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The elephant and the lone star

The message from Barack Obama’s victory in the 2012 election was that Latino America holds the balance of power. But in Texas, it seems — despite Bush’s best efforts — that hasn’t yet sunk in to Republican minds.

Eddi Regolado still cries when he hears the national anthem: not that of his native Nicaragua, from which he fled with his family during the long civil war when he was seven, but of his new and adoptive home, the United States of America. He and his family settled in Texas in the state capital, Austin, but the citizenship process was arduous. It took Regolado nearly 20 years to naturalise but he doesn’t mind. “Every single member of my family loves the US,” he says. “We’re proud to be here.”

He works two and a half blocks north of the state capitol building in Austin – practically in the shadow of its hulking red dome – as the general manager at El Mercado, an airy and pleasant Mexican eatery. Over chalupas (a sort of stuffed taco shell salad) and margaritas, he tells me he still feels nostalgic about Nicaragua. “Going back is like going to my mother’s house. America is like, our wife. But it’s good to see Mother from time to time.”

Regolado is a Democrat. His parents are Democrats. Pretty much his whole family votes Democrat. He says Latinos lean that way because the Democrats “tend to help out more with immigration. When you’re new, from a different country – how do I put this? – a lot of families have a hard time assimilating. The Democrats help out with that. It’s not loyalty, exactly, but that’s why they tend to vote the way they do.”

He feels the Democrats are just making more of an effort to reach his community. “All the minorities, really.”

He thinks that as the Latino population of Texas increases in size, there will be a process of realisation of power for his community, a realisation that engagement with the political system can help Latinos get their voices heard. If they wake up in this way – and if the Republicans continue to alienate Regolado and his family in the way they are doing – at some point soon the Democrats could take Texas. Here’s how important this is: in a presidential election, Texas has 38 electoral college votes, the second most of any state, behind only California. If the Democrats turn Texas, that’s it for the Republicans. Game over. Lights out. Unless the Republican Party reforms beyond all recognition, there might never be a Republican president ever again.

***

Texas was annexed from Mexico by colonists from the US in the 1830s, birthing the short-lived independent Republic of Texas after a short but bloody conflict, the most famous battle of which was the Alamo in 1836. It was pretty much the last battle Texas lost, a massacre of 187 troops holed up inside a mission in San Antonio, routed by General López de Santa Anna’s army of more than 5,000. Outside the capitol building, two blocks from El Mercado, is a statue commemorating the heroes of that battle. The fight begat a rallying call that Texan patriots remember to this day: “Remember the Alamo!”

In some parts of the population, especially among the older white males and especially in more rural areas, there is a kind of inherited memory that still attaches great importance to the Battle of the Alamo. They see Texas as a white bastion, and their sense of the loss of the 1836 republic, a sense that in some intangible way they are being overrun, is a powerful political force. It most often emerges in the form of an obsession with policing the borders and finding and deporting illegal immigrants.

During last year’s presidential election, to avoid being outflanked on the right by competitors such as Herman Cain and Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney engaged in antiimmigrant rhetoric, making much-criticised proposals about “self-deportation”. Unsurprisingly, Romney’s support among Hispanics on election day was catastrophically low, 44 points behind Barack Obama – yet he was seen as a moderate candidate by current Republican standards.

“I’m not in the crystal ball business,” says Bill White, a former mayor of Houston and Democratic gubernatorial candidate who ran against Rick Perry for governor of Texas in 2010 and who, despite losing overall, received a greater share of the vote than any Democrat in the state’s history. “But if the Republican Party continues on its present course, then they will become a minority party in Texas.”

Latinos today make up 38 per cent of the electorate in Texas, a proportion that is growing swiftly, but they are under-represented in the Republican Party; out of a GOP delegation of 95 in the Texas House of Representatives, only three are Hispanic, while Latinos form an absolute majority of the Democratic delegation: 29 out of 55. This is a good sign for the Democrats. Latino voters represent a segment of the population that is increasing sharply both in size and in political engagement, and the Republican Party seems hellbent on alienating them.

Professor Mark Jones, who chairs the political science department at Rice University in Houston, warns that the Democrats can’t just wait for the demographic shift to come to them. “If the Democrats sit back and do nothing, they’re depending on the Republicans continuing to commit the same errors they’ve been making up until now,” he says. “The worst-case Democrat scenario is, they do nothing, and the Republicans bite the bullet and kick the immigration issue. If that happens, then the Republicans can cling on to dominant status here for 20 to 30 years.”

