Show Hide image

The mutating terror threat: what do the Charlie Hebdo attacks mean for Britain?

Jihadis increasingly favour less sophisticated attacks on western soil. The danger to Britain is real and significant.

Blasphemy in the UK. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Among the more than 2,000 European jihadis fighting in Syria and Iraq, approval of the Paris terror attacks was universal and emphatic. “The people in the west learned an important lesson,” tweeted a Dutch fighter, Abu Saeed AlHalabi. “Your government can’t protect you when al-Qaeda puts you on their hit-list.”

A British militant with the nom de guerre Hudheyfa Al Britani warned that Muslims should not express sympathy with any of the 17 people murdered at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Montrouge or the Parisian kosher supermarket. “Any Muslim who attends the JeSuisCharlie solidarity march in Paris is a murtad [apostate],” he wrote on Twitter. A second Dutch jihadi, Abou Shaheed, urged people to follow the example of Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, the brothers who attacked the French magazine, and to “terrorise the enemies of Allah”. Shaheed also called for strikes against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (which, like Charlie Hebdo, published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad) and against the anti-Muslim Dutch politician Geert Wilders.

The three European fighters quoted above are all members of Islamic State (IS), yet the attack against Charlie Hebdo has been linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap). There is a necessary backstory here. The two terror groups have been engaged in a fratricidal war ever since IS declared its independence from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda (of which Aqap is a regional division). Leaders of both organisations have frequently condemned each other while their members have fought it out on the ground.

IS has made no official statement about the attack on Charlie Hebdo. But the views of two more of its British fighters offer insight into the thinking of the group’s foot soldiers. Abu Qaqa, originally from Manches­ter, tweeted that what mattered was not who murdered the Char_lie Hebdo cartoonists, only that they had been killed.

Talking to me on Kik, a chat application for smartphones, Omar Hussain, 27, a former Morrisons security guard from High Wycombe, said: “I’m not fussed whether it’s done under the banner of Aqap or Isis. As long as the kafir [infidel] has been killed, that’s what counts. Killing a kafir who insults the Prophet is a praiseworthy deed.”

In this context the importance of avenging perceived insults against the Prophet Muhammad transcends even the most bitter institutional rivalries. That much seems clear from the twin attacks in Paris. When the Kouachi brothers fled to the outskirts of the French capital on 9 January, Amedy Coulibaly stormed a supermarket and killed four Jewish people.

It remains unclear how co-ordinated the two events were, but at the least Coulibaly was acting in support of the Kouachis. While the brothers told staff at Charlie Hebdo that they were acting on behalf of Aqap, Coulibaly separately declared his allegiance to IS in a video statement. Rather than this being a joint attack between the two groups, it is worth noting that Coulibaly was a long-standing friend of both the Kouachi brothers, underscoring the importance in terrorist activity of social bonds over self-identified institutional links.

Coulibaly’s common-law wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, is believed to have travelled in early January to Syria, where foreign fighters often punish those deemed to be insulting Muhammad or dishonouring Islam in other ways. “Today we lashed a guy for cursing God, 80 lashes but if he do [sic] it again a bullet!” as Shaheed, the Dutch militant in Syria, wrote on Twitter shortly before the Kouachis and Coulibaly were killed by French police.

In 2014, a British jihadi who calls himself Mujahid Sayyad, who previously attended Queen Mary, University of London, uploaded a video to Facebook that appeared to show several members of his group torturing a member of the Free Syrian Army. The man is bound in a car tyre and turned over to expose the soles of his feet, which are then beaten with a pole. He protests his innocence throughout but is kicked in the head and hit with the baton so hard that it eventually breaks.

Sayyad explained that the man “swore at Allah”, so “there was no stopping us”. He claims their leader had ordered them to teach the man “a lesson”.

For Hussain, the fighter from High Wycombe, it is not just blasphemers who need to be targeted. Settling scores is equally important. He told me he would urge “all Muslims in the west to follow suit” following the Paris attacks and that it is obligatory “to kill the British soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan”.

This chimes with his previous public statements. Last October, Hussain featured in an IS propaganda video calling on British Muslims to “rise up” and “cause terror in the hearts of infidel communities”.

