Circus), “post-punk”. This name, another slice of convenient collective identification, introduced to diagnose, even conceive, an apparently important cultural movement, slid into general use quite nicely, but didn’t come close to expressing the concern this music and these musicians, often haunted by dread, had with spatial and rhythmic, temporal and geographical displacement, with plotting the physical universe and the individual’s place in it. In some ways they were producing in advance a soundtrack to the disorientating, paradoxically lonely effect of constant contact with the internet.

This 1979 music, not heard much on Radio 1 outside of the John Peel show, where it starred, music which followed on quite naturally from music the year before and would logically move into the 1980s, losing some of its momentum once compact discs arrived, included: Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division, Entertainment! by Gang of Four, Metal Box by Public Image Limited, The Raincoats by the Raincoats, 154 by Wire, Lodger by David Bowie, Reproduction by the Human League, Drums and Wires by XTC, Cut by the Slits, New Picnic Time by Pere Ubu, A Trip to Marineville by Swell Maps, Dragnet and Live at the Witch Trials by the Fall, Fear of Music by Talking Heads, Half Machine Lip Moves by Chrome, Eskimo by the Residents, The B-52’s by the B-52’s, Y by the Pop Group, 20 Jazz Funk Greats by Throbbing Gristle, This Heat by This Heat, Solid State Survivor by Yellow Magic Orchestra, pragVEC by pragVEC, Join Hands by Siouxsie and the Banshees, Mix-Up by Cabaret Voltaire.

I would not be listening on purpose to Rod Stewart, the Eagles, Styx or Foreigner, because they seemed blasé and instantly antique, working on behalf of a mega-corporate entertainment state, with no statements to make about the future. I kept my distance from the Jam, if only because rumour had it one of them voted Tory, and they dressed as though they all did, as if punk were routine show business, a mere day job. Although I would have been paying constant close attention to Neil Young and Bob Dylan, who released Rust Never Sleeps and Slow Train Coming that year, these don’t seem likely candidates for that first Walkman trip. I would have been instinctively drawn to something that belonged on this pioneering new machine that had the capacity to turn an everyday journey on the Bakerloo into an explicit plunge down the rabbit hole or tumble through the looking glass.

Other music that it could have been, the music from the past I tended to play the most at that time: all albums by the Velvet Underground, the spaced-out, splintered Englishness of pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd, the telepathic, serenely abstracted post-rock jazz of Miles Davis’s On the Corner, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, most Hendrix, Robert Wyatt, Stooges, Joni Mitchell, John Martyn and even (in a spirit of a nerdy need for otherness, or a need to know something other than what the outside world gave and told me) the new forms, and related protean formlessness, of Tony Conrad and Faust, La Monte Young and Karlheinz Stockhausen – whose sparse, spectral 1956 electronic composition Gesang der Jünglinge, incorporating synthesised and natural voices, sounded like music emerging in the dead of night from Tube tunnels that connected the Bakerloo Line with underground cave cities on Jupiter.

All this music that I could have played for the very first time underground on my Walkman, whether right there from 1979 or from earlier, was sound that would have directly or indirectly influenced or been directly or indirectly influenced by a group formed in Germany in 1968 called Can.

Can were less a rock group than a compact orchestra, a jazz collective, a cartel of dreamers, a loose affiliation of individuals, a battery of technicians, a faction of dissidents, a circle of minds, a square of mystics, a haze of weed, an ambush of gurus, a buccaneer of savants, a warp of collaborators, a cabal of freaks, a body of procedures, a lightness of heads, an education of vagabonds.

“Krautrock” was the convenient collective name given in a slightly jokey, slightly wary and affectionately patronising way to an eclectic collection of radicalised German groups from very different parts of the country that contained musicians who were born in the few years before, during or just after the Second World War. Another collective name for these groups, still frivolous but more descriptive of their mission to create sound never heard before on our planet and invent music that could make you feel you were leaving the earth behind, was “kosmische”. As well as Can, these groups included Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Amon Düül II, Cluster, Popol Vuh, Harmonia, Neu! and Faust, and they were looking for ways to repair their traumatic recent history, remove the crippling infection of fascism, break free of totalitarian artistic repression, negotiate turbulent social and emotional currents, and radically, romantically reinstate the positive, progressive elements of their mortified national psyche.

Also linking them, perhaps, was the spectre, the awareness, the modulated, post-linear cosmos of Stockhausen, a notorious, internationally known techno-shaman from within their corrupted land who emerged from deeper inside the grim Nazi shadow (he was 17 when the war ended) with a clear, spiritualised vision – an act of revenge – of how to break free of the poisoned past and dream up the future and a new sort of other-worldly national sensibility.

From Kraftwerk, Can, Neu! and Faust – speculative, observational artists creating their work in a recording studio with what could be called a post-impressionist, even cubist approach – came a way of manipulating, treating and structuring sound, establishing rhythm, heightening dramatic effect and capturing experience that significantly extended the structural and sonic possibilities of all forms of pop and rock music, from the commercial to the extreme.

These new German musicians were to some extent making a new classical music following on from savage, edited musique concrète and tonally opulent, romantically influenced minimalism, experimenting with tape-recording techniques and multi-track recording that prefigured sampling and remixing, but hearing provocative ideas at the more experimental end of rock and the more electronic end of pop; this led to them placing a repetitive groove resembling a funk groove, a psychedelic rock groove, even a compelling disco groove, inside lengthy abstract compositions that seemed to be pondering the shape of the solar system, the colour of orgasm and the density of experience. Pinning a consoling, pleasing, almost jocular rhythm within epochal, Stockhauseninspired pools and patterns of sound and noise rotating past each other with random, tingling electro-acoustic precision meant that, in 1976, before all that 1979 post-punk commotion which connected a lot of the dots Can helped scatter into the universe, Can had a minor hit. They crept on to Top of the Pops miming to the Dalí disco of “I Want More” as an unholy one-hit wonder, prophets dressed as tramps, treated as curios, spooks out of their skulls possibly needing to be exorcised by nervous non-believers before they caused a change in human behaviour. This was my kind of pop group.

This is an edited extract from Paul Morley’s “Earthbound” (Particular Books, £4.99), part of the new Penguin Lines series, inspired by the 150th anniversary of the London Underground

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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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