Posted by: sarahmeyers | January 15, 2008

Pranks, Steve Wozniak and Civil Disobedience

“A Gizmodo writer has been banned from CES for a prank,” say’s Brian Lam. Every time a prank is pulled there is a reason behind it even if that is unclear at the time of the stunt. Thus the person who pulls the prank usually has an intention of some sort. For me, Steve Wozniak and Gizmodo’s Richard Blakeley there is a common purpose to all the stunts we have pulled in the past, but they don’t always end up with the results we were hoping for.

This is what Steve Wozniak, aka Woz, has to say about it: “I do believe that when others are putting on some sort of show they deserve not to have it disrupted. They deserve not to have it heckled or lasered or turned off. But I also feel that Brian’s mistake was a simple human one that any young person trying to find the proper ways to have fun with such tech jokes might stumble into, probably only once in their lives. I would have spoken with him and forgiven him if I were in charge of the TV’s he turned off. I’m glad it didn’t go further, like to arresting him.”

Brian Lam writes, “When did journalists become the protectors of corporations? When did this industry, defined by pranksters like Woz, get so serious and in-the-pocket of big business? This is totally pathetic.” He thinks journalists who take the promotions of companies and go lightly on them when they mess up are sell-outs. Robert Scoble responds by saying, “Oh, excuse me, I’ve now gotta turn off all the Apple monitors at MacWorld to prove I’m ‘independent’ and not part of Apple’s PR machine.” I can feel the heat from the Ces stunt coming off Scoble, but it’s not as hot as when I had Terry Semel’s bodyguards hands pushing, pulling and inside my purse over a silly prank on Yahoo! This was an experience that didn’t end with the results I was looking for. A friendly boot would have made a funny blog, but almost going to jail made me want to cry. It didn’t stop my inner prankster.

When Woz saw the prank video I made for Gizmodo with the writer, Richard, banned from CES he said, “I wish more people did this sort of thing when aspects of the world are ridiculous. I use my laser pointer aboard every flight I take because there is a federal law that, as a passenger, using one is 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. I do it to protest such a ridiculous law. I got to where I’d make sure the stewardess saw it, but none ever said anything. They obviously were not aware of this 4- or 5-year old law. I then told a couple of stewardesses exactly why I do it (mentioning 5 years and $250K) and one said “maybe you shouldn’t do it then.” I actually did think a bit deeper and decided that it’s not a good idea to do it too fragrantly.”

He doesn’t do that anymore, though. Scoble responds to Brian’s reference to Woz and hollers, “and to use Steve Wozniak’s pranks (which were never aimed at keeping people from doing their jobs — he wouldn’t even let me aim a laser pointer at a screen at Shoreline to make sure I didn’t hurt other people’s experiences) is just despicable. Brian: you really need to spend some time understanding how Woz did his pranks and the ethics he used behind them. He, also, didn’t pretend to be a journalist, or even a blogger, while doing those pranks.”

Like Scoble says, Woz does his pranks with ethics behind them. Woz breaks it down and protests, “there is a ridiculous law passed just after 9-11 that makes it a federal felony to use one while aboard an airplane – 5 years and $250K. It’s so ridiculous that nobody would imagine it’s a law so I use one deliberately on every flight I take. I even started calling the stewardesses attention to it to see if they’d tell me not to. Then I started telling the stewardesses that it was a federal offense and they said maybe I shouldn’t do it so I don’t call it to their attention any more.”

Laser pointer airplane action is not the only prank Woz used to mess with the airlines. He used to take Japanese knives on planes too. Woz adds, “also, for many years, all before 9-11, I would take folding ceramic knives that I purchased in Japan in my pockets. I’d make sure there was nothing metal on me and I’d walk through the metal detector. On the planes I’d often rub the knife and tell the stewardess that I hoped the meat was tender. When served, I’d pull out my ceramic knife and cut the steak with it. Other passengers seemed agitated but the most a stewardess ever said was “oh, a plastic knife.” The blade was 6 inches long. I told friends that it was legal because of the 3-finger rule, that if a flight attendant would likely break the knife before losing 3 fingers then it was legal.”

