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The warrior King

Throughout the credit crunch, the governor of the Bank of England has been a trenchant critic of and

When Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, stood up in the grand setting of the Mansion House in the City of London on the warm evening of 17 June, with the Chancellor Alistair Darling sitting just a few seats away, he did what he has done throughout the financial crisis: he challenged the government directly. National debt, he warned, was dangerously high, "at more than double the levels before the crisis".

Banks had become too big and the Bank of England itself needed greater powers. "The Bank finds itself in a position rather like that of a church whose congregation attends weddings and funerals, but ignores the sermons in between."

In a televised appearance in front of the Treasury select committee just a week later, King went further and all but accused the Prime Minister of carelessness with the public finances. "We are confronted with a situation where the scale of the deficits is truly extraordinary," he said, and noted, in an aside that perplexed the Treasury, that the Chancellor had not bothered to consult him on changes to banking legislation that would directly affect the Bank of England.

King is an unlikely rebel. Quietly spoken and cerebral, he is the first governor of the Bank of England to have been a full-time academic: before joining in 1991, he was a professor of economics at the London School of Economics. Yet, since the credit markets first froze over in August 2007, he has been in pugnacious mood and continuously in conflict with the Treasury and the Prime Minister. At times, throughout what is the worst financial crisis since the period leading up to the First World War, the relationship between King and the government has been radioactive.

Some Treasury insiders go so far as to accuse King of being concerned about protecting his reputation and that of the Bank to the detriment of everyone else involved in stabilising the finan­cial system and preventing a cataclysmic collapse.

The authority of Bank of England governors once stemmed from the dignity of the office they held. The authority of the present governor stems entirely from his intellect. In the past, governors were drawn largely from the banks of the City of London. When these stately figures moved from the parlours of the old merchant and clearing banks to Threadneedle Street, to be protected from the outside world by the great curtain wall designed by Sir John Soane, they transmogrified into something far more majestic. The visitor to the Bank would be guided through a maze of spacious corridors, under the vaulted ceilings, to the almost-hidden entrance to the governor's drawing room. On their journey, they would pass portraits of past governors and deputy governors. The escorts, pink-frock-coated "waiters", nearly all veterans of the armed forces, marched at a formidable pace. In the presence of the governor, all it required was a lift of the eyebrow for the attendant banker to recognise the game was up.

Today, the Bank's corridors are as magnificent as ever, the marbles, mosaic floors, Persian rugs and Chippendale furnishings unchanged, and the mystique remains intact, but its new core is that of rigorous analysis. The bankers and brokers, who were on easy terms with the governor, are no longer the insiders. King, who took an academic route to the top of the Bank, is a trenchant critic in public and private of the bankers, of their risk-taking, profiteering and greed. And it is King's cerebral approach and tendency to subject all he does to rigorous intellectual stress-testing that has opened a chasm between himself and Gordon Brown.

Downing Street was especially enraged when, on the eve of the G20 summit in London in April, King warned against "significant fiscal
expansion". In so doing, he thwarted the Prime Minister's hopes of forging an agreement with President Obama and other global leaders on a second round of anti-recessionary stimulus packages. King's views accorded with those of the Treasury, which was putting the final touches to a Budget that projected unprecedented levels of new borrowing - £703bn by 2013-14, or an ­astonishing 76.2 per cent of national output.

But King has exasperated the Treasury, too. In private, the Chancellor was incandescent with anger when King, at his May inflation report press conference, laid out a far gloomier prospect for the British economy than that described by Darling in the Budget. The Bank forecast output could fall by as much as 4.5 per cent in 2009 and that recovery could be delayed well into 2010. King was downbeat, in sharp contrast to the message of Darling, who had been making the case for recovery by the end of the year.

The differences of tone provided a sharp reminder of how hard it had been throughout the crisis for the Treasury to coax King into
responding to the need for decisive action, notably over the creation of the special liquidity scheme - which was designed to clear the bank balance sheets of mortgage debts. King delayed, demanded late-night meetings and relentlessly analysed the plan - "nitpicking it to death", as one insider put it.

