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Skinner pioneered the concept of operant conditioning—the idea that behavior could be changed by systematically reinforcing specific actions with positive or negative stimuli. Give a pigeon a food pellet every time it pecks a button and it will get quite good at pecking buttons. Give it a shock every time it does, and it will avoid this behavior.
“Our plan was to apply positive reinforcement to juvenile delinquents, but in order to reinforce them when something they were doing was right, we had to get some electronic equipment on them,” Gable explains. Participants carried transmitters that sent radio signals to receivers the Gables had set up around Cambridge, Massachusetts. These receivers relayed the signals to a missile-tracking device the Gables had purchased from a war surplus supplier and displayed the participants’ current positions on a large screen. “This way we knew when they were at work or school or drug treatment, or doing something else they were supposed to be doing,” Gable says.
If the participants went to the places they were supposed to go, they became eligible for prizes in a weekly lottery. For example, one prize involved chauffeuring a participant in a limousine to his job at a gas station “We knew a guy who ran a limo service, and he wasn’t very busy in the mornings. So we arranged for him to pick up one of our kids and take him to work for a week. The kid would get all dressed up, the neighbors would come out, the kid would parade into the limo,” Gable recalls.
The Gables’ system included the ability to measure heart-rates and send messages back and forth in the form of electronic beeps, and they were also envisioning systems that could monitor blood-alcohol levels, brain wave activity, and other physiological data. In 1962, Look magazine published an article on their research efforts. In 1964, Ralph published a book detailing their experiments, Streetcorner Research, and eventually a producer from Universal Pictures bought the rights to the book with the intention of making a movie out of it.
Overall, however, initial public reaction to the Gables’ devices tended to be negative. Electronic monitoring seemed intrusive, operant conditioning too prone toward the sort of applications Anthony Burgess explored in A Clockwork Orange. In 1971, Ralph Gable reportedly announced in a Harvard lecture that he was “no longer even willing to reveal his ideas” about electronic monitoring to others because of the “extreme criticism” to which he’d been subjected.
Nonetheless, the Gable brothers continued to explore the possibilities of electronic monitoring. In the late 1960s, Robert moved to southern California and, in collaboration with a colleague named Richard Bird, developed a monitoring system that featured “a belt-mounted transceiver that was capable of sending and receiving tactile signals.” (That is, it vibrated like today’s cellphones.)
In the 1980s, Ralph experimented with a system that Robert would later liken to “Bluetooth AA.” Relying in part on a computer bulletin board, participants would monitor each other, provide encouragement at key moments, and engage in “planned and unplanned beneficial social interactions” designed to reinforce positive behaviors.
By this time, the approach pioneered by NIMCOS had already gained substantial traction in the corrections world and the general perception of electronic monitoring had been established: It was a virtual jail, an authoritarian tool designed to enforce compliance with whatever rules those under supervision had been directed to follow.
In publications like Federal Probation and the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, however, the Gables stayed true to their vision of a kinder, gentler vision of electronic monitoring—and one, they believed, that would result in greater net benefits to society. “An essential tenet of learning theory is that punishment does not change behavior; it temporarily suppresses it,” they wrote in a 2005 issue of Federal Probation. “A person may conform to rules to avoid punishment, but once the threat of punishment is removed, the original behavior is likely to reoccur.”
A truly effective electronic monitoring system, they suggested, would reward small improvements. To keep participants sufficiently motivated over time, it would offer incentives of varying value for instances of improvement, and award these incentives on a varying schedule. The system would also feature two-way communication and incorporate active interventions designed to prevent potential violations.
Thus, if a participant attends a job-training class, he might be rewarded with a letter of commendation. If he shows up for his drug treatment meeting, he might get free movie tickets. If he gets on a bus and appears to be heading toward the bar where his former partners in crime tend to congregate, other participants in the system might text him in an effort to dissuade him. “With the ubiquity of the connections now, all of the Wi-Fi spots, you could really start to do some positive monitoring,” Gable says.
Rewarding individuals in the course of what is generally considered their punishment is one major reason the Gables’ vision of electronic monitoring has failed to catch on. “I’ve been accused of giving cookies to gang members,” he says.
And yet if the Gables’ vision of electronic monitoring is ever going to have a moment, that moment is now. What is the Internet, after all, except a giant electronic monitoring system issuing positive reinforcement in the form of Facebook “likes,” Twitter retweets, and foursquare badges?
Every day, thousands of people publish information about themselves online—what they weigh, how many miles they ran, how many words of their novel they wrote—in the hope that such transparency, along with the support from friends and strangers it engenders, will reinforce positive behaviors and discourage non-productive ones.
If Facebook had introduced a “Dislike” button instead of the “Like” button, its users would post far less often than they do. If the foursquare app on your smartphone tried to discourage you from checking into certain locations by issuing a tiny shock when you did, how many people would use it?