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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

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The gay Syrian refugees still living in limbo two years after making it to the UK

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. 

31-year-old Ahmed and his boyfriend Said* fled Syria in 2013, after the civil war intensified. They both headed to Turkey – where they first met – then moved on through Greece, Croatia and Western Europe. In December 2015, they completed their 4,500km, two-year journey and arrived in the UK.

When Ahmed and Said shared their story with the New Statesman two months later, the Home Office was still deliberating on whether to accept responsibility for their asylum claim. At the time, their lawyer feared plans were being made to deport the couple back to Croatia, where they’d previously been registered while incarcerated in a refugee camp. 

Eventually though, in November 2016, the Home Office officially agreed to process their claim. The decision to do so is one of the few positive developments in their situation since they arrived in the UK more than two years ago. Little else has changed.

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. They’re unable to engage in basic day-to-day functions, from owning a bank account to booking a cab through an app. They still have to keep their identity and status as a gay couple anonymous – a precaution in case they are made to return to Syria, or outed to intolerant family members. They continue to live in fear that they could be summoned and deported at any moment. It’s been two years in limbo.

“For everything here you need documents or a bank account,” says Ahmed. “We don't have an address because you need income. So the minimum of life requirements we cannot get. We're not asking for much. We're not asking for financial support, we're not asking for accommodation. Just give us the right and we will depend on ourselves. We will work. We will study. We will find accommodation. We will pay tax.”

Shortly after the couple arrived, they were given temporary accommodation in Rochdale and a weekly allowance of £35. With no right to legally work in the UK, this was all they had to survive on. And while the flat in Rochdale was the first place they had space to themselves, they were isolated from the reason they came to the UK in the first place: to be with the only friends they knew in Europe.  

“We couldn't stay there, we tried really hard,” says Ahmed. “At that time we were alone, completely alone, in Rochdale. We were living separately there was no one around us… we got depressed. We got stressed there. So we decided to move to come to London because we have a friend here who can support us, who can be with us.”

In May 2016 the couple moved in to the spare room of their friend’s Mayfair apartment. She had arrived from Syria six years ago on a student visa. In the time they’ve been in London they’ve tried, in vain, to prepare for work, readying themselves in case they are actually granted asylum. After another friend loaned them some money, Ahmed, a trained architect, took an animation course, while Said, a chef, took a course to improve his English. Said finished the first level, but wasn’t allowed back to complete the next module without a passport. Ahmed stopped the animation course after running out of money from their friend’s loan.

Moving in with their friend may have bettered their living conditions, but it proved detrimental to their financial situation. The small sum they received from the Home Office stopped when they moved out of the accommodation in Rochdale. The Home Office claims this was due to the fact they were no longer classed as destitute.  The few friends they do now have in London have often had to loan them money or lend them essentials, like clothes. With no money and little to keep them occupied during the day, the limbo they’ve found themselves in has taken its toll on their mental health.

“Most of the time we get depressed because we don't have money to do anything,” says Ahmed. “You can't work, you can't study…you can't imagine how you feel when you spend your days doing nothing. Just nothing. Nothing useful in your life. Nothing. Can you imagine the depression you get?”

Though their friend has helped over the last year or so – giving them the place rent-free and providing them with food – she is now selling the apartment. They have four weeks to find new accommodation. If they don’t they’ll be homeless. The stress has caused Said’s hair to start falling out and he now has a plum-sized bald patch on the back of his head.

“If any country can accept us we would go back,” says Said. “But Turkey can't accept us. Syria can't accept us. Croatia can't accept us. So no one needs us. Where we can go? What are the options we have?”

The Home Office officially began processing the couple’s asylum claim in November 2016, and stated it aimed to make a decision by 27th May 2017. According to its own guidelines, claims should be processed within six months. Ahmed and Said have been waiting more than a year.

On 11 September 2017 they received a letter from the Home Office via their legal representatives at the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, an organisation which provides free advice and representation predominantly through the legal aid scheme. The letter apologised for the fact their asylum claim had taken longer than six months to process. It went on to say that they would be invited for a “substantive asylum interview within 14-18 weeks with a decision to follow 8 to 12 weeks after.” More than 22 weeks later, the couple are still waiting an invitation.

“When they didn't [invite them to an asylum interview], we threatened them with a judicial review again,” says Ryan Bestford, an immigration lawyer at the unit, who has been working with the couple. In Ahmad’s case, the judicial review – an application to a higher court which seeks a review of a government decision - would look for an order forcing the Home Office to interview him. “In response to our [judicial review] threat, they then claimed that they will interview Ahmed within 10 weeks.”

The letter to their lawyers also states that there are many reasons why a claim may take longer than six months. According to the Home Office “further internal enquiries in relation to your client’s asylum claim were being made,” hence the delay in Ahmed and Said’s case. No additional information for the delay was provided.

According to a recent report in the Guardian, claims are often classified as complicated or non-standard by the Home Office to excuse the UK Visa and Immigration Unit from processing claims within six months. Ahmed and Said’s lawyer scoffs at the notion their case is complex.

"This case is not complicated," says Bestford. "They are from Syria and even the UK government accepts that the situation in that country is so bad that all Syrians are entitled to refugee status. In addition they are gay. This case is straightforward."

Bestford has been working with the couple since January 2016, when the Home Office wanted to return them to Croatia, despite the fact the Croatian government had made it clear that they did not want them. As LGBT asylum seekers, Ahmed and Said are an especially vulnerable group. Said is also HIV positive, and when the Home Office consider his application to asylum they’ll need to consider his ability to access treatment.

Such vulnerabilities are no guarantee of asylum. According to a Home Office report published in November 2017, 3,535 asylum applications were made on the basis of sexual orientation, 2,379 of which were rejected. Just 838 were approved.

"They should have been granted refugee status a long time ago," says Bestford. "I have no idea what the reason for the delay is. But it certainly cannot be the complexity of the case. If the Home office are saying that it is because of the complexity of the case – they are not fit for purpose."

As well as support from the few friends they have in the UK, they’ve also found an ally in Lord Paul Scriven, the Lords spokesperson for international LGBT rights. He highlighted the plight of the couple in July last year, in a speech which raised concerns about the detention of LGBT asylum seekers and the systemic delays in processing asylum claims.

“I am both bewildered and surprised that [Ahmed] and [Said]* are still waiting for their case to be dealt with and them been granted right to stay,” says Scriven. “I have written to the Home Office and made it clear it is totally unacceptable and needs now to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

“As in many cases the reason for this delay lies at the door of the Home Office and the way in which they deal with cases of asylum for people claiming on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.  In many cases this slow and cold approach is all too common by the Home Office.”

Ahmed has contacted the UK Visa and Immigration Unit helpline to try and seek temporary accommodation. He is still waiting to hear back from them. For now the couple’s situation is no clearer; but with impending homelessness it’s certainly more desperate.

They arrived in the UK eager to work and excited about the possibility of living openly as two gay men. They arrived brimming with ideas for what a new start could look like. The last two years have taught them to abandon any forward planning and to avoid imagining a life where they have been granted asylum.

“I can't plan anymore,” says Ahmed. “All our plans have disappeared…we thought we escaped from the war…we thought we're gonna start again. We thought there's justice here. We thought there are human rights. But nothing exists. There's no justice. There's no fair. There are no human rights. They treat us like animals. The dogs live better than us here.”

Close to defeat, Ahmed and Said have discussed one final alternative. “Or I go back to Syria,” says Ahmed. He swiftly disregards any concerns about the conflict and his identity as a gay man. “I prefer to die there at least with my family in my country. Better than dying here alone. “

In a statement provided to the New Statesman, a Home Office spokesperson said:

“The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection.

“An asylum case that does not get decided within 6 months is usually one classed as a non-straightforward asylum case. These cases are usually not possible to decide within 6 months for reasons outside of our control.

“Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are supported with free accommodation and a weekly cash allowance for each person in the household. This is available until their asylum claims and  any appeals are finally determined or they decide they do not require Government support.”

*names have been changed

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