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]
The whole magic community mourns the passing of Eugene Burger, at age 78. One of the most influential magicians of the 20th century, as well as an exceptional human being, he will be sorely missed by a vast network of loving friends, students and fans all the world over. The impact of Eugene’s contribution to […]
Back in 2011, The New York Review of Books inducted Daniel Pinkwater’s classic Lizard Music into its canon with a handsome little hardcover edition; today they follow that up with a stylish, jazzy paperback, priced to move at $10.
My Walkaway book-tour is basically over, but I’m taking a little victory lap tonight at my local library, the Buena Vista Branch of the Burbank Public Library. Hope to see you there!
The Pry.Me Bottle Opener holds tens of thousands of times its own weight, and you can pick one up now from the Boing Boing Store.This remarkable keychain is considerably smaller than any of your keys, but don’t let that fool you: it can easily open any bottle, and could even tow a trailer full of […]
Guaranteeing your privacy online goes way beyond checking the “Do Not Track” option in your browser’s settings. To ensure that your internet activity is totally hidden from Internet Service Providers, advertisers, and other prying eyes, take a look at Windscribe’s VPN protection. It usually costs $7.50 per month, but you can get a 3-year subscription […]
This project management bundle will help you get organized and learn how to lead a team to success. You can pay what you want for these five courses when you pick them up from the Boing Boing Store.To help you become an invaluable asset for your company, this bundle includes a curated collection of professional […]