I can’t help but laugh at Steve Wozniak’s sense of humor! He pushes the limits because he want’s to see what will happen when he does. After all, who would ever mess with the Woz? Gizmodo’s Richard Blakeley might try to take down Woz if he was given the opportunity because the only thing he wants out of life is to be known for something. Richard said, “everyone mad about the CES video is arguing that I’m killing blogging. If that were true it would be really good for me to be the guy that took down blogging.” Gizmodo stands by the controversial video. Richard goes on to say, “no matter what happens it’s still a good video. The way I look at it is if no one sees it then it never happened.”

This is where Blakeley and Wozniak are different. When Woz invented the Apple computer and put it on display at the Homebrew club for the first time he didn’t have to push it into the public eye in order to get everyone to take a look. He knew if it was good and useful people would come to him. And they did. Take it from me, the infamous party crasher who crashed about every high-profile event out there, we all want to get in trouble for our pranks. Even if you don’t realize it when you pull the prank, there is something that compels you. For Woz it was to make a point about how ridiculous the laws are. For Gizmodo it was to make a good video that would get lots of hits. For me, it was to make a name in Silicon Valley and break into tech, something that isn’t easy to do.

Steve Wozniak explains, “comedy is in the acting – if you act as though it’s “normal” and ok, that impression gets conveyed to others, even in security, for a while. Your own confidence leaves them out of their comfort environment. If you were to act like it was wrong, they’d detect that and make a scene or worse.” If you are planning a prank or PR stunt of some kind first ask yourself what the goal is, acknowledge what is right and what is wrong and then rethink pulling the stunt all together. A Scoble says, “Can I have off this “new ethical journalism” bus now? I gotta go throw up.”

(For more coverage visit PopSnap).



  1. Nice tying it all together.

  2. Thanks Matt,

    I worked hard on this one. A nice comment coming from you makes me proud I got to publish this one on WordPress.

    Hope to see you at MacWorld tomorrow!


  3. […] on pranks Nice to see Sarah Meyers talked to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak tonight about his approach to pranks. One difference between Woz and Giz? Woz wasn’t working as a […]

  4. Great Post! The Woz is truly a character.

    Macworld onward!

  5. […] sarahmeyers placed an interesting blog post on Pranks, Steve Wozniak and Civil DisobedienceHere’s a brief overviewBut I also feel that Brian’s mistake was a simple human one that any young person trying to find the proper ways to have fun with such tech jokes might stumble into, probably only once in their lives. I would have spoken with him and … […]

  6. So Woz is the personal arbitor of what federal airlines laws to follow and which to ignore? By using that laser on a flight, he’s playing with people’s lives. Does he crave the kudos of the young so desperately he’s willing to endanger his fellow passengers? Apparently.

    So the law applies to eveyone by Woz? This stupid prank could lead to a marshall taking him out by accident. Who’s fault would that be?

    As a voice who is admired by many, he needs to follow a higher standard and stop showing bad example to others, especially those younger than him.

    I hope the Feds make an example of him by arresting and prosecuting him. His right to dangerous pranks ends in the air when the safety of the the crew and passengers relies on pilots, air crews, and air marshall’s being able to do their jobs.

    The reason Woz is not to use a laser on a flight is because a gunmen with a laser gun will use it to target and kill passengers. How is a flight marshall who is on a plane protecting his life and everyone else’s to distinguish between his prank and a real gunman?

    Maybe Woz needs to talk to a few airline pilots or air marshall’s who are responsible for all passenger and crew safety, not one selfish tool like Woz, to see how they view it.

    Civil disobedience has a long history in this country. This is not civil disobedience. It is an old man trying desperately to be hip, but time, and common sense, have passed him by.

  7. I’m going to have to defend Woz here. Come on, what did you expect? Like I said in the blog post, he doesn’t do it anymore. It’s just a story from his past time.

    He does not want all young people to follow after him or look cool to young people. He cares about humanity and has done more to help it than most people in the world.