Brown was expected to have taken the ­decision on King's reappointment to a second five-year term in late 2007, when the scale of the disaster affecting the world's ­financial markets was increasing. The Prime Minister hesitated in approving the reappointment, and leaks pointed to King's position as governor being in danger. But Brown eventually recommended a second term for King on 30 January 2008. His aides warned that discarding King in the middle of the crisis could provoke havoc on financial markets.

Having kept King in office, the government had little choice but to work with him. Nevertheless, at the Treasury, King is regarded as difficult to the point of obstreperous.The paradox of his position is that the power and moral strength that he exercises is largely the result of one of
the earliest decisions taken by Brown as chancellor in May 1997, when, following Labour's landslide general election victory, he set the Bank of ­England free of Whitehall and granted it full ­independence over monetary policy and the ­setting of interest rates. Now, 12 years later, Brown, in his beleaguered frame of mind, imagines that King is betraying him by daring to ­associate with the chancellor-in-waiting, George Osborne. What he and his aides have forgotten, or perhaps have chosen to forget, is that in the months leading up to the 1997 election, King, who was then deputy governor to the late (Lord) Eddie George, had been as helpful to Brown and his top economic aide, Ed Balls,
as he is being to the Tories.

Born in 1948, Mervyn King attended Wol­verhampton Grammar School, where he dreamed of playing football for Aston Villa and cricket for Worcestershire, and then King's College, Cambridge, taking a First in economics. After Cambridge, he went as a Kennedy Scholar to Harvard, before becoming professor of investment at Birmingham University at the age of 29, the youngest person to hold a chair in Britain. In 1984, he spent a year as a visiting professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Boston. It was there that he got to know another brilliant young academic economist, Ben Bernanke, a student of the Great Depression
and now head of the US central bank, the Federal Reserve Board. King later became professor of economics at the LSE. "He was fantastic to work with," recalls Ros Altmann, a former PhD student of King's and later a Downing Street adviser on pensions. "He always managed to explain and get down to student levels."

King remains a keen sports fan and regularly plays tennis (he was in the Royal Box during this year's men's Wimbledon final); he often took
on Alan Greenspan on the courts of the British embassy during breaks from the biannual meetings of the G7 and International Monetary Fund in Washington. King prefers to walk to work from his flat in Notting Hill in west London, his route taking him through Hyde Park and then into the City.

Yet, for all his academic distinction, King is accused of being slow to have recognised the scale of the crisis when the credit crunch hit in August 2007, in sharp contrast to his opposite number at the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Jean-Claude Trichet. King has since moved an enormous distance, but not at a speed fast enough or in a responsive enough way for Downing Street. His critics say that it was only when the Bank realised that there was very little choice, if the nation was not to have a major bank failure on its hands, that he decided on the Bank's role as "lender of the last resort" and began pumping ever-increasing quantities of loans into Northern Rock when it hit trouble in August 2007.

He similarly prevaricated in April 2008, only reluctantly signing up to the government's special liquidity scheme, under which the Bank would take securitised mortgages held by banks on to its balance sheet in exchange for short-term paper - the equivalent of cash. The initial £50bn plan, intended to revitalise Britain's moribund home loans market, would eventually soak up more than £200bn of taxpayers' money.

The Bank also changed the way it conducted its operations in the money markets, or the inter-bank market, where banks lend to each other. Previously it had provided money to the banking system through a series of daily, weekly and monthly auctions, at which authorised financial institutions would bid for money when they could not square their books. This process had sometimes proved embarrassing, as happened in the summer of 2007, when the names of those banks (notably Barclays) which had temporarily run short of cash was publicised. (The Bank
of England would eventually move to a US-style "discount" window arrangement, whereby banks can borrow directly without the risk of their identity being disclosed and becoming stigmatised in the financial markets.)

King claims he was at the forefront of the dramatic move by the government, in September 2008, which resulted in the recapitalisation of British banks and their part-nationalisation.

