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Metropolis now

Before the financial crisis, New York and London walked hand in hand as “the two greatest cities in

It is a warm May morning in London and Boris Johnson has just wandered into his mayoral press conference. He is surrounded by press officers, who appear to double as nannies. They lead him around and record his interviews with journalists, wary, perhaps, of his tendency to make gaffes. We are in the middle of a global recession, and Johnson is launching his economic development strategy for London. But despite the seriousness of the subject, there is a sense that the daily performance of being mayor - of shuttling around the city, opening things, riding trains and pontificating - is one long, wonderfully elaborate joke. A joke, crucially, that Johnson is in control of; the myth that he is a bumbling fool brilliantly disguises his political ambition. He plays the hapless clown, and has audiences following his every word, waiting for the punchline. As he takes to the stage, the crowd starts to laugh before he has spoken, like an audience at a comedy gig, expecting hilarity.

A few weeks later, in New York City, Michael Bloomberg walks into the room. We are in the basement of the Tweed Courthouse on Broadway - now home to the city's department of education. Mayor Bloomberg is flanked by security men and, as he enters, the band of noisy New York journalists falls silent, like an obedient class of schoolchildren. Bloomberg, the richest man in New York, with a personal fortune valued at $17.5bn, has a hushing effect. But he dismisses his intimidating wealth by saying: "I think the real answer is that if you have a good message, people are going to be responsive . . . It's not money, it's whether or not you have something of substance to say."

In London, Mayor Johnson's message begins, as always, with a joke: "I came here, of course, on my bicycle. I do that because unless you're completely insane, or devious, or a Liberal Democrat, there's no way you can fiddle your bike expenses." The audience erupts. He then extols the virtues of London's diversity - the prowess displayed in medical science, law and the creative industries. But it is a few days after the MPs' expenses scandal broke, and that's all anyone wants to talk about.

“I never claimed for a bath plug," Johnson says. "I never claimed for a moat." No longer an MP, he is able to distance himself from the news coming out of Westminster. "I find myself rather amazed by the whole thing."

Johnson stood down as the Conservative MP for Henley after he won the mayoral contest against Ken Livingstone in May 2008. The decision to run for mayor was, he said at the time, simple: "the opportunity is too great and the prize too wonderful to miss . . . the chance to represent London and speak for Londoners". Livingstone suggests that his motivations were more complex. "For Boris, this is just eight years he's got to get through without anything going wrong . . . It's always been about Boris: he's got his agenda, which is to be back in parliament in the middle of the next decade and succeed Cameron as prime minister."

At their respective press conferences, the two mayors fielded questions on an array of topics, but both were principally concerned with their city's economy. The recession, and the near-ruin of the global financial system, has clearly had a huge impact on London and New York. Wall Street and the Square Mile were the epicentres of the earthquake. Only months earlier, the two cities had seemed invincible. In May 2008, Bloomberg wrote: "We are - and here, please forgive the modesty of a New Yorker - the two greatest cities in the world . . . no two cities combine such staggeringly rich and diverse economic and cultural opportunities as New York and London."

Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September last year, the mayors have been forced to become defenders of their cities, fighting to restore their global pre-eminence. The question is how. Finance made London and New York great, but reliance on the banks also made them vulnerable when the system defaulted. In both cities, politics and money have always intertwined - a closeness that is played out in their geography. New York's City Hall, a grand, neoclassical building, is a short walk up Broadway from Wall Street. In London, the glassy barrel of City Hall squats on the south bank of the Thames, across the river from London's financial centre. From his office on the sixth floor, the mayor can see the gleaming towers of commerce - the old NatWest building, the Broadgate Tower, the Gherkin.

It isn't the first time that London and New York have been the settings for economic calamity. The Great Depression, provoked by the New York stock market crash in October 1929, led to soaring levels of unemployment in both cities (reaching 13.5 per cent in London by the early 1930s and 50 per cent in Harlem in 1932). In the 1970s, after years of strikes and civil unrest, New York was close to being bankrupt. A million people left the city to live in the gentler suburbs. London plunged in parallel, with unemployment reaching 400,000 in 1976. Mounds of rubbish filled the streets of both cities as refuse collectors went on strike.

