Detail of David Wilkie's The Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch (1822). Image: Apsley House/The Wellington Museum/Bridgeman Images
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What the Battle of Waterloo teaches us about Europe today

The centenary of the First World War has reopened old wounds. Yet Germany and Britain once enjoyed a special relationship – as when they defeated Napoleon at Waterloo – and they could do so again.

The past few years have not been good for Anglo-German relations. The two countries have clashed repeatedly over the future of the European Union. A more robust London and a cautious – even appeasing – Berlin remain far apart on how to deal with threats as diverse as Islamic State/Isis in the Middle East and a resurgent Russia under Vladimir Putin. At the popular level, the start of a sequence of First World War anniversaries which will last until 2018 has reopened some of the old wounds. The question of responsibility for the conflict, which historians had long attributed largely to Germany, now rages anew with the publication of important and persuasive works on both sides of the Channel, including Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers, which spread the res­ponsibility more widely. And, of course, the Second World War remains omnipresent in British culture and popular memory.

However, the deadly “Anglo-German antagonism” – in Paul Kennedy’s resonant phrase – that so shaped the 20th century is of relatively recent provenance. For hundreds of years the British and the Germans enjoyed a special relationship.

The fate of central European Protestants was an important preoccupation for 16th- and 17th-century Englishmen and it played a decisive role in the downfall of the Stuarts. When Britons before the late 18th century spoke of “the empire”, they meant the Holy Roman empire – Germany – rather than their own overseas possessions. In the 19th century, British and German liberals were united in their opposition to tsarist autocracy and their belief in progress. Respect for German scholarship and music was more or less universal in Britain. Until shortly before the First World War, the two peoples thought of each other as kindred; the British often spoke of the Germans as “cousins”.

But the greatest symbol of the Anglo-German special relationship was the Personal Union of 1714. This brought George Louis, elector of the north German principality of Hanover, to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland, in order to provide a suitable Protestant, and non-Stuart, successor to Queen Anne, who had died without a surviving male heir. The 300th anniversary of this event has been somewhat eclipsed by the centenary of the First World War, but it was marked on 20 October with a service at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, organised by the British-German Association. The royal family was represented by the Duke of Kent and members of the British and German governments attended.

After 1714 Britain’s geopolitical horizons were delineated by two German rivers, the Elbe and the Weser, as much as by the English Channel, the Ohio River in North America, or any other more obvious natural boundary. The Union flag – scarcely seven years old – remained unchanged, but the White Horse of Hanover became a distinctive feature of 18th-century political polemic and iconography. By virtue of the Hanoverian succession, Great Britain – or Britain-Hanover, as she might better be called – lay, whether she liked it or not, at the heart of Europe. For the next 120 years or so, Britain became indisputably a German power, reigned over by Germans.

The Hanoverians were well suited to their new role. They were not, as critics claimed, despotic rulers in Hanover, where they collaborated closely with the local nobility. As princes of the Holy Roman empire, with its panoply of imperial law courts, the imperial Diet and the at least notional supremacy of the emperor, the Georges were quite used to irksome constraints on their power. In Britain, they worked with and through ministers responsible to parliament. The Civil List paid only for the rudimentary civil service, the royal household, the diplomatic service and the secret service. Most other important expenditure, especially on the army and navy, had to be approved by parliament. There was plenty of political controversy under the Georges, but their rule was not marked by the destructive confrontations with parliament that had characterised the Stuart era. No bill that had passed both houses of parliament was refused royal assent after 1714.

The Hanoverian succession was also a big step in the development of a British national identity. This was originally moulded by the 16th-century struggles against Spain and forged again during the wars with Louis XIV. As Linda Colley has shown in her book Britons, fear of universal monarchy and anti-Catholicism were important factors in welding the English to the Scots, as was – increasingly – imperial expansion. The German connection reshaped this identity after 1714. To a significant minority, the allegedly “despotic” and “boorish” Hanoverians became a rallying point for nationalist display. To most, however, the Hanoverian connection reaffirmed the sense of a common European project to defend their own freedoms and the “liberties of Europe”. They saw George, who had served with distinction against France in the War of the Spanish Succession, as a British warrior king, the vindicator of European Protestantism, and thus the defender of the balance of power.