But, Jones says, if the Republicans don’t rid themselves of their anti-immigrant rhetoric, even if Democrats continue to sit back and do nothing, the state could shift sooner than that: perhaps within 15 years. “The third scenario, the best-case scenario for Democrats, is that Republicans continue the same way – adopting a very hard line on immigration; allowing that to dominate the image of the party – while Democrats get their act together and do a good job of mobilising and registering Hispanics. Then we could see a shift even sooner: in, say, eight years.” That means Texas would flip to the Democrats more or less “by the end of the decade”.

***

In the 2010 census, Texas had grown sufficiently to merit the addition of four seats in Congress – the number of federal senators is fixed at two per state regardless of size but the House of Representatives uses a metric based on population. That growth was almost exclusively in the Hispanic population.

However, it is important to note the differences within that community. National political strategists have usually lumped all Hispanic interests together, but this is wrong. Even at a casual glance, the Mexican-American population is very different from the Cuban Americans, who lean more conservative. Most of the Republican Party’s highprofile Hispanic candidates: Marco Rubio in Florida, Ted Cruz in Texas – candidates on whom the party pins its hopes for winning over the entire Latino community – are Cuban-American and will struggle to win over the Hispanic voting bloc en masse. To win the primary for his Senate race, Cruz ran to the right on many issues that the Latino community finds troubling, promising to build a wall at the border, for instance, and to triple the size of the border patrol. This has not found him favour with many Latino voters. Eddi Regolado, for one, says that he thinks they would be much more likely to support a white Democratic presidential candidate such as Hillary Clinton than someone like Cruz or Rubio.

“It’s interesting in Texas that the reputation of the state is [that] it’s overwhelmingly Republican,” says Joe Holley, the political editor of the Houston Chronicle. “And yet every one of its big cities are Democratic.” To some extent, Texas has always been a oneparty state, and it was actually a Democratic stronghold from the Reconstruction era – the 1860s and 1870s – right up until the 1980s, as Holley explains. It gradually began to change in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and by the 1990s Texas was still a one-party state, but that was now the Republican Party.

Now, once again, the demographic change is slowly loading weight back on the other side of the see-saw.

“This is sort of, in kind of a quirky way, the second Texas Revolution,” says Holley, smiling. “And this time, the Mexicans are going to win.”

***

Jon Greene teaches English as a foreign language in downtown Houston, and he invites me to sit in with him on the course. It’s a chilly Thursday night, the last lesson of the term. There are ten people here, some young and some old, all Hispanic. Immigration is a sensitive subject in Texas, so the status of the students – illegal or legal – is off the table, as are names. I will lend some of the classmates a nom de guerre for the purposes of this article. The class is split about half and half between those of Mexican and El Salvadorean origins. Most say they came to America looking for work, or as children with their parents doing the same. A few of the El Salvadoreans say they came fleeing violence; a civil war raged in El Salvador from 1979 to 1992.

Many are educated professionals in their country of origin but struggle to find work in the US – one, Sofia, a lawyer back in Mexico, has been working as a babysitter. Many of the students are here because speaking English helps in the search for work, but many are also here to help them communicate with younger, more integrated members of their families. Cristina, who came to the US in 1980, is one of the latter: her daughter is an opera singer and her son is a trainee journalist, and for both of them their first language is English.

I ask a few questions about politics. Greene, their teacher, had warned me that the English of some of the students was pretty basic, but we make impressive progress as the class warms to the subject.

After introductions, we go around the room namechecking highprofile Hispanic politicians. Many of them talk about Adrian Garcia, the popular sheriff of Harris County in metropolitan Houston. Rick Perry, the Republican governor, gets short shrift, but the Castro brothers – Joaquin and Julián, the former the new congressman for the 20th district of Texas and the latter the mayor of San Antonio, whose keynote speech at last year’s Democratic National Convention gave him a public profile across the country – are warmly approved. Maria cites the appointment to the Supreme Court of Sonia Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican, as another sign of a Hispanic political awakening.

“This is the first time a black person stands for president,” says Juana, from Mexico. “Maybe next time, a Hispanic?”

“Maybe a woman, too?” Cristina shoots back. Grins of female solidarity dart across the room. Some of the men – somewhat unwisely – giggle. Sofia the lawyer snaps at them in Spanish, and the debate descends into a lively row.

I ask if any of them is a particular fan of the Republican Party. That makes everyone go quiet. There is a long silence, broken by a cough. Cristina shakes her head slowly. How about Romney? “He don’t like the Hispanic people,” says Rafael, one of the younger El Salvadoreans. There are murmurs of agreement. “I vote for Democrats. I’m a Democrat,” Cristina says. The other classmates nod their assent.