  8. Speaking of Woz, he just drove past the Macworld keynote line on his Segway. He’s such a lovable dork.

  9. Sarah, great exclusive! But, the editor in me is dying here… upwards there’s a Woz quote that says he is being too “fragrant”… Did he really say THAT or did he say “flagrant”? With Woz… you never know 🙂

  10. Nice!

  11. Poetslife is absolutely right… as far as he goes. But it’s important to remembewr that virtually all gunmen use their index fingers to pull the trigger. How is an air marshal to know whether all those index fingers are just waiting to do the deed, or are innocently hanging around with those other nine innocent digits. I say amputate all index fingers before flight. Keep the skys safe for those of us who are all thumbs.

  12. But like Scoble says, Woz isn’t a journalist. I guess us bloggers can’t play pranks? Like I said, you got to ask yourself if it’s right.

  13. Quite an interesting, if hefty, post! Myself I mostly agreed with a lot of commenters who found the CES prank in general hilarious (especially the bit where a whole wall of screens goes down!), while targeting a guy in the midst of a presentation was a bit over the line.
    I think you’re right to point out the role of pranks in the development of information technology (beyond Woz, look at the tradition of pranks at MIT), and among ingenious people generally (Richard Feynman was famous for picking locks on top secret lockers to leave prank notes in Los Alamos when he was involved in the Manhattan Project!!).
    Especially in the context of these commercial trade shows, commentators (if not the exhibitors themselves) need to have a sense of humor. While I’m frankly a bit surprised that Gizmodo owned up to being involved in the prank, I suppose it was also an expression of their own confidence, as I suspect that the reach of the gadget blog is too valuable to the exhibitors at CES to prevent them inviting them back again next year.

    As for the Woz-hater poster here, two points: First of all chill out. Secondly, the ban on laser pointers has nothing to do with laser-scopes on firearms, but is rather related to the instances of near-blinding of pilots by lasers fired from the ground into cockpits of landing planes (see this CNN link:, although I’m not sure what this has to do with lasers INSIDE the plane..

    Well then, for somebody who complained about the length of the original post, this was one heck of a long comment! =D

  14. […] Pranks, Steve Wozniak and Civil Disobedience [image] “A Gizmodo writer has been banned from CES for a prank,” say’s Brian Lam. Every time a prank […] […]

  15. When I see older guy being “hip” by pushing the envelope it gives me hope. I too am sick off all the stupid laws that are heaped upon us to keep us in line. Or am I just a non conformist?
    Thanks Sarah for a great story!

  16. I like hip mature men. Steve rocks my world.

  17. “Woz-hater” Richard?

    All I did was disagree with the guys illegal actions and his encouraging his fans to do so as well. Actually, I respect his accomplishments.

    Having flown in the USAF, I just have no time for pranks in the air that can lead to innocent people dying.

  18. Apologies, don’t take the Woz-hater comment to heart, I meant it in a jocular, ‘you be drinking that haterade’ kind of way.
    As for activities in the air leading to innocent people dying and the USAF… well, I won’t go there.

  19. Richard, I’m not taking it to heart. Woz is the man.

  20. Ahhh, Richard, thanks for settling the fight. Best Regards, Sarah

  21. Ultimately, it sounds like Woz found a balance in not pushing the edges. It’s rather like confronting some poor schmo from the TSA as you’re being searched about all the “security theater” that stands in contrast to things that would actually matter. Making such a grandstand play isn’t likely to change the stupidity of our TSA regulations… it’ll just cause you to miss your flight. (Woz has a point about the lasers [a laser point?]. Such a reg is even more ridiculous than the myth of liquid explosives.)

    WRT the Gizmodo stunt, it’s good to remember that the stunter was there as a guest of the people running the show, who pour millions into the event. In a similar vein, my guess is that if something important in his life were similarly punk’d (i.e. some dorkwad temporarily electronically disabling all the cars that are pulled up to a busy intersection), he’d not find it quite so entertaining and amusing.

    “What? You missed that job interview because we were standing around laughing at your stalled car at the light? Too bad dude, because now you’re face is plastered all over YouTube!” – Tim

  22. […] project and advocates open source digital technologies. People like me, Nicholas Negroponte and Steve Wozniak believe in open source. So why can’t Steve Jobs join them with his Macintosh operating […]

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