Thanks to Germany’s Salic law, which stipulated that only men could succeed to the Hanoverian throne, the accession of Queen Victoria in Britain in 1837 brought the Personal Union to an end. Relations between Britain and the German lands remained vibrant, not least because the queen married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The close strategic link with central Europe was broken, however, thus changing the history of both Britain and Germany. Indeed, one of history’s more intriguing counterfactuals, which a BBC radio programme explored ten years ago, is how things would have turned out if Victoria had been a man. A “King Victor” of Britain and Hanover would almost certainly have brought London into the wars of unification, or deterred Bismarck from launching them in the first place.

The Personal Union left a substantial legacy. Streets in the capital city and across the country are named after German towns, provinces and figures. In the heart of New Town in Edinburgh lies Hanover Street, linking Princes, George and Queen Streets, the three main avenues on the grid plan. In London to this day, Hanover Square, Mecklenburgh Street, Brunswick Place and many other addresses testify to the strength of the German connection long before Victoria set her eye on Albert. Across the Atlantic, the Hanoverian link was reflected in the naming of towns, counties and provinces, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes by state action. There, too, the Hanoverian succession was widely welcomed as a defence against popery, absolutism and French or Spanish aggression. By the mid-18th century, there were Hanover or New Hanover Counties in Virginia and North Carolina. Hanover townships could be found in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. After all, George I ruled three kingdoms, 12 colonies and an electorate.

Bigger still was the strategic culture bequeathed by the Hanoverian connection. It was often contentious, with the 18th-century debates between blue-water Tory colonialists opposed to European “entanglements” and Whig continentalists, who supported alliances on the mainland, prefiguring the arguments of Eurosceptics and Europhiles today. The balance of the ledger was overwhelmingly positive. Hanover served as the cornerstone of the British alliance system in defence of the European balance of power, which in turn underpinned the Royal Navy’s dominance on the high seas. The electorate was also an invaluable source of troops, some of whom were used for home defence. There was scarcely a British conflict before 1815 which did not involve either German troops or a campaign in Germany.

During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars this relationship reached a new level of intensity. France represented an existential strategic and ideological threat to both parts of George III’s patrimony. Napoleon’s ambitions on the Continent were incompatible with the independence of Britain and the integrity of the electorate. His domestic programme struck at the heart of the old order in Germany and at parliamentary liberties in Britain. The battle against “French tyranny” thus became a common rallying cry.

The King’s German Legion epitomised this joint Anglo-German project. It was es­tablished in 1803 when Hanover was overrun by Napoleon. The War Office laid down that the legion should recruit “none but such are Natives of Germany and speak, or at least understand German, including all German countries”. Unlike most of the foreign formations that fought in the coalitions against Napoleon, the King’s German Legion was part of the British regular army. Some of its officers were British. The language of command was generally English and so was the rank structure; the men of its 2nd Light Battalion were equipped with standard-issue Baker rifles and wore the same distinctive green jackets as the British light infantrymen.

A hybrid Anglo-German identity developed in the legion. It adopted the English enthusiasm for physical exercises, such as rowing, wrestling, stick-fencing and boxing, and team sports such as football and cricket. Senior figures, including the commander of the British Light Division, Sir Charles von Alten, affected the manners of an English gentleman. Officers commonly switched between the two languages in conversation and correspondence. This acculturation extended to the rank and file. It was not unusual for enlisted men to adopt English first names.

