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The chocolate king of São Tomé

Xan Rice visits a man who has been on a quest to produce some of the finest dark chocolate in the wo

On a small Atlantic island on the equator, in a lemon-coloured bungalow with a clear view over a tinfoil bay, lives the Italian honorary consul. In his drive-way are two ancient Fiat Pandas. In his back garden is a chocolate factory. The consul’s name is Claudio Corallo. He is 57 and lean, with neat grey hair, a matching moustache and an inventor’s lively eyes. He speaks five languages fluently, and English sparingly and excitedly.

"Paradise!" and "Magic!" are a few of his stock English words, and could describe the allure of the rainforest, or the transformation of the humble cocoa bean into fine chocolate. "Shameless!" and "Shit!" are other favourites, and might refer to the marketing gimmicks of some of his competitors, or the state of western society.

For the past decade, Corallo has been on a quest to produce some of the finest dark chocolate in the world. His bars, which range in cocoa content from 60 per cent to 100 per cent, and may contain ginger, arabica coffee beans, orange rind or plump raisins soaked for months in his home-made cocoa-pulp alcohol, sell for between seveb and nine euros (£6.20 and £8) for 100g in Europe, the United States and Japan.

That puts Corallo in the same market as the world's leading gourmet chocolate-makers, such as Valrhona and Pralus in France and Italy's Amedei and Domori. Yet he has little in common with any of them.

For one, Corallo makes his chocolate at, or at least very near, source - on São Tomé, off the west coast of Africa, population 160,000 (including ten Italians), where the electricity is intermittent and flights to Europe depart once a week. Equally unusually, he controls the entire process, from the tree to the bar.

Most fine chocolate-makers buy their cocoa from farmers thousands of miles away. Corallo grows his own cocoa on a 120-hectare plantation on Príncipe, the twin island of São Tomé, 90 miles to the north-east, where he spends part of each month living in a tumbledown colonial-era house, with no power, no hot water and a system of air-conditioning that involves leaving all the windows open.

And then there is his attitude to life and to business. Corallo describes himself as "a free man, an anarchist" and counts among his closest friends a Basque man exiled to São Tomé two decades ago because of his alleged links to the terrorist organisation ETA. Though he wants people to eat his chocolate, Corallo abhors having to persuade customers to buy it. He lost a contract with Fortnum & Mason a few years ago principally because he refused to make fancy wrappers for his product.

"I hate compromise," he says. "And marketing is compromise."

Even today, the simple packaging on his bars contains only his name, and his chocolate's place of origin. There is little hint of his story.

As a boy growing up in Florence, Corallo dreamed of forests. He studied tropical agronomy after school. When he was 23, he gave up his job as a diver for a dredging company in Trieste to move to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). It was 1974. Muhammad Ali had just fought George Foreman in the epic Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa. Mobutu Sese Seko's government, which had staged the fight, hired Corallo as an agricultural researcher. The job did not inspire him, but the jungle did.

Big cars, mobile phones, watches, clothes. They are for people who want to fill their emptiness with nothing

Five years on, he bought a run-down, 1,250-hectare coffee farm in Lomela, right in the centre of the country. The safest way to get there from the capital was a thousand-mile boat trip up the Congo River, taking up to two weeks. His wife, Bettina, the daughter of the Portuguese ambassador to Congo, was the first white woman local people had ever seen arriving on a pirogue.

"It was a paradise. Shorts, shirt, no shoes, machete. All you needed to live," says Corallo.

He ignored the textbooks on coffee cultivation, relying instead on trial and error. His methods ranged from the strange - talking to his pack cows rather than using whips - to the improvisational - using lianas from the forest rather than nails to join fence poles. He sent his export-quality robusta beans to Kinshasa using a modified barge originally owned by Belgian missionaries.

By 1989, shortly before the world coffee price plunged by more than half in a few months, he was making good money and employed more than 1,000 workers. He had a daughter, Ricci arda, and Bettina was in Argentina, where her father was now the ambassador, about to give birth to a son.

