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Scanning for Superiority

A graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has invented a hand-held electronic device that can instantaneously tell a consumer whether the manufacturer of a product is a “good corporate citizen.” Encased within what The New York Times refers to as a “Cold-War-Era Geiger Counter,” this somewhat bulky object contains a bar code reader …

A graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has invented a hand-held electronic device that can instantaneously tell a consumer whether the manufacturer of a product is a “good corporate citizen.” Encased within what The New York Times refers to as a “Cold-War-Era Geiger Counter,” this somewhat bulky object contains a bar code reader equipped with a database listing pollution complaints and ethics violations allegedly committed by the company. By scanning the bar code printed on virtually any commercial product, the consumer can immediately determine whether the manufacturer of the merchandise is in any way “blemished.”

The idea of accessing a database that instantaneously identifies a manufacturer as being morally inviolate is, in theory at least, quite marvelous. And it is certainly a vast improvement over those idiotic little pamphlets that judge companies according to various ethical criteria and turn shopping into a nightmare.

The problem is, the vast majority of consumers don’t want to carry a clunky Geiger counter to the supermarket, because life is hard enough as it is. Let’s say you’re a couple of frat boys out on a midnight beer run. You scan one six-pack and find out that the brewery is anti-union. You scan a second six-pack and discover that the brewery uses water from a notoriously polluted river. Scan of a third six-pack reveals a brewery using hops made in a Third World country that does not hold free elections. Before you know it, you’ve run out of beer you can purchase in complete moral equanimity. So you head over to the liquor store to buy some wine. But then you find out that the best wines come from France, which collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War. How will the poor boys at Epsilon Delta Theta ever get a buzz on?

This is not my only concern. Suppose unscrupulous hackers infiltrated the ethical violations database and jumbled all the results. The net effect might be that consumers would inadvertently be shunning morally upstanding sneaker companies and buying products from hideous companies that operate sweat shops in Indonesia. This is just the sort of colossal prank that puckish hackers love to play on the powers that be.

The Times notes that the ethical Geiger counter is rather noisy, so much so that it would attract the attention of other shoppers. Here, I can envision a nightmare scenario. As a bit of a cynic, I generally go out of my way to buy products made by irredeemably corrupt companies. The reason? They tend to be cheaper. I know this is not the best way to run your life, but I’m aiming for price and convenience. So there I am, all set to buy a can of tuna fish made by an explicitly evil corporation and along comes one of these Galahads scanning my purchases with the Geiger counter, sending off a loud noise apprising everyone within earshot that I am deliberately advancing the cause of Satan. Because I live in a small town, word would quickly get out that I was not only contributing to the destruction of the Rain Forest, but was the personal enemy of the whales, the manatees, the dolphins and yes, the shade-grown coffee makers. My name would be mud.

James Patten, who invented the device as a class project, says he has no plans to develop it as a commercial product. Yeah, right. In a country where 50 percent of the population likes to make the other 50 percent feel guilty about everything-the cars they drive, the houses they live in, the shoes they wear-this contraption could be the biggest thing since the personal computer.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that the wunderkinder at MIT are working on hand-held moral defibrillators. Personally, I look forward to other similar products, such as a phone ID system that can tell me whether the caller voted for Ralph Nader or once participated in an amateur production of “Cats.” Still, it’s all a little weird. A couple of years ago, when my daughter was shopping for colleges, we took the official MIT tour. The school’s promotional video poked fun at the university’s image by describing a “geek patrol”-an attempt to track down the Ivory Tower eggheads one has long associated with this institution of higher learning. The gist of the video was obvious: The school’s reputation as a geek factory was entirely unjustified, a silly urban myth.

Now, I’m not so sure. Frankly, I’m glad my daughter went to Harvard.

Joe Queenan is the author of several best-sellers, including, most recently, True Believers: The Tragic Inner Life of Sportsfans (Henry Holt, April 2003).

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.