***

The following day, as the storm cloud that has been hanging over Houston for days finally breaks into torrential rain, I drive out to an adjunct tower block near the Rice University campus to meet Steve Murdock, the director of the Hobby Centre for the Study of Texas, a professor of sociology, a former official state demographer for Texas and, before that, the director of the US Census Bureau.

Murdock, as his background would imply, is a man who loves his data. My interview with him involved the prolonged viewing of no fewer than 120 charts and visualisations showing projections of the Hispanic populations of Texas and the US. As he says to me with a grin when I sit down: “You have to watch out for a demographer – they always want to show you data.”

The numbers are staggering. In the age group 65 and over, there are many more Anglos – a Southern slang term for non-Hispanic whites – than Hispanics: 67.6 per cent to 20.5. But as age descends, the ratios switch over. In the 35-to-39 age group they are about equal and by the time you get to the under-fives there are considerably more Hispanics than Anglos – 50.6 per cent to 31.7 per cent. In total, Hispanics account for 48.3 per cent of the under-18s in the state and that figure is rising. By the time the current cohort of children is of voting age, Hispanics will be the majority in Texas.

“You really have, in the US, two populations,” says Murdock, as lightning streaks the sky outside: “an ageing set of non-Hispanic whites, whose fertility has been below replacement for over 20 years, and a young and growing minority population.”

Texas and other states that have had high levels of Hispanic immigration, such as California, are some decades ahead of the curve, yet the census data shows a similar trend in the US as a whole. “[What we’re seeing is] one of the largest changes to occur in US history in terms of broad changes in ethnic composition,” Murdock says.

He shows me another graph, this time of projections of the US population out towards 2050. It shows a dramatic shift. The non-Hispanic white population rises just seven million, from 196 million to 203 million. The Hispanic population, however, nearly quadruples, from 36 million to 133 million. The difference in percentage change is enormous. In Texas, the projection is even starker. Assuming zero net migration, the population of Texas will be majority Hispanic – just – by 2030. Assuming the same net migration as in the years 2000-2010, that will happen before the end of the decade, and the projection is that by 2050 Texas will have nearly three times as many Hispanics as Anglos – although, because that figure includes the under-18s, the switch-over from minority to majority in terms of the electorate will happen a little while later. Murdock is the first to note that long-term projections can be shaky – there is a wide margin of error at play – but according to even his most conservative estimates, the change is inevit able. “Demographically,” he says, “we’re not looking with much question at what the future is going to be.”

***

Demographics are different from politics. While the former may be changing swiftly and unstoppably, working out how this will affect the latter is a more complex endeavour. By no means should we take it for granted that a rising Hispanic population will lead to a corresponding rise in the Democrat vote – and the Democrats have been blasé in their approach to Texas.

I ask Mark Jones at Rice if that attitude on the left is matched by a disbelief on the Republican side that they could ever lose Texas. “I think the Republican pragmatists get it,” he says. “Even privately, some of the right wing gets it; they just don’t want to say it publicly. But the problem they run into is convincing those people who vote in primaries, some of the real activists, who either don’t believe it – they just don’t see a linkage between their rhetoric and the Hispanic vote – or who believe Latinos are all hooked on welfare and they’re never going to win them over.”

Maria Baños Jordan is the executive director of the Texas Latino Leadership Roundtable, a group that aims to foster and encourage leadership and political engagement in the Latino community. She is of mixed Hispanic origin. Her father was a Cuban refugee who came to the US in the early 1960s after the rise of Fidel Castro; her mother was a Mexican immigrant. They met in Houston.

“I grew up in the change, in the time where Houston started to really just explode, and the population started to become more diverse. When I was a little girl, I was the only Latina in my class. So I know what that felt like, and I know what it felt like to be questioned about your culture, and your behaviours and your tradition.”

Today, by contrast, the public school system in Texas is overwhelmingly Hispanicmajority, a reflection of the changing demographics. In Houston, non-Hispanic whites account for just 7.8 per cent of enrolled students. Hispanic students account for 61.9 per cent. Jordan’s organisation, in parallel, has taken off in a big way in recent years. “The feel in Texas right now,” she says, “is that the state is ripe for more Latino leadership.”

I wonder why an established, resident and maybe second- or third- or even fourth-generation immigrant population still gets angry about legislation affecting new or illegal immigrants. “The immigration issue is such an emotional one,” Jordan says, “especially when there are so many families that are intermarried, whether documented or undocumented, or first-generation or second-generation.

“It’s not black-and-white. We all have close friends or relatives that have issues with immigration. We’re dealing with it on a daily basis, so we are very tied to it. And we know that the law’s the law, but we need to see respect and dignity brought into the conversation. And it just hasn’t gotten to that point yet.”

