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]
Making a Turing machine is a kind of nerd rite of passage, like manually editing your X11 settings or building a two-second time-machine. As far back as 2005, we were chronicling the adventures of Lego Turing-machine builders (the state of the art advanced rather a lot by 2012), as well as the ongoing effort to […]
The bookends ($79) are the clear winner here, but the robot hand tankard ($58) is pretty sweet too; they're made of painted resin (with a stainless steel insert in the tankard), pre-order now for July shipping. (via Geekologie)
Edgeryders -- "a company living in symbiosis with an online community of thousands of hackers, activists, radical thinkers and doers, and others who want to make a difference" -- is offering up to EUR10,000 bursaries (along with travel subsidies) for fellows who are contributing to its work on an "Human-Centric Internet." The deadline to apply […]
Trying to earn a promotion? Memorial Day weekend might be a good place to start. There are tons of e-learning packages that can help you build professional skills a lot quicker (and cheaper) than any technical academy. Whether you want to earn IT certifications, learn to code, become a designer, or anything else, these comprehensive […]
If you’re into tools or gadgets, Memorial Day weekend is your Christmas. Take an extra 15% off the final price of these DIY accessories – all of which are already on sale – by entering the promo code WEEKEND15. LUXJET Universal 24-in-1 Magnetic Screwdriver Set & Repair Kit This small but sturdy kit won the […]
If you can build a cloud infrastructure, you can build a business. Companies are overwhelmingly turning to cloud computing to set up or bolster their network, and it’s easy to see why. It allows on-demand access to processing power, a la carte services, and nearly unlimited storage, all without adding extra systems and the maintenance […]