These are precisely the sentiments that worry Andrew Parker, director general of the Security Service (MI5). In a speech to the Royal United Services Institute in London on 8 January, Parker outlined the tangible and significant threat that Islamist terrorists continue to pose.

Syria is the global crucible of jihad today, the arena from which international attacks are both directed and inspired. The crisis there has almost certainly extended the terrorist threat to our shores for a generation – if not two. That might seem alarmist, but consider the scale. Since October 2013, “There have been more than 20 terrorist plots either directed or provoked by extremist groups in Syria,” Parker says. That is more than one a month over the past 15 months. Prosecutors have secured on average three convictions a month for terrorism-related offences in the UK since 2010. Three terrorist plots have been disrupted in the past few months alone.

And while the terrorist threat is intensifying once again, it is also mutating. Jihadi groups are now favouring less sophisticated attacks than before: these are harder to detect and require fewer participants. The most significant strikes on western soil in recent months – in Canada, France and Australia – have all involved gunmen operating either alone or in small groups.

It is almost impossible to stop such attacks. They do not require much preparation and demand little reconnaissance. Guns are also unnecessary; so the relative difficulty of acquiring them in Britain, compared to some other western countries, is no guarantee of security.

As the brutal murder in 2013 of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south-east London, demonstrated, everyday items – knives, a meat cleaver – can be used as instruments of war. Nor was this the first time such an attack was carried out on British soil. Three years earlier, in May 2010, Roshonara Choudhry, a university dropout from New­ham, east London, attempted to kill her local member of parliament, Stephen Timms.

Choudhry stabbed Timms because of his support for the Iraq war. He was fortunate to survive but the symbolic repercussions of the attack reverberated: here was a British MP being targeted because of the way he had voted in the Commons.

This is the mercurial threat with which MI5 and its partners must now contend. There is no shortage of ungoverned spaces abroad where young British men might receive the training they need to orchestrate a successful attack here. Syria and Iraq naturally seem like the most likely origins of such a threat, but one must also consider Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and parts of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

What can we learn from the Paris attacks? To start with, we need to analyse the nature and origin of the jihadis’ beliefs. Much has been written of the supposedly “offensive” and “provocative” nature of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. “Don’t lampoon the Prophet of Islam,” its detractors seem to suggest, “and you won’t be harmed.” This echoes the argument that led to western disengagement from the Middle East and to our relegation to the position of spectators who can only observe impotently while the region implodes at the hands of robed rogues. “Don’t interfere in the Middle East and the jihadis will leave us alone,” went the conventional wisdom as IS began to overrun large parts of Iraq and Syria. Subsequent events have disproved this.

It is true that Saïd and Chérif Kouachi may have taken offence at the cartoons of Muhammad published by Charlie Hebdo but that is not what inspired their attack. The best indication of what actually motivated them comes from their own words during their murder spree: “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad.”

That process of vengeance explains what the Kouachi brothers were attempting to do. They were seeking not to register a protest, nor to vent their anger at pictures they believed to be offensive, but to impose on the Parisian cartoonists their understanding of the Islamic punishment for blasphemy. Viewed this way, it was an act in pursuit of utopia – of the “idyllic” Islamist society to which the Kouachis aspired – where blasphemers are punished with death.

The attacks in Paris perfectly capture the Islamist impulse to push against the normative values of European society. We have been here before. More than a decade ago Theo van Gogh was killed in the streets of Amsterdam for producing a film that questioned the status of women in Islam. In 2010, Kurt Westergaard, a cartoonist with Jyllands-Posten who drew the most contested of the Muhammad caricatures, narrowly escaped murder after an axe-wielding intruder burst into his house. Months after that attack failed, the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks was assaulted at Uppsala University as he tried to show scenes from a feature film showing Muhammad at a gay bar.

Such reactionary attitudes are not limited to the European mainland but also run deep in many parts of British Muslim life. Almost exactly a year before the Paris attacks, Maajid Nawaz, a prospective parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats and counter-extremism campaigner, tweeted the most innocuous of cartoons depicting Muhammad. The image, from a popular cartoon strip known as Jesus and Mo, featured a stick-figure Jesus saying “Hey” to Muhammad, who replies: “How ya doin?”

