Like many people last week, I was appalled when I read about the treatment of 14-year-old high school student Ahmed Mohamed in Irving, Texas. Ahmed was arrested for bringing what several people thought was a "hoax bomb" to school, despite his repeated assertions that it was simply a clock which he had invented. When I was Ahmed's age, I loved tinkering with electronics, and I brought my own creations to school several times, so I was understandably incensed when I read about Ahmed's plight.
However, there is a big difference between what Ahmed claims to have done and what he actually did. Ahmed did not - in fact - build a clock from scratch. As multiple websites and YouTube videos have shown, all Ahmed did was remove an existing clock from its plastic case and mount the unmodified electronics inside a pencil box. As someone who actually built things from scratch when I was Ahmed's age, this was insulting to me, because it means that Ahmed is a fraud. While his motives are unclear, the fact is undeniable that Ahmed actually did bring a hoax to school; but he didn't bring a hoax bomb, he brought a hoax invention.
As I looked at photos of the clock which Ahmed was supposed to have built, I couldn't see where he had done anything to merit "inventiveness." The jumble of wires appeared largely intact to me; the only thing which seemed out of place was the 9V battery connector, so I wondered if Ahmed had soldered a battery connector to the main board after the transformer in order to allow the clock to work when it wasn't plugged into the wall. If so, that would have been a cool idea. But my theory proved untrue when it was later revealed that the 9V connector was the built-in battery backup for the clock memory in the event of a power failure. So once again, Ahmed appears to have done nothing to warrant all of his new-found fame and accolades. (By the way, what is truly embarrassing about this situation is that Make Magazine, which is one of my favorites, completely failed to notice that Ahmed did not actually build his own clock. That's a really big fail, guys. You should have known better.)
I realize that everyone who pursues a career in electronics has to start somewhere, and the disassembly of an existing electronic product is the perfect place for Ahmed (or anyone else) to start. When I was a teenager, I was an avid electric guitar player, so I started out with electronics by taking apart existing guitar effects to see how they worked. When I didn't understand something, I went to the library to check out books about electronic theory, and I dutifully studied the subjects which were foreign to me. Eventually I moved on to repairing other people's broken guitar effects, and finally I moved on to building guitar effects from scratch. (Craig Anderton was my hero.) So when I brought a creation to school, it was something which I had actually created. But even more than that, when I was a little older than Ahmed I actually created a digital clock from scratch by wiring together all of the parts by hand. That is a far cry from what Ahmed did; Ahmed took someone else's work, slapped his name on it, and asked to be recognized as its creator. What Ahmed has done constitutes fraud. Period.
Nevertheless, even though Ahmed is a phony as an inventor, at least in this situation, he probably did not deserve to have been arrested for bringing his hoax invention to school. I will admit that the jumble of wires and the large LED screen certainly resembles a bomb which you might see on a low-budget television show, so I should at least acknowledge the good intentions of the safety-minded school officials who thought the situation was worth investigating. (Note: Can you imagine the uproar if a student had actually brought a bomb to school and the school officials did nothing about it?)
However, once the facts of the matter were made clear and everyone knew that Ahmed had not actually brought a bomb to school, the academic and police officials overreacted, and Ahmed was humiliated as he was handcuffed and paraded before his peers as he was led away by the police.
But the overreactions didn't stop there, because everyone in the community - myself included - quickly overreacted to show our support for Ahmed. Many people were angry at the close-mindedness of the investigating officials; we all wanted to take this young David's side as he took on the Goliath of insensitivity. "@IStandWithAhmed" and "#IStandWithAhmed" became instant Twitter sensations. Mark Zuckerberg invited Ahmed to drop by Facebook for a meeting. Microsoft sent Ahmed a treasure trove of goodies to encourage his inventiveness. The Google Science Fair invited Ahmed to drop by and bring his clock. And President Obama asked Ahmed to bring his clock to the White House.
I have come to realize that these overreactions are equally as wrong as the original overreactions by the school officials; perhaps even more so - because Ahmed is being heavily rewarded for being a charlatan. Everyone needs to step back and think about this for a second: if Ahmed brought his clock to Facebook or the Microsoft Garage or the Google Science Fair, he would be a laughingstock, because his "invention" is a fake. When Ahmed is done being praised by the press and exalted by social media for being the underdog in this story, sooner or later he will have to stand in a room surrounded by people his age (or older) who are actually creating cool things from scratch. When that happens, Ahmed desperately needs have something better to show than an off-the-shelf digital clock that he stuffed into a pencil box, because real teenage inventors will immediately identify him as an imposter.
So I have changed my opinion in this matter from being upset over Ahmed's treatment by the authorities to being upset over Ahmed's treatment by the community, because we are rewarding his dishonesty. If Ahmed had copied the answers for an exam from one of his classmates, everyone would immediately recognize him as a cheater. Yet that is essentially what Ahmed is doing with his clock; he is taking someone else's creation and claiming to have created it, and therefore he is being deliberately deceitful. And through our collective overreactions our country is sending a terrible message to the youth of Ahmed's generation: "If you lie to America, not only will you get away with it, but you'll win big prizes and get an invitation to meet the President."