Then, during the 1980s, the Thatcher-Reagan era of free-market fundamentalism, the cities changed again. According to the British historian Dominic Sandbrook, "You had the simultaneous growth of extreme wealth and extreme poverty", exemplified by "the grotesque contrast of Trump Tower going up in one part of Manhattan and people living out of cardboard boxes just a couple of streets away". Nowhere was this contrast more apparent, Sandbrook says, than in London and New York.

Tony Blair's government, elected in May 1997, wooed the City with even more fervour than the Thatcherites. London and New York grew exponentially, mostly as a result of the burgeoning success of their financial services. From 1999 to 2009, New York's financial services industry was responsible for roughly a quarter of the $1trn output of the regional economy, and generated 20 per cent of state income-tax revenues. Meanwhile, London's financial services grew to employ half a million people in the capital alone, contributing 11 per cent of the UK's total income tax. Financial institutions multiplied - the number of hedge funds, concentrated in London and New York, grew from 610 in 1990 to 9,462 in 2006.

By early 2007, the two cities had transformed into hubs of intense wealth, home to the growing ranks of multimillionaire financiers. Property prices had become grotesquely inflated: in London, luxury properties were selling at £18,000 a square metre; in New York, at £11,000 a square metre. The cities had responded relatively well to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and 7 July 2005. Their rivalry flourished, inflamed by the competition to host the 2012 Olympics. In March 2007, New York magazine depicted London and New York as figures wearing boxing gloves, battling it out for the global crown. Now, after the debilitating events of the past year, the terms of the battle are different. It will be up to the mayors to lead their cities in the race to recovery.

On 15 September 2008, the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed, Michael Bloomberg had been in office for six and a half years; Boris Johnson for just over four months. Bloomberg should have been coming to the end of his mayoral reign this year, but in October 2008 he amended New York's term limits law to allow him to run for a third term. The ballot is on 3 November.

The amendment was an audacious act of manoeuvring and Bloomberg is keen to ensure its success. He has spent $36m of his own money on his campaign so far this year. Asked in May if he felt his wealth in effect killed off the opposition, he said: "I don't know why it drowns out any honest debate . . . I'm spending my own money, so I'm not beholden to anybody." He has a point. Part of Bloomberg's appeal is the sense that he is self-made, able to pay himself a nominal $1 a year for the honour of doing the mayor's job. It also means he can distance himself from lobbyists and interest groups, focusing more on the pragmatic elements of the mayor's job than the political. Ken Livingstone, mayor of London from 2000 to 2008, worked closely with Bloomberg for six years. "He's only interested in what works. He's not an ideologist at all," he told me.

Johnson and Bloomberg first met as mayors on 9 May 2008 in London, a few days after Johnson had taken over at City Hall. Bloomberg presented Johnson with a Tiffany box containing a crystal apple; Johnson gave Bloomberg a shirt with the Tube map printed on it. Their styles are as different as their backgrounds. Johnson, although born in New York in 1964, with Turkish and German ancestry, comes across as aristocratically British, having been educated at Eton and Oxford. Bloomberg's beginnings were more modest. Born in 1942, he grew up in a Boston suburb in a middle-class Jewish family. He won a place to study electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, and paid his way by working as a parking attendant during the summers. In 1981, forced out of his bank job at Salomon Brothers after a merger, he started a financial information service, Bloomberg LP. He was "too pig-headed to go look" for a job, he has said, and thought it would be "fun to be an entrepreneur . . . I have an ego that tells me anything is possible if you work hard." The company now operates in 161 countries, has 275,000 subscribers and employs 10,000 people worldwide.

Where Bloomberg made his name and fortune from shrewd business, Johnson lasted a week at a management consultancy firm, LEK Consulting, before becoming a journalist at the Times, where he was sacked within a year for falsifying a quotation. After retreating to a local paper in Wolverhampton, he moved to the Daily Telegraph in 1987 and in 1999 became editor of the Spectator - a role he combined, sometimes erratically, with being an MP. Now, he writes a weekly column for the Telegraph, for which he is paid £250,000 a year (an amount he has described as "chicken feed"). Unlike Bloomberg, he has little chance of running a self-funded campaign for re-election; his original campaign was supported by hedge-fund managers and property developers.

