Over here

There are thought to be some 200,000 young Australians in London. But why on earth would they leave

At a Whitehall team-bonding session recently, the question was put to us: "What percentage of the division is from Australia and New Zealand?" People gave answers up to 40 per cent, but the real answer was 9 per cent. The Australians in the room laughed - sure, it's a stereotype that they're loud and everywhere, but they suspected the source of the error was that they did more than their fair share of work.

That perception, along with their sense of customer service (when they say "G'day" they mean it) and their willingness to work early, may be why they are so welcome in firms and government organisations in the UK. My favourite feedback was that people enjoy my "Australian freshness" (read: loud, brash, doesn't know his place).

The question I am most often asked is: "Why are you even here?" The implication is that I am mad to leave the sun, surf and general sexiness of my homeland. But if Australia is known as "the lucky country" here, that's not how it feels to its educated and restless youth.

"The lucky country is a myth. I'm 29 and on 80,000 quid a year as a financial controller in London. If the Australian public and politicians saw just how many of us live here and in Europe, they'd be worried," says Mike of Camden Town.

"Working in the public sector [in Australia], you have to wait for someone to die or have a baby to get a chance for the job you want," says Emily, aged 27, who lives in Herne Hill.

"I left in 2002. I just had the feeling I was 'too' everything. I was too different. Too ethnic. Too outrageous. Too ambitious. In London being different is why people value you. In Australia it is used to stifle you," says Rita, a 32-year-old, part-Chinese woman now living in Islington.

In contrast, the buzz of a world capital like London can dazzle an ambitious or adventurous Australian. If you come from a country where public transport often runs at hourly intervals, London's maligned Underground and budget-flight boom are like winning the Lottery. Austra lia is not an interchange; it's the end of the line.

Life in Australia can feel like a time warp. You live your day ahead of the US and Europe, but you get your news a day after. Whereas the UK is in the heart of print media, is surrounded by digital TV and supplies broadband that actually works (it's known as "fraudband" in Australia), Australian public culture is locked in the grip of a familiar set of faces from the generation of Germaine Greer and Clive James. One newsreader held his post for more than 40 years. It's an old person's paradise. Without the spur of competition and the niche outlets to develop new ideas and talent, I got sick of being sidelined by a well-off generation that treated multiculturalism as an eating strategy and didn't know how to share.

It is not accurate to say that Australia still suffers a "cultural cringe", but nor can it claim to have caught up culturally with more established nations. Forever holding the country back are its brilliant weather and setting. The lure of the beach is just strong enough to stifle creativity, dull ambition and act generally as a cultural anaesthetic. People like 32-year-old Jo want something else: "At the moment there is nowhere for me to go in Australia. It was too easy back home. I needed to be pushed. At the risk of sounding like someone on a journey of self-discovery, I needed to be challenged, because Australia was making me a bit complacent."

More than 1.1 million Australians, or 5 per cent of the population, seem to agree. Most are under 35. With the freedom to reinvent themselves and the fear of being turfed out at any moment by an increasingly nasty Home Office, Australians have the right incentives to stand out and enjoy the UK in a way Brits often fail to do.

They also have practical reasons for being here. Take, for example, housing stress and the price of education. You don't need a brain to succeed in Australia, only property. This illness has been labelled by the Economist as an "extraordinary and potentially dangerous binge".

If I lived in Sydney I would find it harder to get a mortgage, and my rent would be the same as that on my flat in Whitechapel, though I would probably not have a wage to match. Throw in university debts (I paid A$20 or about £8 an hour to do an arts degree at a second-tier university), which I can avoid repaying by moving overseas, and you find why Qantas sells so many one-way tickets to London.

Many a Labor MP has at one point owed his seat in parliament to the strong Labor London vote. In fact, the Australia House polling booth is the biggest in the election. (The 200,000 Australian Londoners would be a voting bloc in the London mayoral election if courted carefully.)

But there is a clear difference between expatriates of my generation and those of the Clive James vintage. Our moves are rarely permanent. They will not suck the life out of Australia: we want to stretch the umbilical cord, not break it.

We will keep coming as long as you let us. As a group contributing more than it takes, we're a good thing for the UK. What Australia gets from the deal is a question only a more conscientious government and public culture could answer.

Ryan Heath works in the UK Cabinet Office as a civil servant. He is the author of "Please Just F* Off - It's Our Turn Now" (Pluto Press Australia)

Australia at a glance

Population: 21 million

Average life expectancy: 81

GDP per capita: $33,300

Well-being: Third most content country in the world, according to the United Nations

Children: 11.6 per cent live in poverty but

Unicef still ranks Australia seventh in child “educational well-being”

Unemployment: At a 32-year low of 5 per cent, having fallen from 11 per cent in 1992

Flying Doctor: Service started in 1928 to provide emergency health care to people in the outback

Drought crisis: Currently experiencing worst drought in 1,000 years. Every four days a farmer commits suicide. Farmers are receiving A$2m (£800,000) a day in drought relief. Kangaroos are invading cities in search of food and water

Climate change: Experts predict up to 20 per cent more droughts by 2030, more frequent bush fires, tropical cyclones, and catastrophic damage to the Great Barrier Reef

Non-native plants: Of the nearly 3,000 species that flourish in Australia, 70 per cent are a threat to natural ecosystems

Opals: Australia produces 95 per cent of the world’s opals

Water: Annual inflow to the Murray-Darling Basin is likely to fall 10-25 per cent by 2050. Roughly 85 per cent of all irrigation in Australia takes place in this basin, which is the size of France and Spain combined

Kangaroos: At least 69 species

Convicts: About 160,000 were shipped over between 1788 and 1868. Free immigrants began arriving around 1790

Racism: “White Australia” policy, intended to restrict non-white immigration, began in 1901 and ended in 1973

Racial groups: 89 per cent Caucasian, 5 per cent Asian, 2 per cent Aboriginal, 4 per cent other

Aborigines: Life expectancy is 17 years lower than the national average

Rugby: Only country to win World Cup twice, in 1991 and 1999 (left)

Research by Marika Mathieu

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time

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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