Janos Sugar on Tue, 9 Jul 96 22:11 MDT

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nettime: Spoofoids Crash the Town Meeting By Ted Nelson

Spoofoids Crash the Town Meeting
By Ted Nelson

Have I got this right?

Lots of people think that newsgroups and forums will make the world safe
for democracy -- some form of "Electronic Democracy." It will be like a New
England town meeting, they say. I think Howard Rheingold and John Perry
Barlow take this position.
The world will become a better place, like the Internet. (Never mind that
the Internet isn't actually a place.)
But when you went to a New England town meeting, you could see the other
people, smell the farm sweat, touch the flannel. Therefore you knew they
existed. And at the New England town meeting the city slickers couldn't
pretend to be local. And they couldn't send armies of stooges and shills
into the crowd.

I Type, Therefore I Am

But how do we ever know, after all, that the people who e-mail to us, or
chat with us, online, actually exist?
It's not that we just believe blindly; occasionally there is outside
corroboration. We make appointments that are kept (or not kept) by real
people; we talk on the phone to those who have chatted with us digitally;
checks come in the mail; or we talk to real people on the phone when the
checks don't.
But in today's electro-chatterworlds, e-mail, newsgroups and whatever, you
can't be sure who-- or what-- you're talking to. (The great New Yorker
cartoon, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog," is true.) On the
Net, it can be NOTHING at the other end -- a program, a vapor, a spoofoid.
(The Internet security guys talk now about "spoofing," meaning sneakery and
subterfuge on the Net. So a spoofoid is any entity that tries to fool you
about its nature, including its physical existence as a human being.)
Now, semi-phoniness is a part of legitimate life. Who hasn't exaggerated or
given a spin to their self-presentation on one occasion or another? (Some
of presentational control we esteem highly, and call "discretion.") And we
are allowed certain presentational variations of our usual selves: dressing
up, for instance.
But on the networks you can control your presentation to a new degree.
They've caught guys posing as women, for instance. Nothing to it; whereas
masquerading as the other gender in three-dimensional life is said to be
expensive and troublesome. And fictitious names are not illegal; indeed,
LYING is not illegal, along as you're not defrauding someone or committing
some other crime.

So spoof away, says the law.

Programming A Spoofoid

It's not hard to program a spoofoid to fool a victim (or mark, as victims
were called at the carnivals). Give it a bunch of things to say, expressing
a sort of world-view or persona, and set those aside on disk. Plus any
questions you want to probe the marks about.
Then make your reply generator. It has to respond plausibly to keywords
from the other person, and branch to the world view and the questions.
Obviously there's more to it than that, but not a lot. Consider the famous
old program, Joe Weizenbaum's ELIZA at MIT -- a program that replied to
anything you typed like a Rogerian psychoanalyst, turning your statements
back into questions ("So you like girls?" or "What makes you think it's a
nice day?")
The key was that it sounded knowing, and didn't say much. Of course, there
are people (like Zen masters, ministers, psychoanalysts) who pull this off
too. ELIZA fooled almost everybody, especially psychoanalysts.
My friend Andrew Pam did an ELIZA-type program that behaved like a system
administrator, I think he said, so that if people called up with questions
or complaints it would make helpful suggestions that sounded knowing, like
"Have you tried flushing your buffers?" He added random misspellings,
hesitations and backspaces, and customers were satisfied. So just think of
the possibilities.
You could program a spoofoid to be suave and reassuring, or to say things
like "I'm a wild and crazy guy" and pretend to be wacky. You can load it up
with obsolete old pickup lines, or sayings from Rush Limbaugh.

Then you put in the questions you want answered.

Now send it out, under various names, to talk to people.

You can use spoofoids to check people out. Friendly-seeming e-mail can test
people's political opinions. So the KGB (or whoever) could approach people
asking innocent questions, find out what they think. And fictitious
individuals can
start participating in newsgroups, to draw down fire, to find out who
thinks the opposite.
That friendly note you just got could be a test. Big Brother, whoever you
think that is this week, could dispatch a legion of spoofoids to get the
e-mail addresses of EVERYONE WITH STRONG OPINIONS. Or try to persuade you,
like petitioners and evangelists who come to your door; who if they don't
persuade you, waste your time.

The Turing Test

Alan Turing, a founder of artificial intelligence, proposed to test whether
a program was intelligent by whether it could chat you into thinking, over
a teletype line, that it was really a person.
Now of course that didn't solve the question of what intelligence meant, it
simply kicked over the table, redefining "intelligent" as merely
convincing, and giving
the world "chatterbox" a new meaning.
But whether or not you're convinced, they're here. Maybe. The spoofoids.

An Army of Ghosts

Junk mail you can recognize and throw out, but junk conversationalists are
another matter. Phony chatsters are not easily unmasked, especially if they
are free to digress or answer obliquely.
Imagine an army of ghosts coming at you -- all gibbering folksily. Like
phony voters from tombstones (an old American tradition), like phony
letters-to-congressmen (which can now be generated by the barrel by
computer), like a plague of locusts, a-hoppin' and a-jawin', they can stuff
your mailbox, fill up your favorite forums.
They can WASTE YOUR TIME. Now there's a danger that strikes to the heart.
And wasting the time of those with whom you disagree could be of political
When we think idealistically about small-town America, remember also how
carnivals would come through and fleece the rubes. But now that can be
combined with the town meeting. You may think it's a town meeting, but it
could be full of shysters and spoofoids.

Ted Nelson, the inventor of hypertext, is a senior research fellow at
Hokkaido University. He can be reached at ted@xanadu.net.

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