When oil mixes with water: hydraulic drilling for fossil fuels is both opening up and changing the landscape around the world. Photograph: Enrique Marcarian/Reuters
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Fracking: the new gold rush

Can shale gas and fracking solve our energy crisis?

It’s a cold but sunny January day in Brighton, and Anna Dart looks like death. Equipped with a black shroud, white skull face and tinfoil scythe, she is leading the Sussex Extreme Energy Resistance protest outside HSBC in North Street. HSBC provides banking services to the “greedy corporate” entity (Dart’s words) Cuadrilla; in pursuit of Mammon, this energy firm is going to poison the water and our food, Dart says. To reinforce the point, her fellow protesters are dressed in toxic hazard suits and are handing out leaflets that warn of the “devastating” impact Cuadrilla’s fracking will have on England. Fracking is the process by which hydraulic fracturing of shale rock produces gas and oil.

Fracking is the new GM. As with genetic modification of crops, the issues are so complex that people are generally going with their gut. And their gut tells them that it’s a bad idea to break up the ground beneath our feet just so that we can get at more gas for generating electricity.

In case you needed more proof that Cuad - rilla is an evil empire, consider this. Less than a week after the Brighton protest, at a fracking site in Lancashire, Francis Egan tried to steal my pencil. Egan, Cuadrilla’s chief executive, wanted to draw me a graph of how the amount of gas that comes out of a well varies over time. I lent him the pencil, and a piece of paper. When we finished talking, he tucked the pencil – my best pencil, I might add – into his organiser. Not content with a plan to set Lancashire on fire with its own gas, not content to bring earthquake-related misery to Britain, the company has appointed a stationery thief as its CEO.

“I’m going to use that,” I tell him. “I’m going to tell the world you stole my pencil.”

Simon, the PR man, looks slightly worried. I can’t trust Simon either. I had coffee with three local activists earlier. Not only did they give a pantomime hiss when I said I was going to meet Egan, they said that PPS Group, the firm in charge of Cuadrilla’s PR (strap - line: “working in the tougher areas of communication”), has a history of dubious behaviour. When it comes to fracking, rumour, half-truth and paranoia are rife.

The devil wears Camper. To match the casual shoes, Egan is in blue jeans, a dark crewneck top and a black leather jacket. Inside the blue “meeting room” Portakabin at the Anna’s Road drilling site just outside Lytham, it is casual Friday. As he talks, he tugs frustratedly at his curly white hair. “All your questions have been about problems,” he says, putting down his Morrisons egg and cress sandwich and rocking back in his chair. “Not one has been about how we can make the most out of this.”

“This” is the shale gas bonanza. In September 2011, Cuadrilla announced that there is 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas trapped in the UK’s Bowland Shale, kilometres beneath the surface of Lancashire, just waiting to be brought to the surface and burned. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) asked its rock scientists – the British Geological Survey (BGS) – to rush out an independent estimate. The BGS said there was perhaps five or six trillion cubic feet.

The BGS has since revised its “back of a fag packet” calculations (in the words of Professor Michael Stephenson, head of energy services at the BGS) and DECC is about to release a fresh estimate. Stephenson won’t tell me what it is, and Egan doesn’t know. “I suspect it’s going to be higher than 200 trillion cubic feet,” Egan says. “I’m fairly confident our number was conservative.”

As it turns out, Egan might be right. In early February the Times reported that it had seen leaked figures from the BGS: the new estimate is reportedly between 1,300 and 1,700 trillion cubic feet. That’s a lot of gas, even assuming (as the BGS does) that we’ll get only 10 per cent of it out of the ground. By way of comparison, the world’s largest oilfield, the South Pars/North Dome field beneath Iran and Qatar, contains 1,235 trillion cubic feet of gas. Currently, North Sea production is at roughly 1.3 trillion cubic feet per year, so the Bowland Shale could possibly see us through the next century.

So, what are we going to do with it? One argument is that we should leave it in the ground for the climate’s sake. We are supposed to be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels. But let’s face it, no one is building nuclear reactors, nor has there been sufficient investment in green technologies to allow them to take the strain. It’s inevitable that we are going to keep burning gas for the foreseeable future. At least gas is cleaner than coal. And given that we import 1.8 trillion cubic feet of gas a year, often from autocratic states, if we’ve got our own, why not burn it?

