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The 50 people who matter today: 21-30

21-30 on our diverse list of individuals, couples and families changing the world, for good and ill.

21.Jimmy Wales

The Wiki man

Wales set up the biggest encyclopaedia ever compiled and revolutionised the way content is generated on the internet. His website Wikipedia established one of the first successful examples of "user-generated content" on the web, allowing visitors to the site to submit and edit articles. Wikipedia has more than ten million articles and reported 7.5 million unique users in August this year. Last year, Wales was called to meet with China's State Council Information Office to open dialogue on censorship. Unlike the internet heavies at Google, he has refused to submit a censored version of his site to China and continues to champion the model of collaborative, uncensored web publishing.

22. Amartya Sen

Nobel economist and thinker

If intellectuals "matter" insofar as they influence politicians and policymakers, then the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen certainly does. When Nicolas Sarkozy declared recently that quality of life matters as much as GDP, he was channelling Sen. And when Brit­ish politicians argue that inequalities of "capability" matter as much as inequalities of income and wealth, they are rehashing one of Sen's most influential academic papers. His workhas also been vindicated by recent events: long before the crash of 2008 made the case for proper regulation of the financial sector irresistible, Sen was arguing that market economies are not free-standing, self-correcting mechanisms.

23. Viktor Bout

Lord of war

A former military officer, 42-year-old Viktor Bout built up a fleet of aircraft after the collapse of the Soviet Union and went on to become the world's largest arms smuggler, supplying some of the most unsavoury groups and regimes on the planet, including Colombia's Farc rebels, the former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and Libya's Colonel Gaddafi. Or so say his opponents, notably the US, which has been trying to extradite him from Thailand for over a year. Some of his assets have been frozen, Interpol has issued a warrant for his arrest, and he has been the subject of UN sanctions. But according to his website he is just a "normal businessman striving for success".

24: Ashfaq Kayani

Pakistan's fighting chance

The government has repeatedly claimed that three in every four terror plots here in the UK have links back to al-Qaeda in Pakistan - where General Ashfaq Kayani, head of the Pakistan army, is the man responsible for the battle against the jihadists. He is also leading the fight against the Taliban along the country's border with Afghanistan, managing ongoing tensions with neighbouring India, and is in charge of securing his country's arsenal of roughly 90 nuclear warheads. To say his is a big job is an understatement of epic proportions.

In a country blighted by military dictatorships, where stability is threatened by Islamist militants, Kayani and his troops remain the dominant power. So far, however, he has stopped the army from meddling in politics. It was Kayani who ordered military officers to withdraw from their lucrative posts in civilian ministries and who kept his soldiers out of sight during the February 2008 elections. And it was Kayani who allowed the opposition to move against the then president, Pervez Musharraf, letting it be known there would be no military action to defend him.

A former chief of the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Kayani has been instrumental in brokering various deals that have dominated Pakistani politics. He is close to all major players - a confidant of Musharraf, the Bhutto family and the Pentagon. A quiet man, he tends to avoid the limelight. But given how many army chiefs have become president, he may not keep a low profile for long.
Mehdi Hasan

25. Warren Buffett

The philanthrope

With an estimated net worth of $62bn (£38bn), Warren Buffett - one of the most successful investors in history - regularly takes the top slot on the Forbes rich list. The "Oracle of Omaha" warned in 2003 that credit derivatives were "financial weapons of mass destruction"; his exceptional financial insight has led to his being touted as a possible future treasury secretary by Barack Obama, whose campaign he backed. He has invested hundreds of millions in eco-initiatives, and pledged to give away 85 per cent of his fortune to philanthropic causes.

26.Pope Benedict XVI

Papa Ratzi

The former Cardinal Ratzinger has always been a stern guard of Catholic doctrine: he ran what used to be the Holy Office of the Inquisition for more than 20 years and led the campaign against "liberation theology". But, as Pope Bene­dict XVI, he has gone even further. He reintroduced the Latin Tridentine Mass and lifted the excommunication on members of a renegade sect that includes a "bishop" who denies the Holocaust - suggesting to some that the liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council were in danger of being reversed. He may lack his predecessor's charisma, but Benedict XVI still claims the allegiance of the world's more than a billion Catholics - one-sixth of the global population.

27. Jairam Ramesh

Green giant

Western diplomats credit Ramesh, India's new environment minister, with "getting" the scale of the climate change crisis, and - having been a long-time adviser to the Congress leader, Sonia Gandhi (no 31) - as key to India's crucial role in sealing a deal at December's COP15 summit. A former television anchor, he occasionally writes for the Times of India.

28. Ingvar Kamprad

Leader of the flat-pack

Why does Ingvar Kamprad matter? Well, the chances are that you're sitting on the evidence. Or lying on it, drinking from it, or storing your kitchen utensils in it. Kamprad is the 83-year-old founder of Ikea, the home furnishings giant that has come to dominate the way our homes and offices look. His "flat-pack" approach to furniture sales is integral to 21st-century capitalism: a system that promises choice and simplicity but where, in the end, the individual does all the work and the large multinational corporations pocket the cash.

29. Gordon Brown

Recession proof

He is insulted by Tories, battered by events and undermined in his own party. But on the international stage Gordon Brown has been credited with preventing recession turning to depression, and leading the economic fightback with his dramatic "fiscal stimulus" and bank bailout programmes. The Nobel Prize-winner Paul Krugman concluded that Brown, along with Alistair Darling, had "defined the character of the worldwide rescue effort". Although Britain's influence in the world is a fraction of what it once was, Brown's continued troop ­deployment in Afghanistan retains influence with Washington, and the UK still has the fifth-largest economy in the world.

30. Amr Khaled

Head preacher

Amr Khaled commands a larger television audience than Oprah Winfrey. His shows, broadcast on a Saudi-owned TV station throughout the Middle East, tell simple, often emotional stories about Islam. Their message is peaceful and uplifting - but also deeply conservative. Khaled is considered as responsible for large numbers of Egyptian women choosing to wear the hijab; and despite his fervent condemnation of Osama Bin Laden, not all are convinced that his influence is benign.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

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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