There is a place in Los Angeles I've never visited, but would love to: The Museum of Jurassic Technology. It is the subject of Lawrence Wechsler's delightful 1995 book, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology. One Amazon reviewer called the museum "a straight-faced, Andy Kaufman-esque joke, blending exhibits that look too nutty to be true, but are true, with outright hoaxes."
Sometimes the jokes are pretty broad:
The very first display you encounter is an exhibit entitled "Protective Auditory Mimicry." Together, encased under glass, are displayed a luminous iridescent beetle and next to it a similarly tiny iridescent pebble. The wall placard to the side asserts that over the eons this beetle has adapted to make precisely the same sound when threatened that this pebble makes at rest. [transcript of 1996 NPR radio documentary by Lawrence Wechsler]But mostly, the museum's curator David Wilson is a lot subtler than that. Driven to investigate the meticulously researched and lovingly displayed curiosities that Wilson presents, Wechsler found some to be true, some false, and some a mixture of the two.
I was reminded of all this on Thursday when, for hours, nobody seemed to know whether Google's GMail announcement was real, or was an April Fools day prank. It wasn't only the date of the announcement, but also its tongue-in-cheek tone -- "Search is Number Two Online Activity -- Email is Number One; "Heck, Yeah," Say Google Founders" -- that led many to conclude it must be a prank. Even one of the savviest observers on the scene, Doc Searls, was momentarily taken in. And when I posted my response to Doc's initial posting, suggesting that Google had executed a brilliant double head fake, I wasn't yet 100% certain that this was no hoax -- even though I had read John Markoff's story, datelined March 31, in the dead-trees version of the Times on the morning of April 1. Indeed, it was Doc's near-instantaneous correction, after receiving a call from a Google insider, that finally settled the matter for me -- and, I'm sure, for many others. It's interesting to consider why. I trust Doc Searls as much as I trust John Markoff, and it was Doc's site, not the Times' site, that first reported a Google source both acknowledging and dispelling the possibility of a hoax.
Here are the remaining questions. Did Google intentionally leverage the reality-bending April 1 tradition -- to which it has famously contributed -- in order to crank up the buzz surrounding the announcement? (Update: Doc says yes, based on this posting from Google employee Jason Shellen.) If so, was the strategy a brilliant PR coup, as I suggested on Thursday, or a colossal blunder, as Doc concluded on Thursday? In retrospect, I'm inclined to think Doc's right. But either way, the period of confusion on Thursday was a very weird time. The sensory apparatus that tells me what's going on in the world is a complex machine whose gears -- weblogs, newspapers, Google -- were grinding.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology wraps the frame of conceptual art around the experiences it delivers. But how do we frame what happened on Thursday? I'm reminded of a story a graduate school professor once told me. He was stationed in London, covering the art scene for Time Magazine, and went to Hyde Park to report on a work of performance art that was scheduled to happen there at a certain time. A bunch of people were milling around, waiting for the event to begin. Much later the artist finally arrived, surveyed the crowd, and asked: "Where do I sign?"
Update: Doc just wrote his post-mortem, in which he says: "I've long since lost my PR edge." No, Doc, I don't think so. I've changed my mind since Thursday, and I think your gut reaction was the right one.
Former URL: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2004/04/03.html#a963