02
Apr
09

Falling For It

When Gmail offered me an automatic email response generator, I didn’t think much about it.

A bit weird, I thought, but why not? When Google is constantly testing new and improved ways to make useful the ceaseless stream of information it gathers from us second be ever-lovin’ second, it seems perfectly plausible (though not, I hope, reasonable) that next on the list would be a service that scans your incoming messages and automatically generates a response, matching your style and tone, without a second thought from you.

They called the service “Gmail Autopilot,” powered by something called by CADIE, or “Cognitive Autoheuristic Distributed-Intelligence Entity

“Email will never be a thing of the past,” it declared, “but actually reading and writing messages is about to be” — as if it’s a terrible burden to think for oneself.

Who would use this? I thought. Who could be so lazy?

I wondered — hoped, really — if the system would only generate the email, leaving the decision to send or not to send up to the user. To find out, I clicked the link to “learn more.” I briefly considered trying it, but thought better of it.

Later, inspired by the dawn of National Poetry Month, I decided to resume reading the daily emails I have been receiving for years from The Writer’s Almanac. Leave it to Garrison Keillor to kill a perfectly good joke. Today’s post included the following entry:

Today is April Fools’ Day, and it’s also on this day in 2004 that Google released Gmail to the public. Many people thought it was a joke: It offered a whole gigabyte of storage, which was exponentially greater than what was offered by other free e-mail services at the time.

Gmail has played a number of memorable pranks on April Fools’ Day. Last year, users signing into their Gmail account on April Fools’ Day saw a banner announcing “New! Gmail Custom Time,” which supposedly allowed users to pre-date some of their outgoing e-mail messages. On April 1, 2006, Google announced a new dating service, called Google Romance. They said, “When you think about it, love is just another search problem.”

Nicely played, Google. I thought the examples on the “Autopilot” FAQ page seemed excessively humorous.

After this, I seemed to find practical jokes everywhere I turned.

YouTube was upside down today, which I thought was brilliant — only if one’s Web browser was capable of displaying the upside-down typeface.

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[www.youtube.com

I found a fake news story on today’s NPR’s Morning Edition broadcast about The Economist opening up a theme park.

I received a tweet about today’s Planet Money podcast having an April Fool’s Day joke in it.

Even the BBC World Service broadcast this morning, I remembered, included a segment during which a series of implausible headlines was read aloud and the listeners were invited to write in and guess which one was actually false. It seemed to me at the time just like a cute listener-response segment like that game they play on Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me.

An aside: All this online tomfoolery at least explains why Queerty released a new page design yesterday. They must have been careful to avoid April 1, because the changes they made certainly do seem like a joke. (This is among the worst page design I have seen.)

Three people at work told friends and loved ones via email that they had been laid off in a surprise downsizing. Only one of them succeeded in tricking someone.

I can’t remember a time since I was a kid that I’ve seen so much attention paid to an April Fool’s Day. I began to fear that people would stop believing what I was saying, expecting at any moment to be the subject of a prank. I began to feel obligated to play some kind of mischief myself. If I weren’t so terribly bad at lying, I might have tried it.

Maybe we just need some fun in the news these days. It’ll be back to normal tomorrow.

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