We have only to look across the Atlantic to see the benefits. Gas from geological deposits of shale has revolutionised the US energy market. An abundance of shale gas has turned the US from a gas-importing nation into one that could soon be exporting the stuff. That’s partly because there is so much of it that the price has dropped through the floor; it’s becoming hard to make a profit as a fracking company just in the US.

The hub for this 21st-century gold rush is Texas, where a deposit known as the Barnett Shale could yield landowners as much as 30 trillion cubic feet of gas. “The Barnett Shale is pretty much the same as what we have in the north of England,” Stephenson says. “It’s the same age, and the same kind of rock.”

So, the theory goes, it probably has a lot of gas in it. Not that it’s straightforward to get at. The gas is trapped within the structure of the rocks at depths of up to five kilometres. You can drill down to the shale to open up a pipeline, but it’s not like opening a bottle of fizzy drink; the methane doesn’t suddenly flood upwards. That’s why you have to frack.

Fracking involves pumping a drill hole full of “fracturing fluid”, a mix of water, sand and chemicals that breaks up the rock to release gas. The gas flows into the pipe bore and rises to the surface, where it is collected into onsite tanks. Inevitably, it’s not that simple. You might have some gas, but you’ve also got millions of gallons of contaminated water coming up with it. When the Environment Agency analysed the “flowback” from one of Cuadrilla’s wells, it compared the contamination with permissible contamination levels of water from the mains. Arsenic was up to 20 times over the limit. There was 90 times the acceptable level of radioactive materials, 1,438 times the permissible lead levels and 2,297 times as much bromide as is allowed.

“It’s non-hazardous,” Egan says, straightfaced. “It’s not going to be a danger to anyone’s health.” He is pulling at those curls again. To be fair, that’s the Environment Agency’s assessment, too, because they classify flowback not as mains water, but as industrial waste. And compared to some industrial waste it is non-hazardous.

“The flowback is toxic; there’s no doubting that,” says Joseph Dutton, an energy policy researcher at the University of Leicester. “But then so is raw sewage. So is wastewater from food processing plants. The fact is, the technology exists to handle and clean it.”

It’s contradictions such as “non-hazardous” toxic waste that have created such a furore around fracking. Most of us live as if the gas we burn for electricity, heating and hot water comes from the fossil-fuel fairy. We don’t want to be confronted with the unsavoury facts about how it is produced. But we live in a new era: this extraction, if allowed, is going to take place in this country.

The Anna’s Road site lies a kilometre from one of Lytham’s largest housing estates. Ignoring the complexities and contradictions of our fossil-fuel addiction is a luxury that the residents of Lancashire no longer have. Their first concern is the ground beneath their feet. On 1 April 2011, Cuadrilla’s fracking operation caused an earthquake in the Blackpool area. Cuadrilla prefers the term “seismic event”, but let’s not argue over words just now. There was a second, smaller quake on 27 May. The BGS performed a study and said the epicentres were 500 metres from Cuadrilla’s Preese Hall well at Weeton, just outside Blackpool. Cuadrilla eventually conceded that the events were probably caused by its fracking and downed tools while the government commissioned a report into the risks.

The quakes were tiny: magnitude 2.3 and 1.5. “There have been several quakes bigger than that since – and no one reported them,” says Richard Davies of Durham University’s Energy Institute. Unless you live in Leicestershire, for instance, you probably don’t know that the Loughborough area has already suffered three similar quakes this year, with crockery-rattling magnitudes 2.4, 1.5 and 2.9. These were naturally occurring seismic events, probably caused by ground shifting around the county’s warren of mines.

“If we wanted to stop fracking on the basis of seismicity, we’d have to stop a lot of other things, too,” Davies says. “Mining and drawing geothermal energy, for instance. Compared with everything else, seismicity is fairly unimportant in fracking.”

Egan is realistic. He has finished his sandwich and has moved on to a tub of ready-cut melon. He peels back the film, stabs a piece – rather malevolently – and thrusts it into his mouth. “The seismic thing is a useful stick to beat the industry with,” he says. “It’s important that it doesn’t happen again.”