Facing financial ruin, Corallo left the plantation and headed into the forest. He took a single book with him: Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. "I felt like Colonel Aureliano Buendía, with the world crashing around me," he says.

When he emerged six months later (he would not see his son and current right-hand man, Niccoló, until he was nearly a year old), he had an idea to boost sales by working with nearby coffee farmers. The plan worked and his farm was saved, but other dangers were looming.

Congo was growing unstable, with rebel forces becoming active in the area. By late 1996, when Laurent Kabila's militias began marching towards Kinshasa from the east, signalling the end of the Mobutu era, Corallo knew that his time in Congo was coming to an end. Returning to Europe was not an option. "If I had been forced to go, there were two possibilities: either I would have been put in prison within two months, or I would have been forced to take heroin - with an industrial pump."

He wanted to stay in central Africa. And he wanted to farm.

Cocoa is believed to have originated in the forests between the Amazon River in Brazil and the Orinoco River in Venezuela. It thrives in the tropics. Around 1822, sailors brought seedlings from Brazil to São Tomé and Príncipe, also a Portuguese colony.

The trees took quickly to the rich volcanic soil. By the turn of the 20th century, São Tomé was the biggest producer of cocoa in the world. Customers included the leading British chocolate manufacturers Cadbury and Fry, both Quaker-rooted companies that prided themselves on their principles.

There was, however, a terrible secret to their supply chain - slavery. In 1904, the American magazine Harper's sent the British war correspondent Henry W Nevinson to West Africa to investigate reports of forced labour along the coast. "The islands possess exactly the kind of climate that kills men and makes the cocoa tree flourish," he wrote of São Tomé in his final despatch, titled The Islands of Doom. The 20,000-plus slaves on the plantations - more than half the country's population - were doing most of the dying. On Príncipe, the annual death rate was 21 per cent - giving a slave a life expectancy of under five years.

Shamed into action, the British companies soon shifted their supply source to the then Gold Coast (now Ghana), signalling the start of São Tomé's steady decline among the international cocoa producers. By the time Corallo arrived in São Tomé in 1997, many of the old plantations had long been abandoned. After much searching, he stumbled across the Terreiro Velho farm on Príncipe's humid coast, and purchased it from the state. The colonial house had gone to ruin; a resurgent jungle had hidden many of the 20,000 cocoa trees.

On the beach Corallo built a wooden bungalow for his young family, and they began to clear the plantation. He was confident that he could farm cocoa successfully. But could he also turn it into fine chocolate?

Although the plantation had old cocoa trees of a quality superior to that of the more recently introduced hybrids found on mainland Africa, they were still forasteros - the most common of the three varieties of cocoa, and the blandest in taste. Almost all fine dark chocolate is made from trinitario and, very rarely, criollo beans.

Corallo was undaunted. He believed he could make up for the beans' inherent limitations by applying the same commitment that winemakers and olive growers show their crops - the sort of attention rarely seen in the world of chocolate.

"Good chocolate is not necessarily a problem of variety," he says. "It is a problem of work."

One morning at 6am, Corallo picked me up at my guest house in São Tomé, the islands’ capital city. He wore his usual uniform: old polo shirt, a cheap Casio digital watch, well-worn moccasins and faded Bermuda shorts. Hanging from a green string on his belt was a tiny Swiss army knife.

He was driving his dark green Panda, which he bought for ?500 in Italy and shipped to São Tomé. Even on an island of constant surprises - the previous evening I had seen a man driving down the main seafront road with a monkey bouncing on his shoulder - the car marked Corallo as different. Most expatriates here drive expensive 4x4s.

"Even if I was offered a Mercedes I would keep the Panda," he says. "Big cars, mobile phones, watches, clothes. They are for people who want to fill their emptiness with nothing."

