The M of RWG&SD Exhibit 3: The :CueCat

Exhibit 3
  • Dates: 2000 to 2001
  • Description: A modified barcode reader
  • Significant Figure: Jeffry Jovan Pulitzer

The year is 2022 and I stumble into the Museum from the global-warming enhanced heat with sweat making my face-mask sticky. Despite the discomfort, I’m triumphant, having scored a set of clinical tests for the pandemic virus that has swept the globe. My eyes land on the third exhibit, a millennial seventh horseman of the apocalypse… How could we have known in 2000, the last year of innocence, that two decades later we would be scanning printed codes every day just to track the incidents of an insidious plague? We laughed at the :CueCat but its sinister curse would have its revenge upon us all…

OK, so I can’t actually blame Covid-19 on the CueCat (or “:CueCat” — the initial colon was part of its name). However, this weird computer peripheral did manage to anticipate many of the curses that would fall upon us in the new century. The basic idea of a device that would enable users to scan printed material as a way of accessing websites/online information is one that has become ubiquitous via QR codes and smartphones. Of course, nobody particularly likes QR codes (aside from marketers) and it has taken a worldwide disaster with 5 million+ people dead for their use to become part of everyday life and only then because of public health orders.

Back in happier times, the year 2000 had a lot going for it. Sure, fears of a very different global disaster (the Y2K bug) had loomed large in 1999 but those fears had abated when the world’s computer systems hadn’t crashed on New Year’s Eve. The world wasn’t exactly at peace but there was a sense that peace was possible. There was a reasonable chance that that nice Mr Al Gore might become President but even if he didn’t that affable Mr George Bush Jr guy was at least opposed to the whole idea of the US engaging in “nation-building” abroad.

However, some economists were worried by what appeared to be an extreme bubble in the stock market. Investor excitement about the internet and information technology had led to what had become known as a Dot-Com Bubble. The World Wide Web was the future and home computers were becoming more common in people’s homes. However, advertising and marketing online were still clumsy. Print media was still the predominant means of advertising to ordinary people but websites could potentially offer a much richer and more flexible experience.

Enter the CueCat.

The CueCat was a device you could plug into your computer and use to scan printed codes. Those codes would take you to specific web pages and thus bridge the gap between printed and online media.

“With a :CueCat device developed by Digital:Convergence, you will swipe a cue, which looks like this: and be taken directly to a specific Web page… giving you the information you want instantly. No more wading through dozens of Web pages or typing in long URLs. Just the information you want with a single swipe.”

The true harbinger of doom in this scheme was both subtle and obvious. The CueCat was given away to people in hundreds of thousands. Forbes magazine and WIRED magazine both provided large numbers of devices to readers. Popular electronics store RadioShack (who had the licence to manufacture the device) would also give the CueCat away to customers.

The true price for a CueCat was not in cash but in personal information. To set up and operate the devices, users had to register personal details and were also presented with a lengthy survey to complete about their buying habits. Tech companies would become more subtle in their desire to harvest personal information in the following decades but the CueCat was more brazen about what it was after. It was a product for advertisers and marketers rather than consumers but for the scheme to work, it needed consumers to actively make use of the weird device.

Maybe it would have caught on. I suspect not — the more recent QR code technology has not been particularly popular with consumers despite being much easier to use. However, the CueCat’s fate was sealed by even deeper issues. I described the device as essentially a bar-code scanner but it was a bit more than that. To enable the CueCat to access specific web pages, the device was also effectively a device that could record keystrokes and send that data online. So not only did it ask for all your personal details, but it was also border-line spyware.

Before the end of the year of its launch, the privacy fears about the CueCat were made manifest by a security breach that exposed the personal details of tens of thousands of users. Radio Shack compensated users with a $10 gift voucher, adding to the losses built into the CueCat business model. To make money, CueCat needed people to actively use it to connect print advertising to online marketing, which people were not habitually doing. By early 2001, the whole scheme was falling apart. The major companies that had embraced CueCat wrote off their investment and the company behind the device laid off its staff.

The Right-Wing connection: Behind the CueCat was the larger than life personality called Jovan Hutton Pulitzer. In the early 90’s, known as Jeffry Jovan Philyaw or sometimes just Jovan, he was an early pioneer of web-based marketing and a genuine pioneer of what would later be called podcasting. Following the commercial disaster of the CueCat, he changed his name and continued patenting inventions and working in marketing but he also took on a new venture: treasure hunting.

