/ Cory Doctorow / 11 am Tue, Aug 2 2016
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  • Nightwork: the extraordinary, exuberant history of rulebreaking at MIT

    Nightwork: the extraordinary, exuberant history of rulebreaking at MIT

    MIT has a complicated relationship with disobedience. On the one hand, the university has spent more than a century cultivating and celebrating a "hacker culture" that involves huge, ambitious, thoughtful and delightful pranks undertaken with the tacit approval of the university. On the other hand -- well, on the other hand: Star Simpson, Bunnie Huang, and Aaron Swartz. In Nightwork, first published in 2003 and updated in 2011, MIT Historian T. F. Peterson explores this contradictory relationship and celebrates the very best, while suggesting a path for getting rid of the very worst.

    MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito gave me my copy of Nightwork when he appointed me Activist-in-Residence to the Media Lab, taking it from a huge stack. He hands it around to a lot of people. Ito is a big fan of disobedience: he was Timothy Leary's godson, helped finance Mondo 2000, and started the ISP business in Japan by building out a PSI network operations center in his apartment's bathroom.

    More recently, he got Linkedin founder Reid Hoffman to put up a $250,000 prize for "disobedient research," announcing the prize onstage at the Forbidden Research summit, where EFF announced its lawsuit against the federal government to legalize hacking DRM and Edward Snowden and Bunnie Huang announced their project to build a spyware-detecting phone case to defend journalists and activists from governments.

    Nightwork is, first and foremost, a celebration of the hacks themselves: putting a fire-engine on the dome, turning the dome into a giant R2D2, installing an upside-down dorm-room on the ceiling of a high outdoor archway, perfectly camouflaging the door to the office of the new university president on his first day, and so on. These reports, delightful as they are, focus (of course) on the engineering ethic, the sweetness of the hack, the elegance of the solution to problems constrained by complexity, finances, time, and skills.

    Then there's the pedagogical value of the hack. Hacks are like class projects, but bigger, longer, more involved, self-directed, and played for high stakes (fame and approbation, or arrest and tragedy), and key to the engineering ethic. This, too, was covered in depth at the Forbidden Research conference, in Liz George's outstanding account of the creation of one of the most daring hacks in MIT history.

    Most significant, perhaps, is the material on the relationship of the administration to its hackers. For more than a century, the university and its security and facilities staff have cultivated a relationship of mutual respect, trust and admiration with hacking students. This cordial relationship fosters a culture of safety and skill among hackers, who make sure their hacks conform to building and safety codes, come with disassembly instructions, and include gifts and snacks for the crews who have to take them down.

    It's this last section that's the most remarkable: America says it celebrates "rule breakers," but that is posed against a zero-tolerance, three-strikes, minimum-sentencing culture that has jailed millions of Americans (mostly racialized people of color) for minor drug infractions, turned children into lifelong sex offenders for taking pictures of their own bodies, and has turned schools into places that cultivate fear and compliance, not risk-taking and rule-breaking. It's bad, and it's getting worse and worse (and it can't get better unless we try something different).

    That's the amazing thing about Nightwork, the thing that makes it feel like it comes from a parallel universe: it describes a big, powerful institution that (some of the time) treats rule-breaking as the natural outflow of the intellectual curiosity it was constituted to promote, and channels that rule-breaking into safe, effective, and delightful expressions.

    Nightwork [T. F. Peterson/MIT Press]

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