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Through A Locked Door Ambivalently

Anders Hove

Another area of campus is being locked off this month. The basement of Building 18 will no longer be accessible to those seeking a warm, underground way of passing between Hayden Library and Building 66. There will be no reason to pass through the famous "echo chamber" hallway. It is a passage used by perhaps a handful of non-toxicology students each day, but nevertheless its disappearance will be noticed.

Instead of remaining open to the community, more and more places are being shuttered through the introduction of MIT Card readers. The MIT Card continues to be viewed as the salvation of campus security, but to students it remains something of a bte noire. It has been many years since the card was introduced, and several since Andr DeHon G denounced the card's security measures. Why do students continue to express such ambivalence toward this particular hunk of plastic?

As the years have passed, privacy has become less of a concern: in general, more people are using plastic to get through their daily routines. Anyone who has waited while someone uses a bank card to buy a candy bar at LaVerde's knows what I'm talking about. Fifty cents is no longer considered too inexpensive to bring out the plastic. And what's good enough for LaVerde's is good enough for the dorm laundry machine.

There's something else about using plastic to move from one place to another that seems not right. Something about the presence of MIT Card readers sends the message that you are really not welcome here, whether the card reader blinks red or green when you swipe the card through.

Before card readers were installed on the Medical Center doors, entry was restricted by a key-pad combination lock. Sure, everybody on campus knew the combination - 54-100, after the lecture hall - and they could have let half of Cambridge in on it. And those doors have never been even remotely secure, before or after the card reader locks. Anyone who can't get in for one reason or another can just hang around until someone else passes through in the other direction. So what's the big deal?

A combination lock suggests that the key to getting inside is a small piece of knowledge - a combination. It's up to each person which information to obtain, who to share it with, and when to use it. A combination does not belong to anyone. It preserves freedom of movement and choice. And heck, isn't there something gratifying about punching in a code and hearing the lock click?

The MIT Card presents the opposite experience. Everyone who attends the Institute has one - it is not an option. For security reasons, one cannot lend a card to someone else or share it freely. And the card belongs to someone else. The card's lettering says so: "This card is the property of MIT and must be returned upon request."

Anyone who has ever seen a movie about World War II or the like can conjure up images of some gruff police officer, border guard, or Gestapo agent demanding to see someone's identification: "Papers!" On screen, it seems like producing one's papers was an alarmingly regular event. Who likes to be questioned for proof of age when ordering a glass of wine in a restaurant?

The dislike of "papers" has also led to a good degree of backlash over proposals that the United States issue a national identification card. It's not just a bunch of states-rights wackos who find the idea disturbing. Nobody wants to have one more ID to produce when queried on the street. It smacks of "papers" and dog-tags.

Those who live off campus are always prepared to dismiss complaints about the administration's community relations as remnants of adolescent development, a sort of "hang the president" questioning of authority that is healthy and possibly slightly amusing.

Meanwhile the campus is becoming more and more closed-off. Complaints about the MIT Card have been brushed off in the past, and they will be in the future. Slowly MIT's public spaces are disappearing.