The Legionnaires had a distinctive ethos. Far from mere Continental mercenaries in the king of England’s pay, they perceived themselves as ideological warriors against Napoleon and French domination in general. When enlisting, Lieutenant Emanuel Biedermann spoke of the need to “drive out the French who had no respect for any international law” and he looked forward to “we Germans and Swiss [having] an active role in the wars of liberation on the soil of the Fatherland”. The legion expressed none of the grudging admiration for “Boney” one often found in British ranks, nor the ideological sympathies for the Napoleonic project frequently expressed by other Germans. Friedrich Heinecke, who served as a recruiting officer for the legion in northern Germany, spoke of the men’s “patriotic sentiment”, their “mighty bitterness” against the hereditary enemy, and their determination to “fight against Napoleon and to cast off the yoke of French tyranny”. Such sentiments were shared by ordinary soldiers such as Rifleman Friedrich Lindau of the 2nd Light Battalion, who wrote a lengthy account of his experiences.

In 1815, the King’s German Legion came into its own. Early that year, Napoleon escaped from exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba and once more threatened the peace of Europe. The legion made up a substantial proportion of the allied army sent to Belgium under the Duke of Wellington to deal with him. As veteran troops, they were allotted critical roles in the resulting Battle of Waterloo, at which the campaign was decided. The greatest feat that day was the defence of the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte, in the centre of the allied line. For a whole afternoon, fewer than 400 riflemen of the 2nd Light Battalion under Major George Baring, together with their reinforcements, held off a vastly superior French force. When they finally gave way in the early evening it was too late for Napoleon to finish off Wellington before Field Marshal Blücher’s Prussians arrived in strength. Without this epic defence – a kind of German Rorke’s Drift – Napoleon would surely have prevailed.

The centenary of the battle in 1915 caused embarrassment to the French, British and Germans alike because the global conflagration united Britain to her former enemy France against her erstwhile ally Prussia-Germany. “Our ally of that time,” the Hannoverscher Courier noted sadly in June 1915, “is today our sworn enemy.” When later generations of Britons “compare the accomplishments of the auxiliary peoples whom they are employing against Germany in this war with the services that German armies rendered them a hundred years ago”, the paper predicted bitterly, echoing the words attributed to the Roman emperor on hearing of the loss of his commander Varus’s men in the Teutoburg Forest in northern Germany, “it is only to be expected that they will one day send the baleful cry across the Channel: Germany, Germany, give me back your Legions!”.

Instead, the 20th-century Anglo-German relationship was to be dominated by the Second World War, in which the British empire and Hitler’s Germany were locked in a life-and-death struggle. Even after the creation of a new and democratic Federal Republic of Germany in 1949 and its accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation six years later, the unifying experience of the Personal Union failed to regain traction. This was not least because the Anglo-German relationship took second place to the growing Franco-German partnership. For instance, in 1965, on the 150th anniversary of the battle, a British attempt to send the Queen to place a wreath at the Waterloo column in Hanover during her acclaimed state visit to the Federal Republic was thwarted by the German government, anxious not to offend Paris.

Against this background, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo in 2015 represents both a challenge and an opportunity. The British government, mindful of the sensibilities of Paris, was initially reluctant to support the commemorations. Though it has since reversed course – as witnessed by George Osborne’s most welcome donation in the 2013 spending review to restore the Château d’Hougoumont, so courageously defended by Coldstream, Scots and Grenadier Guards and others – it is still not doing enough. This has caused widespread outrage. David Green, the director of the think tank Civitas, condemned the reticence, “especially if the reason is not to insult the French because celebrating the victory would be seen as triumphalist”. He added that “Britain was fighting a tyrant who had conquered Europe. It was a momentous moment that should be commemorated.” By contrast, Richard J Evans, the former regius professor of history at Cambridge, cautions against British triumphalism, partly out of respect for Napoleon’s progressive qualities, and partly because he stresses the “pivotal role” of Britain’s allies, which made the battle “more of a German victory than a British one”. The ambivalent nature of Bonaparte’s legacy is also a feature of Andrew Roberts’s monumental biography, published at the start of this month.

There is something in these reservations. The claim that Waterloo was a “German victory” was first made by the Prussian historian Julius Pflugk-Hartung before and during the First World War. He argued that the campaign was “a victory of Germanic strength over French rascality, in particular a success of the German people”.

