MIT has a long history of subversion. In previous decades, this grew out of the Institute’s intense pressure-cooker culture, where “IHTFP” was not simply a bit of affectionate ribbing, but a very real sentiment shared by many students. My uncle, who was an undergrad in the early 1970s, likens his arrival to MIT to being hired at a coal mine: “Here’s your shovel; get to work.” Hacking was a devious thrill, and in many cases, a small way for students to poke fun at their tormenter.
In the years since, the MIT experience has softened, and for the better. The Institute, increasingly aware of its legal liability for the health and wellbeing of its students and staff, has developed the friendly infrastructure that is expected of modern universities. This includes sensible initiatives such as access to mental health care, better on-campus housing, and a proper orientation for new students.
The Institute still loves to talk about hacks. Every official campus tour details the classics, the relics of which are proudly and permanently displayed in the Stata Center.
In truth though, the relationship between MIT’s administration and hackers has always been an uneasy one. While the Institute has tried to implement a hacker’s “code of ethics,” a cursory glance at Stata’s unofficial hall of fame reveals that many of the now-celebrated favorites were felonious, dangerous, or both.
I participated in my first and only hack shortly after my arrival as a grad student in 2007. A few friends and I, after obtaining a “borrowed” master key, crudely spelled out “SOX” in the windows of the Green Building during the World Series. A few years later, a bank of colored LEDs showed up in my Green Building office window.
This new “hack” blows our mild little prank out of the water. Since then we’ve seen tetris, a full-color Red Sox logo, and the repeated display of a waving American flag: an odd and slightly jingoistic choice given that about 30% of MIT students are international (and a near-majority of Green Building residents).
The lit-up Green Building is “hacking” as MIT wants it: institutionalized, liability-free, and very visible. Technologically and visually, it’s very impressive. It is also controlled from the top down and purely a promotional tool. Weeks in advance of a display, Green Building residents receive emails from the department headquarters asking them to plug in and check their lights. The results are then gleefully posted on the official MIT website’s “IHTFP Gallery”.
Hacks should be safe and reasonably legal, but they belong to the students, not to the PR office. They should be subversive, clever, creative, and completely unsupervised. It’s time for students to bring a little mischief back to campus.
Nathaniel A. Dixon is a graduate student in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.