The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web

Artificial Stupidity could stand some intelligence

A phone call came into The Tech last week to which I simply had to respond. It seems that a man named Eric Hughes had called and told us that we should write a story about him. His message said that he had been taped performing his show on the steps of 77 Massachusetts Ave., and that it would be worthwhile for The Tech to write a story about him. I begged for this assignment.

When he called back, I answered the phone. It turns out that he performs an "oral/visual" show at experimental theaters, scientific meetings, and on the street. He refers to his show as "Artificial Stupidity and Dada Processing." I agreed to meet with him. After a couple of messages on my answering machine and one here at the news office, he finally agreed to meet at The Tech, as I had originally suggested.

He arrived in The Tech's office five minutes early, carrying a couple of bags and portfolios, resembling a craggier and slightly older Nick Nolte. He quickly reinforced this by telling me that he was "Nick Nolte's emotional stuntman. I do stunts which are too dangerous or difficult emotionally for Nick."

Hughes has worked at MIT in various capacities, he claims, including a stint writing technical papers for the Energy Lab and one as a volunteer researcher for the Same Day Braille Project back in 1980 and '81. He also taught IAP courses here, and seems to simply love the Institute. "Look at the ol' place!" He exclaimed while looking out the window over Mass. Ave. I was immediately worried.

He is currently a "marketing manager for an MIT start-up company." Now, he says, the new ABC show America's Funniest People has taped him on the steps of 77 Mass. Ave. performing his work and will probably use the footage in an upcoming episode. He just wanted to let The Tech know that he thought this was a newsworthy event. Set your VCRs now.

I asked him what sort of show he did. He answered, "I do a one-man show which is sort of a stage magazine show, a variety show which is sort of a satire on high-tech and futuristic concepts." My own impression was that Hughes is a bizarre genetic recombination of Noam Chomsky, David Letterman, Walter Lewin, and Al Sharpton. He pokes fun at high tech, media manipulation, and commercialism, with showmanship, a slightly paranoid attitude, and shameless self-promotion.

The major project Artificial Stupidity is working on is The Parade Of The Tall Buildings. Hughes plans to bring the great tall buildings of the world here to Boston for a parade spectacular on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2000. I looked that date up, and it's a Sunday, not a Tuesday, but I'll give Hughes the benefit of the doubt.

When I asked him how he would carry the buildings over land he told me indignantly, "It's very difficult to move a skyscraper over land!" and explained his ideas for bringing them over water. He brought along pictures, in fact, of the Sears Tower arriving in Boston Harbor and another of the John Hancock Tower floating out to greet it.

His "pictures" aren't elaborate electronic montages created with expensive computers, scanners, and integrating software. They're cut-and-glue combinations of magazine photos. Some of these are very effective and funny, but some look like the work of a third-grader. Still others look like the funny work of a third-grader. One particularly good one is Hughes' mural of the Berlin Mall, soon to be at the site of the former Wall.

Featured at the Berlin Mall will be the new brands of cars made possible by German-American trade, including the 1997 Chevy Benz. Also, the mall will contain a "Store 5," so named because Berliners "Don't have much to sell" and therefore don't need to be open for 24 hours a day.

Hughes has a shirt made entirely of UPC product codes, which he once wore as he slid over a laser checkout scanner, ringing up a bill of $4002.17. Attached to the back was a Velcro backpack, which is simply a felt square with objects velcroed to it. He points out quite vehemently that this idea "antedates you-know-who doing the Velcro Wall trick by a year or two." You mean David Letterman, Eric?

But no, this wasn't the only time Hughes provided rock solid proof of his own inventiveness. He claims to have invented the idea for the sneaker phone before Sports Illustrated began selling theirs, and will provide you with pages and pages of photographic proof. He will tell you that his own Duller Image catalog was offering equipment to help you spy on yourself long before the Sharper Image catalog offered actual eavesdropping devices, and then he will show you the proof!

I spent an hour and a half talking to Hughes, and he never went for more than a few minutes without consciously saying something like "you should mention this in the article" or "I want to flag this." ("Flag" being his personal term for something he really wants to see in print, usually accompanied by a finger pointing at my notebook.) He handed me document after document, selling me on why certain pictures or images should run with the article. He would then slide into a tirade about how we're constantly being bombarded by media images.

In other words, Hughes is a high-level user of the constant media manipulation about which he seems so indignant. While his barbs at media imagery are very funny, he turns out to be in love with the spotlight and really enjoyed every minute of the "interview," which was actually more like a version of his show for an audience of one. Most of my questions were cut off so he could get to another part of his routine. Near the beginning of the interview he asked if any of the other Tech staff members would like to listen to him. I explained that they were probably too busy. He seemed to understand.

He even brought in a review of his performance-art show from an Oct. 1984 issue of The Tech. Thoughtfully, he circled the line where the reviewer said "the material was very funny." He didn't, however, circle the parts where the reviewer discussed the various problems and incomprehensibilities of his show.

That's the beauty of Hughes. He provides his own interpretation, eliminating the nasty habit people have of interpreting his work for themselves. He is constantly in "high explanation mode," pointing out the deep significance in his work. I agree that the material is, for the most part, very funny. However, Hughes ultimately destroys it with his repetitive self-analysis.

His performances are given approximately four times a year at Mobius, on Congress St. in Boston. (They're billed as quarterly updates on the Tall Buildings project.) He also told me that he was just picked as the banquet speaker for the 1991 meeting of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers in Baltimore. If you want to see a fascinating by-product of a technological mecca like MIT, catch one of his performances. Hughes is a unique but cross-purposed trip into the bizarre.


Recovering from his mind-numbing experience with Hughes, Tech columnist Bill Jackson '93 was unable to think of something interesting to say here.

He pokes fun at high tech, media manipulation, and commercialism, with showmanship, a slightly paranoid attitude, and shameless self-promotion.