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Live or Memorex?
Feb 12, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

The San Francisco Chronicle fell for it. Hook, line and sinker. In the November 13, 1995 "Legal Grounds" column, they ran a story on the "Solomon Project," an artificial intelligence experiment at NYU. It was beautiful...

Think juries are biased and incompetent? Do judges annoy you with their imperious nonsense about procedure and decorum? Researchers at New York University Law School have a solution: Get rid of them. For seven years, lawyers and computer scientists have been working on the Solomon Project -- a computer program that can review a case, apply the law and spit out a decision.

The Chronicle went on, explaining how the computer program uses some combination of admissible evidence, lie detector tests, databases of law, "ethical rules" and "factual precedents" to come to its verdicts. It even quoted a letter from the project's director, Joseph Bonuso: "Due process and equal justice are served immediately based on unbiased evaluation of facts and law. Justice is swift and blind, with minimum cost."

Bonuso and the Solomon project got a lot of press. The New York Times. CNN. The Wall Street Journal. Appearances on "Sonya Live" and "Good Morning America." And why not? The O.J. verdict had come about a month before... Do you think the Chronicle usually describes juries as "biased" and "incompetent?"

If you haven't heard already, the Solomon Project was a hoax. Pure and simple. Perpetrated by possibly the greatest media jammer of all time -- Joey Skaggs. Skaggs posed as Bonuso, found a friendly sucker at NYU, and was off and running. The Solomon Project was just the latest in a series of scams on the national media pulled by Skaggs. And Skaggs played them to the hilt. CNN ran a nice little piece on their web site about the hoax, admitting that they had been turned into Skaggs's "puppet."

Skaggs has been enjoying the last laugh for quite a while, now. In 1976 there was the "Cathouse for Dogs," a bordello for your horny mutt. Then "Walk Right!," some sort of grass roots effort to improve sidewalk etiquette. Then the "Fat Squad," whose members would come to your house and physically restrain you from the trip to the refrigerator during commercial breaks. And then in 1992, "Sexonics," a company exhibiting at a Toronoto trade show promising full-on virtual sex. All of these hoaxes got pretty serious attention from the wire services and national media.

Skaggs admits that it's fairly easy to pull off his brand of culture jamming. "Get someone from an out-of-state newspaper to run a story on something sight unseen, and then you Xerox that story and include it in a second mailing. Journalists see that it has appeared in print and think, therefore, that there's no need to do any further research. That's how a snowflake becomes a snowball and finally an avalanche."

And Joey Skaggs doesn't even use the net. Yet.

There are some little pieces of Skaggs-ism out there already. Josh Quittner registering mcdonalds.com. Robert Talley grabbing www.dole96.org, www.buchanan96.org, www.wilson96.org, www.forbes96.org, and www.gates96.org (just in case). The Hackers movie site getting hacked last summer. And the Takedown site getting hacked a few days ago (with its domain name temporarily renamed to takendown.com).

Get used to stuff like this. The net/web -- with its inherently open architecture, low entrance fee and its "instant-publishing" nature -- is going to spawn much more complex culture jamming. Combine that with the fact that most print or television journalists don't have a clue when it comes to the Internet...

And you thought the Good Times virus was bad enough. Just you wait.

P.S. If you were anywhere near the web last week, you probably noticed that most of it was painted black (as was the Obvious). Check out Dave Winer's brief piece on his Saturday web surfing excursion in search of blackness.

P.P.S. If you were anywhere near a television last week, all you heard about the web was the 24 Hours in Cyberspace project. The "24 hours" just happened to fall on February 8, the day when all those pages started going black. Did their site go black? Nope. Did they blow an enormous opportunty? Yup.

 

 

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