tudents at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are
known for their ambitious pranks. At the 1982 Harvard-Yale football
game, a hidden weather balloon emblazoned with the letters M.I.T.
sprang from an explosion of talcum powder on the field. In 1998,
students hacked the university's Web site, replacing its home page
with an image of Mickey Mouse and the headline "Disney to Acquire
MIT for $6.9 Billion."
Now, a parody Web site devised by a student at M.I.T.'s Media
Laboratory sends up the offbeat research and famously inflated
jargon of that program.
On the parody site, which mimics the design of a legitimate
M.I.T. Web page, the Erotic Computation Group (ecg.media.mit.edu)
claims to study "the implications of modern technology on human
eroticism in its myriad forms" as well as ways to "broaden the range
of human amative expression." (That may not sound too far afield
from real Media Lab programs like Pet Projects, an actual research
group that on the real Media Lab Web site describes itself as using
"computer-based tools to enhance pet-human interactions and the
lives of pet animals.")
Supposed Erotic Computation student projects include ones
claiming to develop "speech-based interfaces" to "mechanize the
process of phone sex" and "holographic imaging techniques" that make
"3-dimensional representations of sexual situations."
"There's a fair amount of fluffy stuff at the lab without much
hard technology behind it," explained Dan Maynes-Aminzade, the
first-year Media Lab graduate student behind the hoax. "Sometimes we
hear masturbatory rhetoric about how we're changing the world. This
seemed to fit."
If the Media Lab has a reputation in some circles for focusing on
pie-in- the-sky, even whimsical, research, the faculty can also
appreciate a good prank. "They did a good job of mimicking a lot of
the research that goes on around here," said Walter Bender,
executive director of the program. "It's on the edge of what's
generally acceptable," he said, but "there's been tons of these
things over the years."
Mr. Maynes-Aminzade said that Mr. Bender had e-mailed him saying
that the site was so popular the traffic was slowing the network and
that a Media Lab corporate sponsor had asked if the site was real.
Despite his mild amusement, Mr. Bender remained the rigorous
M.I.T. professor. "I think they could have done a better job than
they did," he said.