No pain, no gain

As Europe ensnares the PM just as it did his predecessors, Adam Boulton watches Gordon Brown talking

If not yet for peace, this Middle East envoy business already has its uses. A week or so ago, Tony Blair met Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss economic reconstruction for the Palestinians, et voilà!, a few days later the French president says that Blair would be an ideal man to be the first EU president. Now, Maggie and Gordon eat your hearts out, the Cameron and Blair offices are swapping dates for Mr Future and Mr Once to hold their own Levantine discussions. In fact, Euro-President Blair doesn't look like a runner, as it would take more euros than the EU could decently spare to entice him back to an interminable round of the closed-door European Council meetings he found so frustrating as PM.

Unlike Blair, who liked to arrive late and leave early, Gordon Brown was on a charm offensive in Lisbon this past week as he and fellow leaders agreed the treaty to amend EU institutions. Brown even arrived in time to attend the pre-Council gathering of European socialist leaders. The touting of Blair was a wake-up call for the new premier.

After ten years of an avowedly pro-European government in Britain, the EU is less popular with the British public than it was, and a source of pain, more than pleasure, for our political leaders. Brown, David Cameron and whoever ends up running the Liberal Democrat shop have not avoided this fate.

So why did Brown clear the diary so that between New Year and next Easter "parliament will have the opportunity to debate this amending treaty in detail and decide whether to ratify it"? Labour's calculation is that extended debate will hurt the Tories more than it hurts the government.

Brown's answer to the referendum question was to ignore it: in his statement on 22 October the "R word" did not pass his lips. Which won't hold in the lengthy Lords and Commons discussions when the Conservative calls for a referendum are put to the vote. Labour will continue to argue that the revising treaty is completely dif ferent from the constitutional treaty on which Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems all made manifesto pledges to hold a referendum. Detailed debate is likely to highlight similarities rather than differences between the two treaties. Brown reckons that he will avoid defeat because the passivity of the Lib Dems will cancel out the handful of pro-referendum rebels such as Gisela Stuart and Frank Field.

Scary sentences

But if it all goes wrong, there is already a convenient fall guy: David Miliband. Miliband's support for Brown, first articulated in the NS last year, was the key to securing the bloodless transition from Blair. Yet No 10 still regards him as the most likely potential rival. Taking the bill through parliament will be a major test for Brown's youthful Foreign Secretary.

So far, Miliband has been far from sure-footed in his new job. The eccentric delivery of his party conference speech last month left many baffled, as did his naive assertion that we live in a "scary world". Miliband seemed to be reaching for Blair-style informality, complete with glottal stops and verbless sentences, but it didn't work. His debut at the UN was no more successful. The government was forced to issue an official correction after he contradicted Britain's long-standing position on new Security Council members in an off-the-cuff TV interview. Speculation was heightened by his simultaneously patronising and petulant appearance before the Commons European scrutiny committee, which must have made him a lifelong enemy of its Labour chairman, Michael Connarty.

Miliband does not even have an efficiently functioning Foreign Office team to fall back on. Harmony there, and among Labour's ministerial team in the Lords, has been shattered by Brown's decision to appoint Mark Malloch Brown as Miliband's deputy. There is much resentment that Malloch Brown owes his job, his title, his salary and his London home entirely to his prime ministerial patron.

All this should provide rich pickings for Cameron. He says he wants the Europe debate to be about "the trust issue" - about Brown bottling a promised referendum, rather than exquisite detail such as the extension of qualified majority voting through the wonderfully named passerelle clause. The Tory leader admits that he faces a difficult few months, as his party will inevitably have to break his injunction against "banging on about Europe". Hardliners such as Norman Tebbit and John Redwood are already demanding a referendum pledge, even after the treaty has been ratified. Such an abrogation could unpick Britain's full membership of the EU.

Cameron is resisting this, while talking tough. "If we can hold a referendum, at the next election we will promise it," he said; but "the time for a referendum is now, while the treaty is still alive and being debated". Cameron does not want to jeopardise the ties he is slowly rebuilding to potential allies in Europe, especially Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, with whom he is sharing a stage in Berlin on 26 October at a conference of Germany's ruling CDU/CSU.

Meanwhile, the pressure for a referendum of some kind will grow. Ireland is having one. Denmark may follow. The Scottish government, the Eurosceptic millionaire Paul Sykes and villages such as Broughton Astley are all threatening to hold votes of their own. The Sun has put a referendum at the heart of its editorial policy, providing a possible pretext for decoupling its loyal support for the government.

Nor will the political pain end with the debate in parliament. The treaty is due to come into force in January 2009, ensuring that a new Council president and foreign minister, or rather "high representative", would be chosen next year. European Parliament elections take place in June 2009, an appetiser or side dish to a UK general election. If Brown delayed until 2010, he would have to appoint Peter Mandelson's replacement as EU Commissioner by September 2009.

Unlike the arcane treaty reforms, issues such as these are more easily grasped by the public. Brown is merely the latest prime minister to try to be sceptical at home but constructive in Brussels. The greater the scrutiny, the more difficult it is to pull off this Janus stance. If he gets to No 10, Cameron will find himself in a similar and even less comfortable position. Indeed, confrontation with Tory Europhobes may offer his most likely Clause Four moment.

The Liberal Democrats' call for a referendum on the bigger question of Britain's EU membership is merely a ruse to get them off the hook of their own treaty referendum pledge. That is one European referendum that the Euro-enthusiasts are more likely to win. Not for the first time, Lib Dem opportunism may turn out to be prescient. Sooner, in Brown's case, or later, in Cameron's, it may yet prove expedient to ask the voters the old question: "Britain - in or out?"

Adam Boulton is political editor of Sky News
Martin Bright is away

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

Show Hide image

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