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The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was the culmination of months of protest across communi

It was the most dramatic moment in an extraordinarily dramatic year. All across eastern Europe, one-party regimes collapsed in a heap. But nothing could trump the impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall on the evening of 9 November 1989. Television viewers around the world were transfixed as the loathed symbol of a divided continent broke open.

Following a confused, partly unintended announcement at an official press conference, East Berliners poured through the once-impenetrable barrier in to West Berlin; thousands more clambered on to the wall and celebrated there for days to come. Overnight, the barrier lost all its power.

This was a time of fairy-tale strangeness, a brave new world in the unburdened sense of the phrase. The fall of the wall was not, however, as unpredictable as politicians have often been eager to suggest. Indeed, it was unexpected only if one failed to see what the pressure of the crowds had already achieved, in the lead-up to that day.

Some changes were obvious and widely acknowledged. Through the summer of 1989, there was a vast outflow of East German refugees, especially through liberal Hungary, which proudly and publicly snipped a symbolic hole in its border fence in May, with unexpected consequences.

In the months to come, tens of thousands slipped across the Hungarian border to the west. East Germany’s lifeblood was haemorrhaging away. Those who remained and chanted “Wir bleiben hier!” (“We are staying here!”) provided no comfort to the regime, because their meaning was equally clear: “We are staying – because we want change.”

All of those pressures – from the leavers and the stayers alike – smoothed the way for what came next. However, probably the single most important moment came a month before the wall fell, on the evening of 9 October, in the city of Leipzig.

Throughout 1989, weekly Monday demonstrations – prayers for peace in the Nikolaikirche, followed by a demonstration – gradually gained strength, despite constant beatings and arrests. Eventually, the authorities decided enough was enough. They would teach Leipzig, and thus all of East Germany, a lesson.

A “reader’s letter” (read: an officially sanctioned announcement) in the Leipzig local paper announced that “these counter-revolutionary actions” would be dealt with, “if need be, with weapons in our hands”. In effect, the regime was publicly heralding its plans for a local reprise of the Tiananmen Square killings, which had taken place just four months earlier.

Nor was this mere bluster. The city of Leipzig was closed off. Weapons and ammunition were handed out. Hospitals were cleared. Before the demonstration began, I counted 16 trucks with armed workers’ militias in one side street alone. Inside the 13th-century Nikolaikirche, everybody knew what to expect once prayers were over. Through the tall windows, we could hear the echoing cries of the huge crowd outside, chanting, “No violence!” But it was clear to everybody: violence there would be tonight, and it might be lethal.

After the service, we moved outside. Presumably in common with many of those around me, I felt the tightening knot of fear as we waited for the shooting to begin.

A few minutes passed, without violence. And then a few minutes more. And then – utterly dramatic and conventionally un-newsworthy in equal measure – it became clear that there would be no shooting tonight. No shooting, not even arrests or beatings. As one demonstrator said after it was all over: “I felt as if I could fly. It was the most fantastic day that I have ever known. Now, we knew that there was no going back.”

Even outsiders could share in the exhilaration of that achievement.

Late that night, the Stasi secret police fetched me out of my room, searched my baggage and threw me out of the city (I had already phoned my report back to my newspaper in London from the central post office, and was thus content to be deported). The hotel receptionist asked why I was leaving in the middle of the night. I pointed to the waiting men in overcoats, and explained that my crime was to have witnessed and written about events that they would rather went undocumented. “It’s a disgrace!” she said, loudly enough for the Stasi men to hear. Such insolence would, until a few days earlier, have got her the sack or worse. Now the fear was broken. It would never return.

The regime’s threats of lethal action were intended to persuade the crowds to stay at home. Instead, more had come out that day than ever before. Despite all the guns and all its power, the regime was more afraid of the crowds than the crowds were afraid of the regime. This was, to quote Ryszard Kapuscinski’s description of the fall of the Shah of Iran a decade earlier, one of the last zigzags to the precipice.