Where the Brown government led, other countries followed, or so it was said. Brown, in a slip of the tongue in the Commons, told MPs he "had saved the world". Most recently, King has embarked on an ambitious programme of quantitative easing, or printing money. This involves buying up government and corporate bonds for cash in an effort to head off deflation and refloat the economy - a bold move.

The rise of Mervyn King through the Bank of England can be traced back to 1992 and Britain's ejection, under the Tories, from the Exchange Rate Mechanism, forerunner of the single currency and the eurozone. In 1991, the then governor, Eddie George, scouted around for a new chief economist and King, still at the LSE, had become an obvious replacement. At the LSE, with his fellow economist Charles Goodhart, he had launched the Financial Markets Group. It was their way of making direct connections between the LSE and City banks.

King saw his appointment as an "interesting secondment" and not necessarily as a long-term career move. On Black Wednesday, 16 September 1992, when Britain was left without a monetary framework following ejection from the ERM, it was King who picked up the pieces; he invented and personally wrote the first of the Inflation Reports that were to become the centrepiece of policymaking. When the Bank was given its independence on 6 May 1997, his future path was all but set. In 1998, he was elevated to deputy governor, with responsibility for monetary policy, and became the first governor from academe when George retired in 2003.

Yet, in retrospect, the seeds of the credit crunch were planted with independence when Brown announced that banking supervision
was to be moved from the Bank to a newly created Financial Services Authority, against the wishes of Eddie George. "Financial stability
became the least interesting part of the Bank,"
a former member of the Monetary Policy Committee, which sets interest rates, told me. "Until the crisis no one who wanted to be successful wanted to work there."

King denies such criticism. He believes that the Bank's financial stability wing was ahead of the game in warning about the dangerous build-up of debt and credit that ultimately contributed to the implosion of the financial system. If this is true, why did the Bank not do more to prevent disaster happening? An important reason is that few people were prepared to listen.

At the end of 2005, shortly before he left the Bank of England, I took a call from Sir Andrew Large, the then deputy governor responsible for financial stability. He had a keen market instinct. His parting shot was to express concern that banks, given the volume of transactions in which they were now involved as well as the complexity of the transactions, did not hold enough liquidity (spare cash on their balance sheets). In the event of a swing in mood in the credit markets or an unexpected calamity, the banks would lack the means to deal with the crisis. King had his own concerns. "After the hectic pace of house prices over the past year," he told the Scottish CBI in June 2006, in an attempt to prick the housing bubble, "it is clear that the chances of falls in house prices are greater than they were."

His comments temporarily slowed the housing boom, but prices quickly started to race ahead again. A year later, in a set-piece speech at the Mansion House and just two months before the credit crunch brought finance to a shuddering halt, King, in the presence of the then chancellor Brown, issued another warning. He cautioned that "new and ever more complex financial instruments create different risks". He argued that the risks of the entire return "being wiped out" were greater than they would be with simpler

However, when weeks later the great ship of toxic debt hit an iceberg - and Northern Rock came close to drowning - the governor was off the pace. Downing Street was desperate for a swift market solution to the crisis of the Rock, and Chancellor Darling summoned bankers to Downing Street demanding intervention. But when the Chancellor asked King for advice on a market-based solution, the governor insisted it could not be done. King later told the Treasury select committee that he lacked the legal powers to intervene. "King was very slow off the mark at the beginning of the crisis," Willem Buiter, a former member of the MPC and currently professor of political economy at the LSE, says now. "He messed up the Bank's lender of last resort operations with Northern Rock.

“He obviously got the wrong legal advice on what the Bank could and could not do, including his ludicrous assertion to the treasury committee that the EU's Market Abuse Directive stopped him from acting. When your legal honcho tells you things that don't make sense, why not get on the phone and call Neelie Kroes [the EC's competition supremo]? But Mervyn never even knew the area code for Brussels."