This makes a pleasing, if ironic, contrast with the local activists’ viewpoint. Pam is almost praying for another earthquake. “If it happens again it’ll be all over for Cuadrilla,” she says. There’s a lot of spark to Residents Action on Fylde Fracking (RAFF). Though all the RAFF committee members are retired, there is no lack of fight. “We’re so up for this,” says Ian, sipping a latte. Pam tells me about their exploits in lobbying the county council and organising packed information evenings at local village halls. Ian interrupts the flow of fighting talk to comment on the coffee shop’s background music. “Ooh, Chet Baker,” he says. “I love this.” So does Pam; she has the album, she says. I’m having coffee with the activist wing of Saga.

They’ve been dismissed as “nimby bumpties”, the “aboriginals of Lancashire” and “crazy tree-huggers”, but they are not cowed by the name-calling. They see themselves as well-informed citizens exercising their democratic right to question the actions of their local representatives. And they get results. Through their efforts (and, they would politely insist, the effort of many others), Lancashire County Council has told the government it wants “industry-specific regulation” of fracking, with frequent on-site inspections, rigorously enforced regulations and “considerable sanctions” for any breach of the rules. “We consider that a triumph,” Ian says.

So they should: the UK Energy Research Centre says there is “fierce public opposition” to fracking. Egan denies this; most people, he says, haven’t made up their mind. That may be because, for most people, it doesn’t matter what they think. For the people of Lancashire, though, it most certainly does.

Lancashire is sitting on what Egan calls “one of the largest gas discoveries ever made anywhere”. It is at this point that he starts telling me off for focusing on the negatives of getting gas out of the ground. So I ask him what’s in it for the people of Lancashire. His reply is a simple “Jobs, I hope”, and hardly rings with confidence. Especially given the wording of some of Cuadrilla’s planning applications: “Locally, the benefits of such a hydrocarbon exploration project are small.” Should the exploration be successful, “the employment of a small number of local people, depending upon the size of production operation, may result”.

“I don’t agree with that,” he says. The CEO is six months in post and clearly thinks he knows better than the people who drew up the firm’s planning applications. Egan notes my surprise and embarks on a motivational lecture. “I think Lancashire needs to be much more proactive,” he says. In his view, it’s not Cuadrilla’s job to make this work for Lanca - shire. “This isn’t Cuadrilla’s gas. This is the country’s gas. UK plc and Lancashire plc should be looking at this and saying, ‘How do we make the most out of this resource?’ Not: ‘Is Cuadrilla going to create jobs for us?’

“This is an opportunity for Lancashire. We can facilitate it. It needs some kind of co-ordination or drive, but if you look at Aberdeen or Houston, it isn’t, ‘What is this they’re doing to us?’”

Calming down a little, Egan explains that, if they want them, the people of Lancashire can have jobs as plumbers, electricians, engineers, accountants, architects and truck drivers. “Drilling is just high-class labouring,” he says, waving at the world outside the Portakabin. “These are basically construction sites.” Indeed. And, as with construction sites, things sometimes go wrong. My tour ends with us standing on a squash-court-sized bed of concrete in front of a neat, round, waterfilled hole. “This is where we’re going to drill next,” says Bob, the site manager. I casually point to the capped-off hole next to it.

“Is that the hole where you lost some stuff?” I ask. Bob nods. There is the briefest of pained winces as he remembers the equipment that dropped off the drilling rig. They could have carried on, he reckons, but the orders from on high were to fill and close the hole.

So far, Cuadrilla has drilled four holes in Lancashire and abandoned two. The other abandoned hole is at Preese Hall, where the “seismic event” deformed the well’s concrete casing. Though it didn’t break, and Cuadrilla re-cemented the deformed section, this is the nightmare scenario – a well that breaks, leaving fracking fluid or methane to find its way into aquifers and, eventually, the food chain. In the United States, there are claims that fracking has caused methane to leak into the water supply: the internet is awash with footage of people igniting their tap water with a cigarette lighter. The Fylde coast depends on tourism and agriculture, and the local people are justifiably concerned that their land and water sources remain uncontaminated. They want the government to protect them. So far, however, the government is not on their side.

In all the furore over fracking, the UK government might just be the least rational, most entrenched activist of all. It has chained itself to the idea that fracking is a route to lower gas prices. The Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Tory energy minister John Hayes have all talked of shale gas reducing household energy bills. Matt Ridley, the techno-optimist scientist and author, and Lord Browne, the former chairman of BP and the Cabinet Office lead non-executive (who coincidentally is also the chair of directors of Cuadrilla), have made similar claims. The only dissenting voice in the government comes from Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, who has made more effort than most to keep the enthusiasm under control.