By tweeting the image, Nawaz was saying that he did not find it offensive and that “God is greater than to be threatened by it”. God may well have risen above it but his self-appointed British vicegerents certainly did not. Mohammed Shafiq, who leads the Ramadhan Foundation in Manchester, initiated a torrent of abuse against Nawaz. “Tweeting the J&M [Jesus and Mo] cartoons is abysmal,” he declared. “Just appalling.”

An intense campaign of intimidation followed. Petitions and emails directed at the Liberal Democrats urged them to drop Nawaz as a PPC. Shafiq also threatened to “notify all Muslim organisations in the UK of his [Nawaz’s] despicable behaviour and also notify Islamic countries”. Nawaz lost count of the subsequent death threats, although Shafiq has always insisted that he never intended to incite any physical harm against him.

The reference to “notifying” Islamic countries in the context of that episode is particularly important to consider here, not least because both Nawaz and the creator of the Jesus and Mo cartoon strip live in Britain. What concern should it be of any foreign power what free citizens do in their own country?

Blasphemy has long been the concern of foreign despots seeking to project legitimacy. This was memorably highlighted in 1989 when the Iranians issued their fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, but it was not an isolated incident of religious establishments seeking to silence creative expression.

Laws against blasphemy exist across large parts of the Muslim world, often with draconian punishments for offenders. A report published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union in 2013 found that apostates or blasphemers can receive the death penalty in 13 countries, all of them Muslim: Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, the Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Even while the Paris manhunt was still under way, Saudi Arabia began punishing a liberal blogger, Raif Badawi, with a sentence of 1,000 lashes and ten years’ imprisonment plus a fine of £175,000, supposedly for insulting Islam. Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, told the Guardian, “The Saudi government is behaving like Daesh [a pejorative Arabic acronym for Islamic State].”

This is where the distinction between our allies – such as the Saudis – and our opponents such as IS breaks down. Both operate a policy of strict liability towards any perceived insult against Islam or the Prophet. They are not the only ones.

For 16 years the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, now the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC), has repeatedly attempted to pass resolutions at the United Nations prohibiting the “defamation” of religion. It is hard to see how this amounts to anything more than an international anti-blasphemy law.

In Pakistan in 2011, when the then governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, dared to suggest reform of the blasphemy laws, he was assassinated by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri. Perhaps most depressing is the realisation that it was Qadri, not Taseer, who was hailed as a national hero after the incident. “The killer of my father,” Aatish Taseer recalled in an article for the Telegraph, “was showered with rose petals.”

Some British Muslim communities are deeply invested in such cases. At the time of his murder, Taseer had been campaigning on behalf of a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who had been accused of blasphemy. The case was very polarising in Pakistan and when the complainant suggested he might not pursue charges against Bibi, it was a British organisation, the Khatm-e-Nubuw­wat Academy (the phrase means “finality of the Prophet”), which convinced him otherwise. Pakistan’s Express Tribune reported that some Khatm-e-Nubuwwat members flew to Pakistan to ensure that Bibi would be “chased through hell” and they helped pay for the prosecution lawyers.

That kind of attitude has persisted for decades. When the original fatwa on Rushdie’s life was issued, almost all the leading British Muslim organisations of the time endorsed the sentiment. Iqbal Sacranie, who later became the leader of the Muslim Council of Britain and was knighted in 2005, said: “Death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him . . .” In more recent interviews Sacranie has said he has since recanted that view. There is no reason to doubt him but the damage is already done.

In both cases previously mentioned, in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, religious groups or leaders played a role but the source of persecution was the state. Indeed, it is principally Muslim states that heat the febrile international climate surrounding Islamic attitudes towards apostasy. This is why they have tried to introduce legislation to censure and stifle all forms of debate regarding Islam. Even though those attempts have failed, at home they routinely crush satirists, reformers, dissenters­ and apostates.

So, it comes as little surprise that satirical depictions of the Prophet Muhammad have repeatedly occasioned global convulsions of splenetic fury. In such an atmosphere, who from within the Muslim world could legitimately tell terrorists not to kill the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo?

Shiraz Maher is a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
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