Members of the Court, the Bank of England's body of non-executive directors, were also frustrated by King. One member told me that the Bank failed to deliver on a promise to explain fully to the Court how the Bank's financial stability wing worked. "They just ignored us."
During the Northern Rock crisis, King was determined to keep his distance from the banks. He believed, rightly, that they were the victims of their own misfortune.

He also thought that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York was a captive of the Wall Street bankers. With the governor's confidence in his ability, and his preference for acting alone, he was reluctant to take into his confidence senior Bank officials, including the deputy governor for financial stability, the former Treasury mandarin Sir John Gieve. “I have no idea what Mervyn is up to," Gieve privately complained.

Through the autumn of 2007, as the government struggled with the collapse of Northern Rock, King sought to improve his understanding of the crisis and what steps needed to be taken. He reads deeply in financial history and has set up his own book club, which enables him to play host at his home in west London to leading economic and financial historians. During this long period of intense reading and deep introspection, as he consulted the Bank of England archives looking for historical parallels to the present crisis, King came to believe that the crisis facing the banking system was certainly the worst since the period of near-meltdown before the First World War. From among the extensive literature of financial crashes, he regarded J K Galbraith's The Great Crash, 1929 (first published in 1954) as the most insightful, and also admired Walter Bagehot's Victorian classic Lombard Street (1873).

King's reading led him to accept that the problems of the banking system were not just those of liquidity, but of capital - the equity and other top-grade securities that underpin lending. Historically, the ratio of capital to lending was seven to ten times. In the run-up to the credit crunch, some of the investment banks were lending 60 or 70 times capital. Because banks were insufficiently capitalised for the vast lending they had done, fear and loathing stalked the money markets. The governor believed that trying to persuade banks to increase lending would be a waste of time until they had restored their capital bases and trust resumed on the money markets.

The Treasury, however, differed. Brown was fearful that the crash in the housing market would intensify and that first-time buyers would be excluded. He wanted a comprehensive scheme to support mortgage lending. Though actions taken by the Bank to supply the banking system with credit were useful, they were not helping to restart lending. The danger was that Britain, as subsequently happened, could be thrust deeper into recession. King outlined his views at Bristol City's football ground, Ashton Gate, on 22 January 2008. "Banks must reveal losses promptly, and, most importantly, must raise new capital where necessary," he said.
The governor was becoming more confident in the crisis and his remedy, dramatically, was adopted by the government in September 2008 following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the 158-year-old Wall Street dealer-brokerage firm. A former LSE colleague, John Kay, believes that King was at this point showing himself to be a "Roosevelt-calibre politician" in his handling of the crisis. Yet, at the same time, King, newly ­appointed to a second term, found himself in open conflict with the Treasury. Darling wanted a scheme directly to support the mortgage market. King wanted nothing to do with any package that rewarded the banks for their mistakes. Eventually, after much prompting and political prodding and severe irritation on Downing Street's part, the special liquidity scheme, under which banks could exchange mortgages, was born on 21 April 2008.

It was not an easy birth. Hunkered down in his office at Threadneedle Street, King delayed and fussed about the detail of the scheme, much to the irritation of the Treasury and the elected politicians, who were not convinced he had grasped the gravity of what was happening. In spite of the seriousness of events, King never lost his sense of humour. At the height of the storm, he had to fly to Japan for a routine session of G7 finance ministers. One participant recalls how King regarded the exercise as futile and, to pass the time, "decided to mark the finance leaders out of ten for their sartorial elegance".

King had critics outside government as well. Among the most severe was David "Danny" Blanchflower, an academic economist and former member of the Monetary Policy Committee. Blanchflower had consistently voted to lower interest rates in the early months of 2008 to help ease conditions in the credit markets, but King and other Bank officials were resistant, concerned as they were about rising inflation. "It's quite clear . . . that right through 2008 the economy was slowing, output was slowing, confidence surveys were slowing, the labour market had slowed," Blanchflower says now.

King's lieutenants were unimpressed. One ­senior MPC member told me that "it was easy for Danny to catch the media headlines with claims that he was right all along. But at MPC sessions he was far from convincing, repeating predictions of recession and mass unemployment but providing no backing for his claims."