This notion seems to have arisen from a naive application of US shale gas economics to the UK. UK shale gas will be sold into a gas market that is connected to the European market and the one for liquefied natural gas coming out of Africa. “It’s going to be a drop in a bucket,” says Jim Watson, director of research at the UK Energy Research Centre. “You’d have to discover huge amounts to have an effect on the global price.” That’s because, in order to get the best price for it, the gas goes into the central pool rather than being piped straight into a power station.

Cuadrilla reckons that its shale gas could “eventually” meet a quarter of UK demand – because it doesn’t know when production will start, or how it will scale up, it’s impossible to be more specific – but admits that’s not going to make a big difference.

“I don’t think we ever said it would be enough to change the gas price,” Egan says. In many ways, it doesn’t matter. The message is out there: cheaper gas through fracking is already a familiar energy trope that will help win public support.

The other issue is regulation. Having commissioned the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to compile a report on the risks of fracking, the government chose to ignore the main call from these bodies: for strong regulation before fracking proceeds.

The UK’s oil and gas regulations are not sufficient to cover fracking operations and there is little to no inspection regime in place. Residents Action on Fylde Fracking made a Freedom of Information request to the Health and Safety Executive in June last year and discovered that it had made just two visits to inspect Cuadrilla’s sites. Mark Miller, who directs the company’s operations in Lanca - shire, told the group that the HSE was inspecting for worker safety only – that hard hats and high-vis vests were worn; well integrity was not on the agenda.

“No one has ever checked the cement bonds of any of the four wells,” Pam says.

This comes as no surprise to Dutton. The Royal Society report highlighted well integ - rity as the most likely point of failure and recommended that the inspection regime for checking the wells be made the “highest priority”. But, Dutton says, DECC and HSE simply don’t have the resources to develop and implement a regulatory framework. “For me, that’s exactly what the environmental groups should be going on about,” he says.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of UK fracking is that so many educated people think the safety issues will take care of themselves. “We’ve got such good regulation in this country; it’s pretty unlikely we’d have a problem,” Stephenson says. The Commons select committee on climate change, which the Tory MP Tim Yeo chairs, shares his confidence. “We believe it is possible to construct a regulatory framework which will make fracking environmentally safe,” Yeo told me. “We’re quite good at that in this country.”

This national pride in Great British Regulation would be a lot easier to swallow if it wasn’t being raised at a time when we’ve discovered that up to 1,200 people may have been killed at the Stafford Hospital, and that thousands of supermarket beef dishes are composed largely of horse meat.

The age of austerity has cut the funding of supervisory bodies to the bone – bad news for those concerned about fracking regulation. The HSE’s inspectors for gas and oil installations are set up for the offshore industry and are based in Scotland, and have no funding or expertise to carry out onshore inspections. “They told me they don’t have the petrol money for making random visits to Lancashire,” says Mike Hill, a chartered engineer and Lytham resident who has spent years working in the oil and gas industry. “If you know no one is checking – and with fracking we do know no one is checking – the temptation to cut costs is too big to resist.”

Hill has delivered talks at academic conferences on shale gas, and he also advises Pam, Ian and Anna. He refuses to join RAFF – he’s not anti-fracking, he says, just pro-regulation. Of course the industry cuts corners where it can, he tells me. It’s not evil, exactly; it’s just that the safest way of doing things sometimes costs more money than companies with profit-hungry shareholders are willing to spend – especially when there’s no risk of being found out.

Francis Egan assures me that Cuadrilla has nothing to hide and no interest in cutting corners. “The HSE can come any time they like,” he says. “All that stuff you read about? We’re not doing any of it.” Cuadrilla will get one of its fracking sites up and running and people will finally see the truth, he reckons. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s what it looks like,’ and over time it will just become accepted.” He is convinced that fracking is seen as a danger because it’s new; that’s why coal is more accepted, even though it’s dirtier. It’s better the devil you know.

Michael Brooks is the author of “The Secret Anarchy of Science” (Profile Books, £8.99)

Update: 26 March. An earlier version of this piece stated that Mike Hill was retained as a technical advisor by Lancashire County Council. In fact, he acted as a "technical advisor" (unpaid) to the Fylde Council Task and Finish Group, who were looking into Cuadrilla's activities. He is no longer in that role.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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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