For all their differences, the mayors are similarly upbeat about their recession-hit cities. In May, Bloomberg insisted that New York is “doing much better than people understand"; while Johnson said that parts of London's economy "are in credit-crunch denial". Both have engaged in "hamburger" economics - Johnson suggesting that, because of the weak pound, "hamburgers are cheaper in London than almost anywhere else on earth", and Bloomberg observing that people are ordering steaks again after slipping to burgers during the crunch. Both men try hard to sound as if they are in tune with the daily life of their cities. But they are also trying to sell. The mayors have to perform like political travel agents - relentlessly marketing the importance and vibrancy of the places they represent.

They also have to keep a sharp eye on each other. "We always say we're the financial capital of the world. London says that, too," Bloomberg said. "What we've got to do is worry about ourselves."

Johnson simply insisted: "We'll win!" But he was also happy to disparage his rival city: "I'm not going to draw invidious comparisons with New York's crime rate, but I merely point out that you have far less chance of being murdered on the streets of London than you do in New York." What both cities fear is a repeat of what happened in the 1970s: the mass exodus of a high-earning population, forced out by unemployment, leaving the cities to fester amid growing crime and poverty.

When it comes to policy, however, the cities appear to be going in very different directions. Two months after his economic strategy launch, Johnson was performing again, at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. He had gathered hundreds of business people and was
regaling them with jokes. But he was also sending out a message - namely, that a new EU draft directive on Alternative Investment Fund Management would gravely damage the private equity and hedge-fund industries in London (the directive seeks to limit the level of debt that these funds and firms can take on).

To those present, it was something of a revelation to hear a political leader explicitly defend firms that had become emblematic of an age of dangerous excess. Bob Wigley, former chairman of Merrill Lynch in Europe, said: "I think this is, in my memory, the first time the Mayor of London has taken a real, proactive interest in City affairs and the promotion of the City. That's a very important step."

Johnson made his allegiance to the City clear from the start of his term. As Anthony Browne, Johnson's director of policy, told me: "Boris doesn't need any prompting to defend financial services. He's not doing this out of any political convenience. In fact, if anything, it's politically inconvenient at this time, defending bankers."

A week after Lehman's collapsed, Johnson wrote a newspaper column defending the banks. The mayor acknowledged that some had been guilty of greed, but accused those critical of bankers as being propagators of "neo-socialist claptrap". He mentioned the "edge" London had gained over New York because of limited regulation. When I suggested to him that stricter regulation might be a necessary response to the crisis, he looked bemused. "You're saying regulation might be a good thing, and high tax might be a good thing and all the rest of it. You've got to be very, very careful that you don't try to solve the last problem by exacerbating or creating the next one. And that's very often what regulation does."

In January this year, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Johnson conceded that he had approached Bloomberg with an idea to form "an alliance against ill-thought [out] regulation". He was turned down. Yet it hasn't dampened his enthusiasm. Taxation and regulation may be under the control of central government, but Johnson sees it as his duty to lobby for London and to challenge government.

“You can jolly well make a fuss about it," he told me. "Nobody else is. Maybe the New Statesman can! Come on, Staggers! Come on, stick up for the people, for energy and enterprise!" And, quickly, we are joking again.

In New York, a more nuanced message emerged. I visited the deputy mayor, Robert Lieber, who is in charge of the city's economic development. "We're looking at other industries," he said. Straight-talking and energetic (he claimed never to use an alarm clock), Lieber worked at Lehman Brothers ("it was a great industry, a great firm; it's a tragedy what happened") before joining Bloomberg's team in 2007. He said he was determined to reduce New York's dependency on the financial sector: "I think the great thing about New York is that, while we're considered . . . a financial centre in the world, we do in fact have a diversified economy already."

Like Johnson, Lieber talked about tourism, fashion, medicine and academia - the city's various talents. But then he mentioned catching "the green bug". He estimates that through regulation and investment in green industries - construction, engineering, architecture - as many as 20,000 jobs will be created over the next few years. It is all part of a plan to make New York more liveable. “Crime rates are down to all-time low levels, [and] the streets are cleaner than they've ever been . . . We're making huge capital investments to improve schools so that people can choose to raise their families here, as opposed to moving out of the city."