We headed away from the Atlantic Ocean, towards the smoky mountains that loom over the town. Banana plants and breadfruit trees formed part of a luxuriant green wall pushing against the narrow, twisting road. After half an hour we had travelled 11 miles and ascended nearly 1,000 metres to reach Corallo's Nova Moca farm on São Tomé, which doubles as a coffee plantation and an extension of his chocolate factory. On terraced fields either side of an old abandoned farmhouse grew seven different varieties of arabica, robusta and liberica coffee.

The trees give him a small yet high-quality crop - his yield is little more than one-hundredth of that on a commercial coffee farm - and it is sold only in Portugal. Cocoa is what makes the money.

On the plantation on neighbouring Príncipe, Corallo's workers cut the ripe, melon-shaped cocoa pods from the trees using machetes, and crack them open with sticks to extract the beans. Nearby small-scale farmers who share his farming philosophy harvest at similar times and sell him their cocoa, as he pays much more than brokers in São Tomé.

Convention suggests forastero beans should be fermented - a process that gives them their chocolate taste - for about six days. But Corallo insisted on doing his own experiments to find the optimum period.

"I always start from zero [scratch]. Even if people say I start one way, I start with zero."

His trials suggested six days was not enough; instead, he ferments his beans for well over two weeks on his own bespoke racks. (He asked me not to reveal the exact number of fermentation days. It's a trade secret.)

The traditional way to dry the beans after fermentation is to lay them in the sun. But Corallo has his own methods that he believes to be superior: either spreading the beans over a platform of heated clay tiles, or placing them in a huge aerated cylinder that a friend built for him in Italy.

Once dried, the beans are packed aboard an old fishing trawler for the six-hour journey to São Tomé. They are then transported to Nova Moca for careful cleaning and sorting, roasted in Corallo's factory at his beachfront house, and returned to the coffee plantation.

Under a covered platform, with the ocean shimmering in the distance, stood several long wooden tables. Thirty men and women, each wearing a white overcoat, a hairnet and a face mask, sat with a pile of cocoa beans in front of them.

Carefully they stripped each bean of its outer shell and discarded the tiny, acrid germ, leaving just the cocoa nibs. This process, winnowing, is usually done by machine, but Corallo believes that the quality of the chocolate suffers as a result. By doing things manually he is also creating employment; at peak times there are 60 people on shelling duty, each earning what is, by local standards, a decent wage.

From Nova Moca, the nibs are returned to Corallo's four-room factory in his backyard, which he built using two shipping containers as the skeleton, lined with African teak. In the narrow entranceway, workers use a system of fans to blow away any residual particles of dust clinging to the nibs. The nibs are then ground by machine into cocoa liquor. After a few other refinements - some secret - the cocoa is ready to be turned into chocolate.

Later the same day, I visited the factory, following the aroma of dark chocolate from the driveway. Workers were scurrying around with trays of chocolate ready for cutting and packaging. Corallo, meanwhile, was eating - and drinking - into his profits. He had already guzzled "about 30" samples of his newest creation: chocolate balls featuring a core of 2 grams of ginger inside a layer of 100 per cent cocoa.

He had also taken several sips of his prized alcohol, 74 per cent proof and chest-warming, with a rich, fruity aftertaste. It is made from the sticky white pulp that surrounds the cocoa beans inside the pod and which is discarded by most farmers.

As with his coffee, the yield is tiny - one litre for every tonne of beans - making commercial production impossible. Instead, he soaks raisins in the alcohol before hiding them inside fat, 50g chunks of dark chocolate. It is easily his bestselling product.

But the chocolate he puts in front of all visitors, many of whom arrive at his gate unannounced and are welcomed into the factory, is his 100 per cent pure cocoa bar. Sugar gives chocolate its sweetness - tasting a bar without any "is like examining the cocoa beans under the microscope", Corallo says.

He cut a small piece and laid it on a tray. Then he took out several bars made by his competitors and cut a morsel off each. Finally, he poured a glass of water.

A few of the samples were so bitter as to be inedible. Others, marginally less bitter, tasted fatty and clung to the palate. It was hardly a scientific test, but there was no doubt that Corallo's bar tasted sharper and was by far the least bitter.