“To be honest,” says Eddi Regolado, “illegal immigration will never stop. People would rather take their chances than stay. A fence is not going to keep people out. This country was founded by immigrants. There has to be a way to help people.”

Hispanic-American support for the Democrats is not fixed; historically, it has fluctuated from election to election. Latinos came out in force in 2012 for Obama – 71 per cent of them voted Democrat, according to the Pew Research Centre, a level of support surpassed only in Bill Clinton’s 1996 race against Bob Dole, in which 72 per cent voted Democrat. But the Bushes, George and George W, clawed back a large part of the percentage point gap among Hispanics, so much so that where Obama was 44 points clear of Romney, George W Bush’s support in 2004 was just 18 points shy of John Kerry’s – still a big gap, but a much healthier margin.

Leonard Rodriguez, a San Antonio native, was partly responsible for this. He was George W Bush’s head of Latino outreach and later worked in the Bush White House as a strategist. It was Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, who first got him involved with garnering Latino support, and that was from the very beginning of the primary season, at the Iowa straw poll.

By contrast, Romney didn’t have anyone working on speaking to Latinos until much, much later in the campaign – by which time, Rodriguez tells me, it was “way too late” to push for any possible victory.

Even though Hispanics in Texas voted in higher numbers than was expected in 2012, and even though they voted overwhelmingly for Obama, there’s still a question as to when they will reach optimal force and influence and, more pertinently, whether the vote will be so dissipated when that happens that it will become no more or less significant than the Italian vote or the German vote. Republicans are hoping that, as the Latino community becomes more assimilated, it will vote less on immigration and more on social and economic issues – issues that Republicans hope they can use to strike a chord with Latinos as a socially conservative Catholic community that places high emphasis on family values. But those same values will also mean Hispanics identify Republicans as being “not for them” long after they have assimilated.

Bush continued to be sensitive to Hispanic Americans throughout his campaign, saying in a speech during a campaign stop in Texas in 2000: “Family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande River . . . People are coming to America because they are moms and dads trying to feed their children. As long as people are coming to feed their families, our country must be mindful that they’re human beings as well.” Just imagine a Republican candidate winning in the primaries today after giving a speech like that.

It didn’t stop after Bush’s victory, either. In 2001, one of his first actions as president was to change the custom of a new White House administration inviting the Canadian leader to be the guest at its first state dinner: Bush’s first state dinner was with the president of Mexico. “Compassionate conservatism” was to be at the heart of his administration’s domestic policy, and that meant credible immigration and domestic reform. At last, here was a conservative willing – even eager – to reach out to the Latino community.

“And then,” Leonard Rodriguez says, “we got hit with 9/11. No longer was that [domestic and immigration reform] agenda we’d been working on a top priority . . . since then, [Republicans have] been hijacked by this very right-wing, anti-immigrant dialect, and that’s one of the things the party’s been struggling with ever since.”

Maria Baños Jordan says that when Romney started to speak out against immigration and talk about imposing “self-deportation”, she “immediately know it was over. It showed that, whatever advice he was receiving, he was absolutely out of touch with what was happening across the nation.

“It was sad, in the sense that I felt that there were many Latinos waiting for someone to step up and speak to them with respect and in a way that translated, and at that point it was obviously not going to happen. And I don’t think he ever recovered.” T here is no doubt that it is the Republicans’ stance on immigration that is destroying them. At present, there is little discernible sign of interest in the party in doing anything about it.

Rodriguez is deeply saddened by this. “If you look at the structure of the Republican Party, I doubt they’ll go back to what Bush was trying to teach them, even when the party gets its leadership together. They’ll go back to the bad habits. I don’t expect that there’s going to be any Hispanic personnel in the next Republican Party.”

***

Towards the end of my time in Texas, I finally make the pilgrimage to San Antonio to see the Alamo. The shape of the old building – actually the original chapel, where the women and children took shelter – is instantly familiar. Outside, schoolchildren, most of them Latino, are gathering. A preacher, old and bearded and spitting vigorously, harangues the crowd. It is December but it is still very hot outside. A sign says “Welcome to the Alamo: the shrine of Texas liberty”.

Inside, it is cooler. Tourists study the displays of banners and scale models of the battle that are scattered about. I speak to one, a US army veteran and third-generation Mexican American who is visiting with his family. I ask what this place means to him, and he nods over his shoulder at the elderly white couple gazing at a glass case with Davy Crockett’s leather pouch in it.

“To a white Texan, it means everything,” he says. Then he asks if I can quote him anonymously. Yes, I say, absolutely.

“Me personally?” He leans in towards me conspiratorially. “I don’t give a shit about this place.”

Nicky Woolf is a contributing writer to GQ and reports for the New Statesman from the United States

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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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