A Hawksbill sea turtle swimming in Lady Elliot Island, Australia. Photograph: Getty Images
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A sea change

I took the wild Australian coast for granted, then I had to learn to fight.

In the 20 years since I first published my memoir Land’s Edge, I’ve stayed close to the water, living and working where desert meets sea in my native Western Australia. The littoral, that peculiar zone of overlap and influx, sustains my spirit and fuels my work. I’m still pulled between the sensual assault of the outdoors and the sedentary life of reflection. To go a day or two without seeing, feeling and smelling the ocean wouldbe as disorientating as being without a book or an hour’s privacy.

When I wrote that modest coastal memoir, I was the father of young children, eager to introduce them to the freedom and the privilege of a life at the water’s edge at the bottom of the world. It was what I knew and took for granted as a boy. Like me, my kids inherited a clean, living ocean. They enjoyed a simple, small-town existence on a wild coastline and I tried to make plain to them what a privilege that was, because it is a luxury to be able to wander free and barefoot on an empty beach, to swim with a sea lion, snorkel in a coral lagoon and catch dinner at the end of an ordinary school day. Those children are adults now. One is a parent.

This summer, I took my granddaughter into the sea for the first time. Her whole body shuddered with the strangeness of it, the surge and light and noise, the spill across her delicate skin. What a thrill it is for a sun-damaged old beachcomber to pass on such a life as a birthright. Yet only a fool could suggest that this little girl’s coastal inheritance is secure.

Sadly the world’s oceans are in peril. Ninety per cent of pelagic fishes and sharks are gone. Human beings are eating themselves out of house and home, consuming as if there was no tomorrow and not even our remote stretch of coast is immune.

Hunting and gathering are in my blood but I’ve lived to witness a diminution in the seas around me; I’ve had to boat and swim further and longer to find fish. In the 1990s, I swam across local reefs without abalone, visited submarine pinnacles without snapper, walked beaches festooned with plastic.

Australian waters had begun to feel the effects of shark-finning, drift nets, oil spills and the voracious incursions of the oil and gas industries. The emerging scientific consensus was that, globally, too many species of fish were either fully exploited or being catastrophically overexploited. You didn’t need to be any sort of boffin to know that something was wrong in our seas; every time you wore a mask and fins, the evidence was there in front of your face – more and more of less and less. It was futile blaming faceless strangers. We were all taking too much. It was time for me to act as if there was a tomorrow, as if my actions bore consequences, so I changed my ways, looking more and taking less.

Yet the fragile coast was in more trouble than the restraint of a single middle-aged man could remedy. The oceanic dead zones of Europe and Asia, the plastic gyres of the Pacific, began to haunt me. Unless whole cultures changed, these horrors would be universal; this would be our legacy. This is how I became an activist. To the battle-scarred Birkenstockers of the environmentalist movement, I was a redneck. After all, everything I knew about the sea I had learned with a spear in my hand. The actual rednecks who were my neighbours thought I’d lost my mind. If to change your mind is to lose it, perhaps they were right.

A decade after I first swam with whale sharks at Ningaloo, developers were lobbying to build a marina resort there. Australia’s longest fringing coral reef, it hugs the shore along the red desert for 200 miles. You can swim with a manta ray as a kangaroo cools its heels at the water’s edge a few yards away. There is no place in the world quite like it. Sustainable ecotourism was just finding its feet in the region, thanks to the regular presence of the enormous, gentle whale sharks. From the world over, visitors were coming to Ningaloo, not to take but to look. Dredging and blasting this habitat would have been a disaster but the resort’s backers saw golf courses in the desert, speedboats, cocktails by the pool, a sort of Costa del Sol where whale sharks were an optional extra.

As hard as it is to believe now, their plan had great support in parliament and many boosters in the media. Western Australia is a frontier state, riding boom after boom. Development is regarded as virtuous, almost messianic. To express any reservation about unfettered “pro - gress” is to declare oneself a heathen, a citizen of insufficient revolutionary zeal. With the government and media in thrall to big business, the odds of halting or even modifying a proposal such as the one at Ningaloo were remote.

Those of us who fought the defining struggle to save Ningaloo Reef didn’t expect to win but those ranges and corals were too precious to surrender without a struggle. Naively, I assumed my role would be discreet – as a supporter behind the scenes – but I was wrong.

In middle age, a privacy freak with no experience of either advocacy or politics, I was compelled to acquire a thick skin and a fresh suite of skills. I write novels for a living. In all my working life, I hadn’t collaborated with a soul; I’d never been part of a team or shared an office. I’d never submitted to any sort of discipline but my own, yet here I was, all of a sudden, pressed into service as the most visible member of a motley team made up of citizens of every age and class and political view. With little more than raw passion and a fax machine, we were trying to stop a juggernaut. Every week, there were more of us. We told our story the best we could and in time the campaign gained momentum. Once the reef caught people’s imagination, the tide turned.

For two years, I more or less gave up being a writer. I wrote only press releases, begging letters, strategic notes. I helped plan actions and stunts, met politicians and scientists, made speeches at town halls and too often found myself in front of TV cameras. I took film stars swimming with manta rays, tried to introduce the local rich to the novelty of philanthropy and posed like a prat for hundreds of photos. I made many friends and a few significant enemies.

I resented the lost time, the lazy journalists, the somnolent MPs, the silly theatre of it all, but I think of that period as a late-life education in civics. What it taught me was not always uplifting. To gain any sort of media attention, a social or environmental issue requires a circus, a celebrity or an act of violence.

We tried only the first two. And, yes, money does talk. However, once you get direct access to ordinary citizens, you discover that the victory of selfish consumerism is not yet complete. Despite the numbness and nihilism in our culture, there is still an instinct for justice and proportion, self-restraint and an abiding sense of the common good. I’m no utopian but I found that, deep down, human beings love the world that sustains them. Given honest information and a bit of respect, they will act to defend it, even for the sake of unborn strangers.

Somehow, we prevailed. In saving the reef, we rewrote the laws for coastal development. In 2011, Ningaloo was added to the World Heritage register.

Since the campaign, I have tried to return to the reclusive life I enjoyed before, but one contest seems to lead to another and I find myself enmeshed as a reluctant advocate for the marine environment. It’s a grind at times but it’s heartening to be part of a genuine sea change. This year, Australia is poised to declare a chain of marine sanctuaries from the Southern Ocean to the Coral Sea. The initiative has its detractors and scaremongers in parliament and the press but the idea has broad public support. The mood has shifted; folks have moved on.

Now and then, it’s worth being reminded of just how far a culture can shift within a generation. I think of a hole I once swam in near the Montebello Islands, to the north of Ningaloo. It’s a crater, about 1,000 feet across, left by a British atomic bomb in 1952. A strange place for a snorkel, I admit it. Not much to see down there but glassy sand and weird, white worms. Only a few years before I was born, it seemed necessary to blow islands from the sea and irradiate entire ecosystems. Apparently, the future depended on it. Today, those islands are registered sanctuaries for dugongs, whales and rare marsupials; its birds and corals are protected by law.

The shift of mindset required to achieve this was immense and sobering. It seems odd to say that a swim in a once-radioactive hole can be restorative, but when change feels too slow and the losses mount up week by week, I recall that eerie hole and how far we’ve come since it was gouged into the sea.

Tim Winton’s most recent work is the play “Signs of Life” which premiered in 2012

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

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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