Writing as “Commander Pulitzer”, he produced a range of treasure hunting books, maintained his own pseudo-history blog as “History Heretic” and even scored a gig on the History Channel’s nonsensical “Curse of Oak Island”. Overall, these ventures were more towards the benign side of batshit nonsense about the past rather than the more overtly toxic side. His book blurbs described himself as:

“J. Hutton Pulitzer is COMMANDER of TreasureForce. TreasureForce is the World’s Foremost Terrestrial Treasure Recovery Team and COMMANDER plans and manages missions all around the globe. TreasureForce combines historical re-enactments and forensic research with the most advanced tools and instruments in the world to locate and recover famous Lost Treasures and to either prove or disprove various Treasure Legends. As an Inventor, Pulitzer is globally one of the foremost Inventors in modern times, recognized as one of the “Top 50 Inventors in the World”, and as an Author, he has published over 200 individual titles.”

Promotional text for “Commander’s How to Cut Off Your Arm and Eat Your Dog”

Pulitzer had largely been pro-Trump during the 45th President’s term but the 2020 election gave Pulitzer a unique opportunity to combine his particular approach to both technology and factual evidence. In the aftermath of Trump’s electoral defeat, there were many claims that the election had been stolen. Pulitzer had his own unique approach to these claims.

“Now there is talk in right wing circles — or perhaps it’s just wishful thinking — that she may hire an amateur treasure hunter named Jovan Hutton Pulitzer, who claims to have invented technology that will root out the fraud that has gone undetected elsewhere in conventional recounts. Pulitzer is perhaps best known as the inventor of the vaunted CueCat in the late 1990s but alas, the cat-shaped bar-code scanner never caught on. According to Time magazine, it was one of the 50 worst inventions of all time.

Pulitzer told a Georgia state Senate panel in December that he has developed new scanner technology that will detect fraudulent ballots. The process, he says, is called “kinematic artifact detection” and sounds like the second coming of the CueCat.”

Kinematic artefact detection was not a technique that Pulitzer ever gave clear descriptions of but his claimed expertise as an inventor and as an expert in scanning documents led to him being promoted as an authority on election fraud by far-right platforms such as Gateway Pundit.

Museum Scores

  • Gadgetyness: 8/10 definitely a gadget but it loses two point because really it is just existing technology in a cute shell.
  • Ideologicalness: 6/10 it gets 3 points for trying to get people to willingly look at more advertising and another 3 for anticipating the intrusive collection of personal information for targetted advertising that would become the norm on the web.
  • Actualness: 10/10 this was an actual functional product that initially was embraced by some major companies.

18 responses to “The M of RWG&SD Exhibit 3: The :CueCat”

  1. I have one. It’s USB as opposed to plugging in through the keyboard port, and I’ve gone in and ‘defanged’ it — if you clip a certain lead on the chip, it defeats the encryption — but it’s very good for what I use it for, which is to be a cheap portable scanner for book ISBNs. (I’m also old enough to have gotten the original ps/2 version from radio shack, but I never actually used it…probably a good thing.)

    Discovering the wonders of Jovan Pulitzer during the last election was one of the more amusing (in a certain sense) of last election. That’s why I knew the entry was coming.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Not sure if this is “kinematic,” but one of his claims during the Arizona audit for fraudulent ballots was that he could find ballots that came from China by checking for bamboo. Because all Chinese paper is made out of bamboo, apparently.


  2. We had one for a while, completely defanged, but never got around to scanning the ISBN on our books, but then a lot of our books don’t have one anyway and eventually it got tossed out when someone came around collecting random electronic stuff for disposal. I think most people’s ended up in landfills, which I suppose will be handy for future archaeologists.

    Katster has described the only useful thing ever done with it. I picked up a used textbook that was full of CueCat links, which of course dated it immediately. Felt sorry for the students who got stuck with those and weren’t even able to sell them back to the campus bookstore or pass them down to others.

    But I had missed his election-related scam entirely; sounds like there wasn’t much info to be found anyway.


  3. I remember that LibraryThing pushed this for a while as a way to scan the ISBNs on your books to catalogue them on the sire. I never bothered (one of my pre-law school jobs was working as a proof encoder, and the ten-key skills never left me, so punching in an ISBN by hand usually takes me less than a second). I never knew anything about the CueCat other than that.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You can, of course, now get any number of code scanners on your phone. In fact, we are using QR codes for our space-booking system, and they only need the use of your phone’s camera.

    Liked by 1 person

    • At work we actually had a barcode scanner that we couldn’t get to work on our embedded devices… after looking it over, I discovered that the problem was that it wasn’t actually a barcode scanner at all, it was a cheap webcam in a barcode scanner housing, and all the barcode handling was in fact being done in the supplied driver, pretty much like any ‘barcode scanner’ on your phone.

      Liked by 2 people

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