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Sunscreen Spill on the Misinformation Superhighway

The Kurt Vonnegut hoax


"Maybe the Internet is like TV — if people see it there they believe it." (Robert Weide, screenwriter, Mother Night)

"I don't know what the point is except is how gullible people are on the Internet." (Kurt Vonnegut Jr., author)

"The point... is that simulations have devoured reality... we are looking at an implosion — reality and meaning are melting into a nebulous mass of self-reproducing simulation." (Erica J. Seidel, Simulation versus Reality)

Aug. 10, 1997

DON'T BOTHER trying to look up Kurt Vonnegut's email address on the Internet. He doesn't have one. The reason is the 74-year-old author's longstanding aversion to all things "cyber" — an aversion doubtless exacerbated by the events of last week.

In case you've been living in a bomb shelter, here's what happened. On or about Thursday, July 31, 1997, an email message began making the rounds featuring the text of a commencement speech purportedly given by Vonnegut at MIT. It was clever, poignant, and full of the kind of arch-cynical humor Vonnegut is famous for. Unfortunately, Vonnegut never delivered any such address. Nor did he write the words attributed to him.

The actual address heard by the MIT graduates of 1997 — in which Vonnegut had no part whatsoever — was delivered by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on June 5. According to an MIT spokesman, Annan's speech was "a lot longer and maybe not as clever" as the text falsely attributed to Vonnegut. Annan's words of wisdom have been publicly available on the Internet since the date of the address.

But the faux Vonnegut speech had already funneled through thousands of modems before the hoax was discovered and the true source of the text identified — a newspaper column by Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune. In that column, published June 1, Schmich fantasized about the kind of commencement address she would give if invited to do so.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '97," the imaginary speech began. "Wear sunscreen."

It was funny and it was well-written. But it wasn't Vonnegut.

Vonnegut: 'The Internet is spooky'

The incident took everyone concerned by surprise. Recipients of the message who thought they'd recognized Vonnegut's unique wit were embarrassed to find out they'd been duped. Supposedly even Vonnegut's wife, Jill Krementz, fell victim to the hoax and gleefully forwarded the message to family and friends.

In the aftermath of the hoax, Mary Schmich, who has taken to calling the Internet a "lawless swamp," received hundreds of phone calls and email messages, some of them accusing her of plagiarism. She subsequently tried to track down the originator of the hoax, but could not.

Bemused by the incident, Vonnegut says he finds cyberspace "spooky," and populated by people who seemingly believe anything they read.

But there are deeper phenomena underlying what happened here than the lawlessness and gullibility of the Internet population. What Marshall McLuhan said of television is no less true of the Internet: "the medium is the message." New technologies aren't simply changing the way information is transmitted; they are altering our perception of reality. Or befuddling it.

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