The 50 people who matter today: 31-40

31-40 on our diverse list of individuals, couples and families changing the world, for good and ill.

31.Sonia Gandhi

The kingmaker

Italian-born and a Catholic, Sonia Gandhi is the unexpected matriarch of India's ruling dynasty. In the 18 years since the assassination of her husband, the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, she has become a formidable force in the world's biggest democracy. Leading the Congress Party to victory in 2004, she declined the prime ministership, instead nominating the economist Manmohan Singh for it, yet she is widely accepted to be the real power behind the throne - particularly given that in 2007 she also selected the president, Pratibha Patil. Gandhi's influence looks sure to continue into the next generation, as both of her children, Rahul and Priyanka, have been manoeuvred into public life.

32: David MacKay

Power ranger

The Cambridge physicist David J C MacKay used £10,000 of his own money to publish Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air, which, thanks largely to a word-of-mouth campaign that had it circulating like ecological samizdat, very quickly entered Amazon's top 60 bestsellers. (It is also available as a free download from MacKay's website.)

Much of MacKay's research has been in the field of information theory, neural networks and software development. Among the many achievements that earned him a professorship in 2003 and election to the Royal Society this year is Dasher, a data-entry interface that enables disabled people to use computers. But Sustainable Energy is the reason MacKay really matters, and the reason he has just been appointed chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

For too long, he argues, the climate change debate has been disastrously polarised: between those who think the point of "peak oil" is imminent and those who insist we are not heading for an energy crisis any time soon, and between proponents of renewable energy and supporters of nuclear power. He cuts through all the noisy polemicising by settling on a simple unit of measurement that allows us to calculate a country's power consumption. If we know how much power is consumed by land area, then, because most kinds of renewable energy are harvested on land, we will be able to "quantify the potential power production from renewables".

MacKay does the maths and makes an empirically watertight case for the use of energy crops, windfarms and solar power. He calculates that if Britain adopted a mixture of wind, solar and nuclear power, 10 per cent of the country would have to be covered by wind turbines; the area occupied by solar power stations would be five times the size of London; and the 50 nuclear power stations needed would occupy some 50km². "The effort required for a plan like that is very large," he says. "But [it is] imaginable." The argument over energy will never be the same again.
Jonathan Derbyshire

33. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

Political trailblazer

If one good thing emerged from the civil war in Liberia, it was the leadership of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. When she took office in January 2006, she became the world's first black female head of state. In her three years as president, she has led the charge against corruption in her country and worked tirelessly to attract investment to Africa, particularly by building relations with the US. In 2007 George W Bush awarded her the Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian honour. In return, two years later, Johnson-Sirleaf made the US television host Jon Stewart a chief.

34.Simon Cowell

The X man

He could be on the list for The X Factor alone. The queues across Britain, the thousands lusting for stardom, are an annual fixture. Millions tune in every week to watch the judges weed out the mad or the painful of voice. All the while, Cowell pockets a fortune by signing the winners to his label, Syco. His influence extends beyond the music industry, however: the X Factor and Britain's Got Talent TV formats are now copied around the world. He might not be loved (he came in at number 33 on Channel 4's list of the all-time 100 Worst Britons), but he shapes much of the world's entertainment.

35. Oprah Winfrey

Chatelaine of chat

Some - Vanity Fair, Time, CNN - have said that Oprah is one of the most influential women in the world. Oprah isn't just a name, a TV show, or a brand - it's a culture with millions of followers. Her approval can turn a book into a bestseller, or even elect a president (one academic study suggested that she delivered roughly a million votes for Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries, essentially winning him the nomination). And now, there is talk of her entering the Senate. But Oprah also represents the ultimate American story: the self-made woman from the humblest of beginnings who became, at one point, the world's only black billionaire. Now she's giving back - her extensive philanthropy includes setting up a girls' school in South Africa.

36. Muhammad Yunus

Loan star

As a young economist in Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus became interested in microcredit, the idea that small loans could make a disproportionate difference to the lives of those too poor for banks to lend to. In 1976, he raised the funds to set up the Grameen Bank on these principles, advancing nearly all its credit to women, whom he thought were more likely to use the funds responsibly. He was proved right. The concept was so successful in helping lift customers out of poverty that it has been copied around the world, and Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

37.Carolyn Porco

Star gazer

Carolyn Porco, a Nasa adviser with an asteroid named in her honour, holds the future of space travel in her hands. Renowned for her work in exploration and imaging of the outer solar system, she was part of a mission to Saturn's moons that, in her own words, "possibly stumbled upon the holy grail of modern-day planetary exploration" by finding an environment in which there could be living organisms. Porco bridges the gap between scientific discovery and popular culture, acting as consultant for the 2009 Star Trek film. There is even an online petition to get her a cameo appearance in the sequel. How many scientists can say that?

38.Yukio Hatoyama

Prime mover
Japan's new prime minister is spearheading the most progressive political shift in his country's postwar history, which includes plans for a 25 per cent cut in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020, not to mention high-profile talk of a modern international "fraternity" (cemented, perhaps, by an Asian single currency), both of which would have been unthinkable in Japan just two months ago. Unlike Barack Obama, Hatoyama has a huge parliamentary majority to support his ideas.

39. Rex Tillerson

Oil swell

As chief executive of ExxonMobil, the largest non-state energy company on the planet, Rex Tillerson is the quintessential villain of the
environmental camp. Since taking over the company in 2006, he has abandoned his pre­decessors' hardline approach, openly acknowledging the possibility of global warming - this year, he sanctioned a $600m investment in ­algae fuel research - but even this is a drop in the ocean of Exxon's oil reserves. He stands firm on saying that energy demand will increase in the next 20 years, and that Exxon will supply the oil and gas to satisfy that need.

40. Usain Bolt

Mr Lightning

Usain Bolt is the fastest man on earth. His tauntingly casual stride across the finishing line has become one of the resonant images of the 21st century: his yellow Jamaica vest alone at the front of the pack. He is now recognised as the most extraordinary athlete in the world, ever. His success, combined with his humour and popularity, has reignited the world of athletics and the Olympic Games, tainted in recent years by drug scandals. Bolt's performance signals the end of US dominance in track and field sports. But most of all, he has shown the peak of physical ability - a human being at the limit of his bodily powers.

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?


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