"You see?" he said. "The type of bean does not matter. If it tastes good, it's good."

After a decade on the island, Corallo is well known, and respected. One afternoon I was interviewing Rafael Branco, a former foreign minister, when Corallo's name came up. "You see the car he drives, the simple way he lives, the things he does for this country? Don't give us aid - give us ten clones of Corallo," said Branco.

In the gourmet chocolate industry, however, Corallo remains the quirky outsider and has yet to gain the recognition he feels his chocolate merits. (He claims never to have tasted any bar that can match his own.)

Martin Christy, editor of Seventypercent.com, a UK-based website for chocolate aficionados, describes Corallo's bars as "earthy, rough and ready, and interesting to try". But he says they have yet to equal the best chocolate made with non-forastero cocoa from South America, south-east Asia or Madagascar.

"The problem is the beans' genetics. Even with the best processing you might get a very good, cheeky chocolate, but not a great one."

Even so, Corallo's sales are growing, and reached about ?360,000 last year despite minimal marketing. Although he is designing a new website, and attends the occasional trade fair - usually the prestigious Salon du Chocolat in Paris - it is always done grudgingly.

"The Salon is shit," he says. "But sometimes we have to make prostitutes out of ourselves."

Often, he is introduced to new markets through people approaching him after tasting his chocolate. He has recently opened up a market in Japan, after a woman from Tokyo tasted his chocolate on a visit to France.

When she contacted Corallo by email, he offered to send her some samples. Instead, she insisted on visiting him, flying from Japan to Lisbon to São Tomé, and finally taking the notoriously unreliable flight to Príncipe to see his plantation.

As she lay down to sleep in his plantation house the first night, she saw bats sweeping through the open windows. "The air makes circulation, the bats make circulation," says Corallo. "Very acrobatic."

The following night she booked herself into a hotel.

The culture shock was reversed when Corallo visited Tokyo last year. On his first day he lifted the toilet seat only to find instructions on how to warm the seat. "The energy to do that. Crazy!"

Chloé Doutre-Roussel, a fine chocolate expert, first introduced Corallo's bars to Britain when she was at Fortnum & Mason. She has visited São Tomé several times. She agrees with Christy's view that the chocolate is good, although not the finest. However, she admires his tenacity - and his honesty. Some chocolate-makers concoct less-than-truthful stories about the origins of their beans and the degree of care taken in production. Corallo, on the other hand, refuses to use positive labels he might easily adopt, such as "organic" and "slow food".

"He is the complete opposite of the sharks that use marketing to fool customers into buying their chocolate," says Doutre-Roussel. "He is in his own world, conducting this experiment with a wonderful obsession."

But an obsession can be draining. One evening, Corallo told me that for the first time in years he was feeling exhausted. Last year he and Bettina were divorced. She still handles the distribution side of the business from Lisbon, where she now lives with Ricciarda, but her absence is keenly felt.

After Bettina left, Corallo asked Niccoló, now a tall, mild-mannered 19-year-old, to postpone his final year of schooling to help him manage the business. It is not something he is proud of.

"I am now the number one for child labour - my own son," he says. "But without Niccoló I could not do this."

Later that night, when he took Niccoló and his younger son, Amedeo, 14, out to dinner at a seafront restaurant, Corallo perked up, excitedly picking out the Big Dipper in the sequinned sky.

He talked about the future. He aims to source more of his ingredients locally, which should help the other farmers on Príncipe. Already he has got some of them growing ginger, and he hopes to get cane sugar from them, too.

If that happens, he might try to make rum. Exporting smoked fish is another option. In a few years, if things improve in Congo, he might even be able to spend part of his time on his old coffee farm in Lomela, close to the jungle of his childhood dreams.

As he says, "My heart belongs in the middle of the forest."

Xan Rice is a contributing writer of the New Statesman. His "Letter from Côte d'Ivoire" was published in our issue of 27 October 2008

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...

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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