The Funniest Prank

I'm not a practical jokester, but I've always wanted to have that reputation, like the stories you hear tangentially about George Clooney and Brad Pitt on the set of Oceans 12 (at least they were having fun). I've only pulled one prank in my life, during my freshman year of college. I convinced my resident advisor that a malevolent supercomputer from MIT was watching him from spy satellites in the sky. It was a funny joke at first, but when the supercomputer AI called in the FBI, it became utterly hilarious.[Macintosh image courtesy VAW]

One night I called Michael into my dorm room to show him the new supercomputer that we had hacked into. This was 1993, and we had established a link through the campus network to MIT. You could simply talk to my computer screen and the supercomputer would hear you and answer your questions.

"What sort of questions?" Michael asked.

"I don't know. Try baseball trivia."

"What team eventually became the Minnesota Twins?"

The computer sat silent. Then:

"Processing. . . Processing. The Minnesota Twins began as the Washington Senators, one of the original teams in the American League," the computer finally spat out in a robotic voice.

Michael was floored. He asked more and more questions. First about baseball. Then history. Then pop culture. The supercomputer answered every question correctly. Well, almost every question. Occasionally, Michael would stump the computer, but he never noticed. He would ask a question that the machine couldn't answer, and it would suddenly encounter some system error, or it would become distracted by other tasks, and it would reset itself, ignoring the question. This never fazed Michael, who was furiously thinking up questions he could ask to stump the machine from MIT that was talking through my Mac IIsi.

The next night, we took things a bit further. We told Michael that we had found a satellite interface for the supercomputer, and that the machine could see us from outerspace.

"But we're inside," he objected.

"Yeah, but it uses weather and spy satellites. It can use RADAR and heat imaging to see through walls. It can even detect colors."

"Really?" He asked, without an inkling of doubt.

"Watch. Computer, who is in the room with me?"

The computer sat silent for a long time. Then:

"In the dormitory designated Pomerantz East Quad, Room 203, this machine detects 4 individuals. Philip Berne. Elizabeth Hu. Michael Pervis. Josh Cohen."

We all looked around, every one of us except Michael feigning shock. Michael didn't need to feign anything, he was floored.

"Computer, what color shirt is Michael Pervis wearing."

"Michael Pervis is wearing a red Izod shirt. Size medium."

Michael almost fainted.

"It knows my size?! How does it know my size?"

"I'm guessing the cameras are so sensitive that it can read the tag. Or maybe it just calculates based on your body size."

We continued for a few more minutes, then the computer dismissed itself with an unceremonious excuse and shut down.

Finally, on the next night, I hear screaming from down the hall.

"Phil! Josh! Get in here now! Get in here right now!" Michael was in a panic.

I yelled from my room to ask Michael what was going on. He wouldn't come to me, he insisted I come to him.

Michael's computer was talking to him. The things it was saying were not reassuring.

"Michael Pervis. Please remain calm. You are being charged with unlawful access to military intelligence property. Please remain in your room. FBI agents have been called and are en route to your location. Please remain calm. Do not try to escape."

Michael had turned pale beige like the Macintosh Color Classic on his desk that was now talking to him. He asked me what he should do. I told him he better listen to the machine. After all, if it could read his shirt size from outer space, it could certainly hunt him down.

We let this go on for about five minutes. That's a very long time when someone is panicked and you're trying not to crack up. Then, after some dry heaving and plenty of pats on the back, Josh's roommate Paul came into Michael's room. In his hand he held the thin microphone that came with his computer. Even though it wasn't connected to anything, as he entered the room, he spoke into the mic in a robotic voice:

"Michael Pervis. Please remain calm. You are being charged with unlawful access . . . "

Michael didn't get it at first. He thought Paul was mimicking the computer. Of course, as we all knew, Paul was the computer.

Here's how it worked: first we set up a simple voice chat program over the AppleTalk network. Paul could hear us in another room, and we could hear him. Michael asked questions, and Paul, with a small group from our dorm floor, supplied answers using his best robot impression. We started with baseball because Paul's a baseball nut and he has plenty of reference material. When our panel of experts didn't know an answer, we simply moved on and Michael hardly noticed.

On the second day, we had Elizabeth act as a runner between the dorm rooms. Michael was so distracted he never noticed her coming and going. When we asked about the color of his shirt, Liz ran down the hall and told Paul. For the shirt size, she simply guessed correctly.

The last piece was the most complicated. Some of our friends distracted Michael to get him out of his room, and I snuck in to install a piece of software on his computer. Michael was using an old version of the OS, so my first job was to install an extension that would allow the system to multi-task. Of course he would notice the voice chat app unless I could hide it running in the background. Then, I installed the chat program and let it run, hidden. We waited until he was back in his room, then simply started talking.

And that was the funniest, and the only, prank I've ever pulled.

This is the second time I've written this column for SlashGear, but only the first time I've submitted it for publication. The first time, I was simply trying to write a whimsical story about how technology has progressed over the years. I mean, a computer that couldn't multi-task! That's just crazy, right?

Then, a little over a week ago, a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide after a so-called prank that used similar methods. You can read the story here on CNN. His roommate turned on the camera and watched him over the campus network. When Tyler started getting intimate on camera, his roommate shared the live cam with the campus. Whether or not Tyler's roommate, Dharun Ravi, is homophobic is anybody's guess. But he shared Tyler's personal life, and he certainly wasn't polite about it.

It's a horrible story, completely wrenching from every angle. I sympathize with all of them. I certainly feel for the pain Tyler must have felt. I also can't believe that Ravi, even after his cold, callous and perhaps bigoted act, wanted anyone to die. He'll have to live with the death he caused for the rest of his life, and that's in addition to criminal charges he might face.

It's always depressing to read the comments on a Web site, especially one that deals with any polarizing issue. But after I got past the brutal homophobia and hatred in the comments on the CNN story, I noticed another trend. A lot of folks claimed this prank was a normal part of college, and that Tyler simply overreacted. I'm inclined to agree that suicide is almost always a tragic overreaction, but I wouldn't qualify Dharun Ravi's actions as a classic college prank.

I'm not going to make up rules or boundaries for a prank, because I think there's really only one rule. At the end, everybody laughs. I laugh, my co-conspirators laugh, and the victim laughs. At the end of my little Internet prank (I think we called it the Information Superhighway back then), Michael had a great big laugh. He laughed at his reaction, and he laughed at the way he was fooled by a ploy that seemed obvious, in retrospect.

Most of all, though, Michael knew that we liked him because we put so much effort into the prank. We didn't destroy his things, we didn't embarrass him in front of people he doesn't know. We were having fun, and it wasn't Michael who was the butt of our joke, it was his reaction, and the absurd situation we created.

What Dharun Ravi did was no prank. It was assault. There was no laughing; what was there to laugh about? If you're in college and you're still laughing at two people getting intimate, you're clearly not meant for a higher education.

In the end, this is not an Internet issue. Before the Internet, this would have been Ravi taking secret Polaroids of his roommate and posting them on bulletin boards. Or stealing his diary and making copies to pass around. I've seen both of these so-called pranks in my day, and they always end poorly. The Internet can bring out the worst in us, but as Wilson Rothman points out on MSNBC, the Internet could be a useful tool for both sides in the Rutgers case.

The best use for the Internet? Making us laugh. Laughter is the thin line drawn between a horrible tragedy and the funniest prank.