In the next fortnight, the numbers of protesters doubled and doubled again, as the regime looked sulkily on.

Then – in an increasingly desperate attempt to slow the momentum – the government came up with a last, surreal concession. On 3 November, it was announced that all citizens could now leave for the west without special permission. Just two conditions were imposed. In a citizen-laundering exercise, they could not leave directly from East Germany to the west, but must pass through a third country on their way. Oh, and yes, everyone must give up their East German identity card when they leave, poor things.

Thus, the regime’s front door remained locked. The guns, watchtowers and minefields of the Berlin Wall were, after all, still in place. However, a side door – a simple detour of a few kilometres through Czechoslovakia and on to the west – was now officially open to all. It was a gloriously absurd contradiction.

The sacking of a third of East Germany’s ruling politburo, which happened the same day, would, in other contexts, have seemed important. By now, however, three weeks after Leipzig, the resignation of yet more men in ill-fitting suits seemed like yet another rearrangement of the deckchairs. (The loathed Communist leader Erich Honecker had already been dumped, just a week after the Leipzig showdown.)

More significant was that the Berlin Wall had suddenly become pointless – a redundant symbol. Thousands of East German refugees were crammed into the West German embassy in Prague; they received the news in dazed disbelief and headed off to the West German border.

The travel ban that underpinned East Germany’s very existence was now in free fall. The only real surprise was how utterly unprepared the politicians were for the wall’s fall when it finally came. Chancellor Helmut Kohl initially refused to believe his closest aide. “Ackermann,” he insisted, “are you sure?”

This was not a victory for Ronald Reagan (“Mr Gorbachev, tear down that wall!”), nor indeed a victory for the Soviet leader (a pragmatist who reluctantly bowed to the inevitable). Nor (another much-heard version) was it all down to a mix-up over which pieces of paper should or should not be read out at a press conference. It was a victory for the crowds of Leipzig and beyond.

The East German protesters did not stand in isolation. They owed much to the defiance of others who had come before. By autumn 1989, the Communist wheels were falling off all over the place. In partly free elections in Poland in June – the same weekend as the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing – the independent Solidarity movement defeated the Communists so overwhelmingly that the humiliated regime had no alternative but to bow to demands for a non-Communist prime minister. At the very latest from 4 June onward, the clock was ticking for one-party regimes across eastern Europe.

Elsewhere, too, extraordinary changes were afoot, demonstrating what Václav Havel called the power of the powerless. August 1989 was the 50th anniversary of the secret deal between Hitler and Stalin which allowed Moscow to gobble up the Baltic states. Two million people – a quarter of the entire population – formed a human chain that stretched for hundreds of miles through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. To the fury of Mikhail Gorbachev, they demanded a restoration of pre-war independence. (Gorbachev still pretended that the Balts had joined the Soviet Union voluntarily, which – especially given the mass deportations to Siberia after annexation in 1940 – was very sweet.)

For western politicians, the Baltic protests were either an irrelevance or an annoyance (“It’s worrying, because this makes things difficult for Gorbachev” was a frequent mantra). But the peaceful mass resistance of the Balts – despite and because of a subsequent armed crackdown – played a pivotal role in ending the Communist one-party system for all time.

Even today, many politicians still seem to believe that only their fellow politicians can initiate profound and lasting change. A seemingly plausible argument is made, too, that people should not make impossible demands. In 1989, the protesters of eastern Europe – in Leipzig, Gdansk, Prague, Vilnius and elsewhere – proved the sceptics wrong on both counts. Those lessons still deserve to be remembered. l

Steve Crawshaw is UN advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. He was east Europe editor of the Independent from 1988 to 1992. He is the author of “Easier Fatherland: Germany and the 21st Century” (Continuum, £15.99) and co-author of “Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity and a Bit of Ingenuity Can Change the World”, to be published next year

Share your memories of the year of the crowd with us by emailing: A selection will appear on our website

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd

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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