When the special liquidity scheme was unfurled, there were immediate fears that the rules King had imposed on the £50bn initial fund (which would eventually expand to four times that) would kill it. In August 2008, King found himself under pressure from Darling to increase the size of the now £200bn scheme and allow new mortgage loans to be swapped for cash. King insisted that direct funding "was not something a central bank can supply".

Buiter argues that King's resistance was fatal. "This was the end for Halifax Bank of Scotland," he says. "King did not grasp that a fixed terminal date for a facility like this creates a natural focal point for co-ordinating speculative attacks on weak institutions."

Over the weekend ending 15 September 2008, Lehman was allowed to collapse by the US auth­orities. Meanwhile, frantic phone calls were taking place across the Atlantic, but no one at the Bank or the Treasury was quite prepared for the chaos that followed. Indeed, on the night of the collapse of Lehman, King himself rang Britain's top bankers to reassure them that the wind-down of the Wall Street firm would be orderly.

But Lehman was different; its collapse came on the most shocking weekend in modern finance, when Merrill Lynch was swallowed by Bank of America and the Federal Reserve moved to bail out the world's biggest credit insurer, AIG, American International Group. The combined impact of this triple shock to the financial system was so intense that, for the next few days, it was touch and go whether global capitalism as we know it would survive. "Not since the beginning of the First World War has our banking system been so close to collapse," King said. "It would
be a mistake, however, to think that had Lehman not failed, a crisis would have been averted. The underlying cause of inadequate capital would eventually have provoked a crisis of one kind ­
or another."

King likes to believe that it was his bold thinking which eventually led Brown and the government to recapitalise the British banks on 13 October 2008. The dramatic decision left the British government with majority stakes in Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group. The implementation may have been carried out by the Treasury, but it was King and the Bank which made the case in Whitehall for a comprehensive bailout. King is of the view that the solution had to be an economic one, not the partial solutions and spatchcock bailouts being demanded by individual banks. He was determined that top bankers should be made to pay for their sins with their jobs. The government should draw the line under "fat-cat" bonuses, he said, and insist in future on counter-cyclical banking under which bankers would build cash reserves during the good years instead of paying them out to staff through bonuses.But one MPC member believes King - and, by implication, the government - was wrong on recapitalisation. "If you look closely at what happened, all it did was savage the share prices of the banks," this person told me. "It was crazy and completely wrong and made nationalisation more likely. The banks could have continued to operate with less capital."

King was emboldened. After output plunged in the first quarter of 2009, he rapidly redirected the Monetary Policy Committee and the Bank to start a programme of quantitative easing. Once again, the governor had reached into the past for clues about how to combat deflation. He concluded that the Japanese response to deflation in the 1990s and the Federal Reserve's failure to provide adequate money in the 1930s offered the best answers.

“The amounts of money being printed are so huge and the effectiveness of the policy so uncertain that I am sure QE is a huge policy error," says Ros Altmann, who still talks with the governor. "The inevitable outcome will be high inflation. The Bank will not be able to unwind its easing just as the economy picks up."

Throughout the financial crisis, King never lost his intellectual bearings. Certainly his early responses to the credit crunch and the collapse of Northern Rock were feeble, but as the crisis intensified he came to be seen as
a voice of sanity amid the claims of "saving the world" coming from Downing Street. In retrospect, King's insistence that the Bank should be given huge new powers to intervene in future banking crises made eminent sense.

King is likeable, and he is able to explain financial complexities in a direct and understandable way. But protecting his own reputation often seems as important to him as looking after colleagues or the actual results of the Bank's actions. He has taken independence to the limit, publicly challenging the government, and speaking out whenever he can, so that there is no ambiguity about his own position, even if it means placing himself in direct opposition to the Prime Minister. If his decision - gamble, really - to flood the economy with cash achieves the desired objective of refloating the British economy, the governor rather than Gordon Brown could yet emerge as a hero of the crisis. l

Alex Brummer is the author of "The Crunch" published by Random House Business (£7.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country

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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