This was elaborated on by Peter Hofschröer in a series of important but controversial works. It has even found popular expression in the James Bond film The Living Daylights. “I should have known that you would take refuge behind that British vulture Wellington,” the arms trader villain Brad Whitaker reproaches the hero. “You know he had to buy German mercenaries to beat Napoleon, don’t you?”

As many as 45 per cent of the men with whom Wellington started the battle spoke German of one sort or another, and the proportion increased with every Prussian formation reaching the scene. By the end, a clear majority of allied combatants were “German”; to that extent, Waterloo was indeed a “German victory”.

There are, however, no grounds for concern that the role of the allies will be neglected. The British have always been quicker to acknowledge the military contributions of foreigners than they generally give themselves credit for. Eighteenth-century heroes such as Prince Eugene of Savoy, who commanded in the War of the Spanish Succession, and Frederick the Great and Crown Prince Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, who commanded in the Seven Years War, were lionised by the British public in their own time. Sir David Wilkie’s famed Waterloo Dispatch painting (see page 22) shows a moustachioed Legionnaire alongside the usual assortment of Britons from across the United Kingdom. The Duke of Cambridge’s General Order, transferring the legion to Hanoverian service in February 1816, spoke of it having been “rendered immortal by the combined [author’s italics] exertions of British and German valour”. Foreign soldiers in British service feature prominently in the popular Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell and in their adaptations for television. The commemorative plaque recently unveiled on the wall of the farmhouse at La Haye Sainte was a British rather than a German initiative, executed by the Bexhill Hanoverian Study Group. There
is also a plaque in the Memorial Gardens, Bexhill, which was unveiled by the Wellington biographer Lady Longford.

Moreover, the Waterloo 200 campaign, which is co-ordinating the commemorations of the battle, not only rejects jingoism but also explicitly states: “Given the extensive structures which now exist within the European Union, with the profound habit of co-operation and pooling of sovereignty to defend and promote European values and common interests which has developed over the last 60 years among the European peoples, the commemorative themes of multinational co-operation, European integration and of pan-European security and stability are relevant and timely.”

We can in fact say that Waterloo was a “European” rather than a “British” or “German” victory. Thirty-six per cent of the troops in Wellington’s army were British (that is English, Irish, Welsh or Scottish), 10 per cent were King’s German Legion, 10 per cent were Nassauers, 8 per cent were Brunswickers, 17 per cent were Hanoverian regular army, 13 per cent were Dutch and 6 per cent “Belgian” (Walloons and Flemings). In the recent words of the D-Day veteran and former British chief of the defence staff Field Marshal Lord Bramall, Waterloo was truly “the first Nato operation”.

In this context, given the severe challenges the EU faces in eastern Europe and the Middle East, and the collective failure to address them by the eurozone generally and Berlin in particular, the King’s German Legion, and especially the 2nd Light Battalion, could serve as the model for a future European army. The citizens of the Federal Republic, understandably scarred by the experience of Wehrmacht crimes in the Second World War, should be comfortable with Major Baring’s achievement. The heroism of the garrison of La Haye Sainte was rational, not suicidal; they fought to the last bullet, but not the last man. Baring did not recklessly sacrifice his men on a point of honour, or in a spirit of death-defying hubris. He held on as long as he reasonably could, and then withdrew on his own initiative. He struck the right balance between completing the mission, the “honour” of the battalion and the responsibility he bore towards his men. Baring’s example is the very opposite of the “Thermopylae” or “Stalingrad” complex in German military history, where soldiers sacrifice themselves in total, whether usefully or pointlessly.

Baring’s men were a multinational unit, in a multinational army sent by an international coalition. In his final orders in February 1816, the Duke of Cambridge announced that at Waterloo, the legion had “powerfully aided the cause of Europe” as well as that of their sovereign, George III. The King’s German Legion, and especially Baring’s 2nd Light Battalion, thus represent a German military tradition on which the Federal Republic and the eurozone can draw to create a new unified military, either together with or alongside the UK. In this way, Germany will “give back its legions”, if not to Britain, then to the common project of European collective security. 

Brendan Simms’s latest book is “The Longest Afternoon: the 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo” (Allen Lane, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge