How GPS Became a Human Tracking Mechanism
By Greg Milner
Dec 27 2016
Ralph and Robert Schwitzgebel were identical twins from Ohio, champion high school debaters who won the state title in 1951, graduated from different colleges, and both — unbeknownst to the other — applied to Harvard’s graduate program in psychology. “We kind of show up on campus one day — ‘What are you doing here?’ ” Robert recalls.
It was a heady time at the Harvard psych department. The faculty included B. F. Skinner, behaviorism’s leading figure, and also Timothy Leary, who demonstrated during his brief time at the university that he was willing to go to unprecedented lengths to test the molding of human behavior. Leary became Ralph’s adviser. Ralph coauthored the paper detailing Leary’s infamous Concord Prison experiment, in which young inmates were given psilocybin as part of group therapy, between 1961 and 1963. The study proposed that the drug had a positive effect on the recidi- vism rate of the experimental group.
Ralph took from his mentor a willingness — even an eagerness — to deploy unorthodox methodologies, especially in the treatment of young people on the margins of society. Ralph wanted to merge the experimental psychologist’s lab with the psychotherapist’s office. In 1959, he founded the Science Committee on Psychological Experimentation (SCOPE), using grant money to counsel gang members and other at-risk youth in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, area. He believed that the therapy methods traditionally used with juvenile delinquents seldom worked because of a culture clash between “delinquent” and “nondelinquent” cultures. Accordingly, he did not consider these people his patients so much as his employees. He would approach them on street corners and offer them money and equipment to film their lives, keep audio diaries, and submit to interviews. Over time, he would win their trust, and their behavior would begin to change. It was a form of stealth therapy.
SCOPE’s work was controversial. Some psychologists criticized Ralph for advocating a “soft” approach that coddled the kids, failed to address the root causes of their delinquency, and had no long-term positive effect on their personalities. Ralph countered that he was taking a practical approach. He wanted to affect behavior in a way that reduced the likelihood that the kids would commit crimes and get themselves into trouble right now. Considered decades later, much of SCOPE’s work seems ahead of its time — especially the emphasis on employing recording media for self-expression — while some of it now seems glaringly retrograde. In a New York Times profile of Ralph five years after SCOPE was founded, he cited, as evidence of the efficacy of his behavior modification methods, a youth who came to SCOPE for help with “homosexual tendencies.” His treatment regimen involved drinking ipecac when the urges grew strong, and he was now married and “very content,” Ralph said.
In Streetcorner Research, a book Ralph published in 1964 that detailed his work, he asserted that the “nondelinquent” culture seldom interfaced with the “delinquent” one in a way that contained enough “intensity” to break through and elicit behavioral change. An alternative approach would be to develop “a humane technology which will eliminate unwanted behaviors and develop in their place desirable behaviors.” He was talking about positive reinforcement, a key tenet of Skinner’s approach to behaviorism. Skinner was Robert’s advisor. Robert was on board with SCOPE’s project, and became his brother’s chief collaborator.
The Schwitzgebels disdained pigeons, Skinner’s experimental animal of choice. “Pigeon data was really boring, but the reinforcement idea seemed really powerful,” Robert says. “Certainly juvenile delinquents and gang members were a lot more interesting than pigeons, so let’s just go out and get some, hook them up, and use reinforcement. They don’t cost much more than pigeons, they’re more interesting, and they can be very cooperative. So that’s what we did.”
The freeform atmosphere in the department favored this kind of convention-flouting. “No forms, no institutional review committees — we didn’t have to do any of that,” Robert says, laughing. “This was the days of the sixties and Leary.”