Johnson, by contrast, is behind on the matter of greening his city. Browne admitted to me that "other cities have been making waves on this before us". As mayor, Johnson has launched tree-planting and cycling initiatives and, most recently, an initiative to boost local energy schemes through London boroughs. On 14 October, he said that he wanted "to position London as the world's leading low-carbon economy". Yet, before running for office, he was openly sceptical of the dangers of climate change. In 2006, he poked fun at the "growing world creed of global warming" - a position
he had to contradict in a speech to the Environment Agency in November 2008, when he described himself as "someone who used to write caustic articles about the religion of climate change". As Jenny Jones, a London Assembly member for the Green Party, said: "Climate change is a bit of a new idea for this mayor - he hasn't yet grasped how urgent it is."

Jones describes Johnson's record on green issues in office as "utterly shabby . . . I think he has rolled back the green agenda in London by probably a decade in some of the decisions that he's made." She is most concerned about transport - such as the decision to abandon the congestion charge expansion and the recent announcement that Tube and rail fares would rise again. But she also points out that he has lost ground on green industries. "Johnson took over an administration that was actually doing quite a lot. We were a world leader on adaptation and mitigation of climate change. He's just not picked up the reins on this. He doesn't get it."

Livingstone agrees, describing Johnson's lax approach to the environment as a "catastrophic mistake for our long-term economic interests". The former mayor worked with Bloomberg to set up the C40, a mechanism that brought together the leaders of the world's largest cities to tackle climate change. The first meeting took place in London in 2005, followed by another in New York in 2007. As the driving force behind the initiative, London held the chair. But that changed when Johnson became mayor. Of the 40 cities involved, only two (New York and London) were prepared to vote for him - the others had "read his writings", Livingstone explained to me. Johnson was quickly demoted to "honorary vice-chair", with the mayor of Toronto taking over the leadership. It was a terrible loss, Livingstone believes, both of status and of London's competitive advantage.

Johnson now says his administration is making progress on the environment. One plan is to create a "green enterprise district" in the Thames Gateway. But there seem to be inconsistencies. A concurrent idea is to build a new airport in the Thames Estuary. I asked his policy director how comfortably the green enterprise district would sit beside a new airport, imagining meetings on low-carbon technologies as planes power overhead (killing millions of birds in the process, campaigners claim). Browne scratched his stomach. "It's accepting reality that aviation is an environmental detriment, but it's almost certainly going to carry on increasing," he said. "We'd much prefer that it doesn't carry on increasing inside a west London suburb where lots of people live." A west London suburb - covering Richmond, Twickenham, Hammersmith and Fulham on the way to Heathrow - where a lot of Johnson's most vocal Tory voters live.

Exactly a year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Bloomberg and Johnson met again in New York. They gave a talk at Columbia University: "New York and London: Heading Back to the Top". There was the usual hilarity - Bloomberg gave Johnson a revenge gift of a hat, umbrella and tie
decorated with the New York subway map. Johnson taunted Bloomberg yet again about losing the Olympics. But he also took the opportunity to warn once more of the dangers of over-regulation, "however great our rage at the bankers may be". The purpose of the meeting was to present a united front ("We are in this together," said Bloomberg) but, in reality, the cities seem to be pulling apart.

One consequence of the financial crisis is the opportunity it offered London and New York to reinvent themselves. Their leaders could seek to re-create the booming, finance-dependent cities of the past decade, or imagine a new kind of city shaped by different priorities. Johnson has publicly made his choice, taking his strongest stand so far (apart from his war on bendy buses) in defence of hedge funds. His administration attempts to absolve the industry.

“It had nothing to do with them," Browne said, even though, for many, the collapse of three Paribas funds in August 2007 and Bear Stearns in March 2008 signalled the start of the financial crisis. In his Tory party conference speech on 5 October, Johnson, ever loyal, once again attacked the "banker bashers" who sought to undermine the City of London.

Bloomberg and Lieber seem to be on a more progressive path. After all, as Lieber said, they want to diversify so they are not as dependent on financial services. They believe that their city can grow in a new way, and it can remain a world leader through reinvention. Johnson, on the other hand, would prefer London to revert to its former so-called glory - a city with less regulation and a new airport. Given the past, it seems a strange kind of future.

Sophie Elmhirst is a contributing writer at the New Statesman

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London

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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