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net.wars: The untweetable Xeroxness of being

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 24 March 2009


So the other week I was chatting on Twitter across time and space with a Xerox machine from 1961… (as you do.)

Wendy M Grossman

At least, it said it was a Xerox machine. On the Internet, no one knows you're a coffee pot.

In fact, the conversation seems less rational than that: it's a fictional Xerox machine.

The story begins with the brilliantly conceived and executed TV show Mad Men. Set in the 1960s in a Madison Avenue advertising agency of the kind my father worked with at that time (my father was a Manhattan printer from the 1920s to 1980s) the show's first season featured secretaries and a typing pool.

At the beginning of the second season, which starts in February 1962, the office has a new arrival: a Xerox 914. The secretaries gape at it and admire its workings without quite realising that the machine heralds the decline of secretarial careers, a process that will become complete when PCs arrive on every desktop. Like, now.

"There will be a little 914 in everything," the machine tweeted at one point, a nod to the fact that today's graphical interfaces were first dreamed up at Xerox's PARC research lab, doubtless funded by some of the 914's revenues.

Pause to look up the Xerox 914. It was, I read on Wikipedia, the first commercially successful plain-paper copier. Plain paper! In 1961 the only copy machines I ever got near used nasty thermal paper that got easily scuffed. In fact, I was still being rude about the local library's thermal paper fax in 1971. Sterling Cooper was an early adopter and a big spender on this one. Its number derived from the size of things it could copy: anything up to 9in by 14in.

Aaannyway, someone on WELL noted that the show's 914 had a Twitter account. I thought it was just amusing enough to follow. For months, it burped out a tweet at irregular intervals, a few weeks or a month apart. It's hinted at irregularities in the expense accounts filed by Pete Campbell (a character on the show who also has a Twitter feed), and admired Joan Holloway's figure (ditto). I don't follow the human characters. Human characters are a dime a dozen. It takes real talent to be a machine.

The other night, the machine went berserk and started pumping out URLs. No explanation of what they were, just shortened URLs. Ten or 20 at least, in the space of an hour or two. Finally, maddened, I sent the machine a message.

"Did squirrels get into the nuts in the writers' room, or what?" I demanded intemperately. I didn't expect an answer any more than I did on the day in 1979 at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, when I passed a guy pouring beer on his head and – well, I guess he thought it was – dancing, and muttered, just to vent, "First time on the planet, sir?" (Stan Rogers, who happened to be watching, reminded me of this incident several years later; apparently he liked the line so much he grabbed it and used it on hecklers throughout the rest of his career.)

The next morning, however, I found a message waiting: "My nuts are perfectly tight, thank you."

I posted this little exchange back onto the WELL, where someone less suspicious than I pointed out that the URLs the machine had been posting were links to pictures of other old Xerox machines and very early computers, plus one to a secret Fortran manual. The machine, in other words, was behaving exactly in character, excited because it had come across a treasure trove of pictures of friends, family, and…would that machine look sexy if you were a machine? Oh. It was surfing for porn.

It was treasonable to be suspicious. Spam has come to Twitter, as will become increasingly obvious over the next few months. I used "credit card" in a message this week, and almost instantly got a reply directing me to a site selling money management tools to help me pay off my credit cards. (My credit cards are perfectly tight, thank you.) And of course, someone could have hacked the machine's account, or the studio advertising department could have decided restraint was stupid. You just never know. But… I was wrong.

And so I told it, with an apology for not trusting it. It replied with nothing but a shortened URL that, when I clicked, displayed an empty page with a message in the title bar: " No apology needed @wendyg, I am only offended by shameless low voltage and the occasional body fluids on my glass." Hm.

But I'm still making this conversation sound more sensible than it was, because it's actually not clear which, if any, of the characters' Twitter feeds actually emanate from the show's broadcast channel, AMC, or from the show's production team. There was, some months back, a mini-war between the Twitterers and AMC, which issued DMCA notices to shut them down and then recanted. Xerox914's profile links to the real 914's Wikipedia entry; others link to fan blogs; a few go to AMC's site.

So start over:

The other week I was chatting on Twitter with a fake fictional Xerox machine from 1961. On the Internet, no one knows you're a piece of carbon paper…


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).