The day that nobody would take charge

Terror in America - In the hours after the hijackings, the Bush administration seemed to de

Perhaps it was the devilish cleverness of Tuesday's concerted attacks which so took America by surprise. A couple of miles across the river from me, palls of smoke rose all day from the wreckage left after American Airlines flight 77 sliced through the Pentagon; instead of the skies above being full of commercial planes and helicopters, the stillness was broken only by the occasional clattering military helicopter or F-16 thundering overhead. The birds, apparently surprised by unaccustomed freedom, were in full song; walk down leafy 31st Street and there, at its corner with M, you would see a US army armoured personnel carrier dramatically waiting for some unknown, unspecified enemy. America was at war - but it did not yet quite know why, or with whom.

But by the end of that first day, America had lost its innocence; its inner insouciance that its lands were inviolate from foreign attack gone for ever. More than 30,000 died in one day's battle in the civil war, and 2,400 were killed in the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941. But that was all in faraway Hawaii, and half a century before America became the world's unchallenged superpower. Throughout Tuesday, there was a slow, steady moan of stunned surprise that gradually metamorphosed into roars of outrage and anger. Twelve hours after flights UA175 and AA11 were steered into the two 110-story World Trade Center buildings in Manhattan, the nation began to realise that thousands of Americans lay dead beneath rubble in New York and Washington, and that a) they were impotent to do anything about it, and b) the weapons of living people used so diabolically might just as well have been missiles launched from overseas.

Thus the impossible had happened. America had become like other countries Americans watched on the news. The 43rd president, facing his first real test after eight months in office, seemed like a rabbit caught in headlights, such was his fear and incomprehension over what had happened: some dusty cold war manual over what to do in a national emergency was brought out, and Bush was whisked on Air Force One (flanked by two close-escort F-15s and one F-16) from Sarasota, Florida (where he had been reading books to schoolchildren), to a US air force base in Shreveport, Louisiana, to an underground nuclear bunker command post at Offutt in Nebraska, before doing what he should have done immediately: head straight back to Washington to address the nation. Only then, after a day in which the Bush administration seemed to have deserted the country, did the people hear what they so desperately wanted to hear from their president: "Our military's powerful, and it's prepared." And the US, he said, "will make no distinction between the terrorists who commit these acts and those who harbour them".

In the meantime, the television stations had moved the country up several gears of hysteria as they always do; their job is to create a sense of threat, but this time they needed no manufactured ingredients. Weeping parents were summoned to bring frightened children home from school; one usually sane mother I know announced that as Washington clearly faced imminent nuclear attack, she would drive her family to Rehoboth Beach on the eastern seashore. A DC radio station announced that it had just seen a passenger plane roaring out on an unauthorised take-off at Washington's Reagan National Airport. And still the birds kept singing, less than a mile from the White House where the US military had been ordered to go on full-scale "Delta" alert.

What makes an attack of this kind so incomprehensible and unbearable to Americans is an unwavering belief that, in the words of Bush on Tuesday night, the country "was targeted because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world". The US is a force only for good in the world; Americans simply can't make a connection between their country's Middle East policies, say, and ardent, even murderous, opposition to those policies in other parts of the world. Few here can grasp that suicide bombers genuinely believe in the rightness of a jihad, and are willing to martyr themselves to subvert America's burgeoning domination.

Thus - until last Tuesday - America was a place dreamily set apart, a mighty fortress of strength unsullied by the grubby realities other countries in the rest of the world have to face. Geographically, it was protected on either side by two of the worlds' great oceans; militarily, it was unchallengeable. And yet all that went by the board when four fuel-laden passenger planes were hijacked on Tuesday, and no number of trillion-dollar Star Wars policies would have made the slightest difference. Mighty America was foiled by a small number of determined martyrs, careless even to leave flight-training manuals in Arabic behind in Boston.

By Tuesday night the anger and the demand for bloodlust was palpable. A teenage boy visiting my home announced he was willing to go down to hunt and kill those behind the strikes; by Wednesday morning, polls showed that 80 per cent of the country was willing to go to war. But with whom? And at whom would those waiting $1m-a-time Cruise missiles be aimed? The country's media collectively decided that Osama Bin Laden was responsible, and Bush's declared willingness to pursue "those who harbour" the terrorists seemed to give the green light for US - and "allied" forces (we can bet our bottom dollar that Britain will play a symbolic role, magnified beyond all reality by the British media) - to pound the already wretchedly deprived people of Afghanistan.

Inside Washington power circles, the finger-pointing, too, had already begun. The unimpressive performance of the Bush administration was the first subject of whispers that were only sotto voce in the circumstances; not a single representative of the government appeared live before the people on television until the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, materialised, more than nine hours after the first plane struck.

Bush made it known at least three times that he had been in consultation with Dick Cheney - as though he was the man in charge - but Cheney never appeared. Only the secretary of state, Colin Powell, stranded in Latin America, looked sufficiently unfazed and in control of himself to take charge. It took Karen Hughes, perhaps Bush's closest adviser, to appear before the cameras in the middle of the afternoon; compared with a president apparently taking orders from his manual-reading secret service men, she looked positively presidential. By contrast, meanwhile, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Governor George Pataki were constantly willing to put their heads above the parapets and before the cameras amid the rubble of New York.

That initial stunned grief seemed almost palpably to deepen as the monstrousness of such deliberate violence sunk in, gradually giving way to anger and outrage; the next stage, and Bush's great test, will inevitably come when rampant aggression takes over. It will be days, if not weeks, before all the bodies are cleared and the funerals held - and, during that period, demands for Bush to take decisive action will only intensify. The problem for US intelligence is that it knows next to nothing about Osama Bin Laden's whereabouts; it once had the capacity to eavesdrop on his sophisticated network of communications, but has now totally lost that.

In the intelligence community, this failure in itself is already becoming a subject of furious (again, sotte voce) finger-pointing. Bin Laden may well be being sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan; he equally well may not be. US intelligence still has little idea who Ramzi Yousef, the man convicted of attempting to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 and now spending the rest of his life in a maximum-security prison in Colorado, actually is: he may be a disciple of Osama Bin Laden, but not even his nationality or real name are actually known despite lots of probing. Whether US intelligence is actually able to supply the Bush administration with the kind of information it now needs, therefore, is - at the very least - an open question.

It will certainly assuage the mounting American bloodlust if Kabul and "suspected mountain hideaways" of Osama Bin Laden are now subjected to unprecedented aerial poundings from the US (and, yes, its "allies") - but without good and sure-footed intelligence, the result will only be to inflict more terrible agony on one of the world's poorest countries by its richest. The real test of George W Bush's character therefore now comes: will he take the easy path by ordering dramatic military action without the intelligence needed to plan or justify it, or will he be able to restrain himself in the face of increasingly insistent demands just to make fearsome retaliatory strikes against someone, somewhere? It has all been bad enough so far, but it could yet become even worse.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the open society?

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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