The corporate hack

MIT loves its hacks, at least when they can be regulated and corporatized

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.

Rachel Bowens-Rubin about 6 years ago

Hey Nathaniel,

I'm an alum from course 12, and I have done a lot of research about the hacking culture at MIT because of my involvement writing Hack, Punt, Tool. I would like to comment on a few misconceptions that I think you have.

I think you are confused about who actually constructed and controls the 54 light display. Take a look at the tech article that was published May 1st, 2012 about the lights. (http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N22/tetris.html)

Hackers spent years engineering the display, and now anyone can write code to be put on the building because it's open source. The hackers vet the code to make sure everything is fine, but it's always a surprise to everyone else, even the admins.

Similarly, the IHTFP gallery is run by current students and alums. It is not officially part of the MIT administration or admissions office.

Additionally, unlike the CalTech "prankers" featured in copy of the tech, MIT hackers don't have any official funding. They have to work together and macgyver what they can in order to fund their own projects.

The hacking spirit at MIT has always been what you described ("subversive, clever, creative, and completely unsupervised") including now. Since staying anonymous is a very important cultural value in hacks at MIT, you may not have realized that the hackers (not the admins) were behind everything all along!

Anonymous about 6 years ago

A waving American flag is hardly jingoistic. If it weren't for the US government, MIT wouldn't be half the institution that it is today. (Which might have something to do with the fact that well over half of MIT's research funding comes from the federal government.) TV shows put their sponsors in the credits; MIT puts its sponsor on the Green Building. No jingoism there.

Anonymous about 6 years ago

In fact you'll notice in the article Rachel links to that each pixel has "WHO did this?" in the corner of the board - WHO stands for "World Hacking Order" and represents the particular hacking group that engineered the project, one of several that exist on campus. If you explore the institvte enough, you'll see plenty of their signage.

Nathaniel Dixon about 6 years ago

Hi Rachel,

Thank you for you insights on the creation of display. I'm aware that students were responsible for most of the legwork to get the lights put in place, but to perpetuate the idea that it was done in secret without the oversight of administration is certainly stretching the truth. Much of the maintenance of the lights is done in broad daylight, and otherwise, access to the offices is provided by the department and campus security.

As far as the content and the oversight- Here's are examples of the emails we in Building 54 get from the department ahead of a display :


(from a department administrative assisstant)

"Good morning,

David Barber from SEMO [Security and Emergency Management Office] will be walking the building today beginning at 2:00pm to look at some of the lights (that light the river side of the building) in offices that are not working properly. He will be joined by the folks that manage the lights. If they need to access your office, David will knock on your door and identify himself and be in and out as quickly as possible.

Next Friday the American Cancer Society will hold a "Relay Fro Life" (sic) event and a purple ribbon will be projected on the Green building."


(From SEMO):

"The folks with the lights have asked if you could send out a message to the folks about the window display units, asking them to either plug in the device, or unplug and re-plug in the device so that the windows can be operational for the next two weeks. The alumni group and the MIT PD are particularly interested in ensuring all the lights are as operational as possible. There is a plan to pay tribute to Sean Collier during this time frame and it would be greatly appreciated by all if as many windows as possible were working. I would come by myself, but I am currently in Denver at a training seminar and unable to do that is week."

The readers are welcome to decide if this is "hacking" or not, but it certainly doesn't meet my understanding of the word "subversive".

As far as funding, I can't say where it comes from, but I'm extremely skeptical that a group of MIT undergrads bought and installed 153 remote-controlled multi-LED displays with their pocket change.

Best wishes,


Anonymous about 6 years ago

Hi Nathaniel,

I'm writing to you as an anonymous hacker who has been caught and punished by MIT for hacking, and I can tell you - hacking is NOT institutionalized. While the admissions office loves hacks for the PR it brings, the rest of the administration has mixed feelings. The result is that hackers bear the brunt of the indecisive policies regarding hacking.

MIT hackers take a risk whenever we pull a hack or explore the unknown crevices of campus. We never know if being caught will mean a slap on the wrist, a disciplinary letter, or even felony charges. In my case, I was lucky - I wound up with some community service and a permanent letter on my record (which was very interesting to later try to explain during graduate school interviews). However, I spent a few very stressed weeks worried about a COD (Committee on Discipline) hearing.

The point of hacks is that they are clever and benign - "dangerous and felonious" does not define a hack, there's been plenty of extraordinarily clever hacks that were neither. That said, even in the past two years, we've seen soldiers from Ender's Game hanging from the ceiling of Lobby 7, Pac-Man on the dome, and a Dalek on Stata - endeavors that were mostly certainly not supported by the MIT administration.

Hackers are willing to forego sleep, risk harsh disciplinary or legal action, put themselves in uncomfortable positions, and defy the MIT administration to bring the campus a few hours of wonder and laughter. To claim otherwise is to belittle the effort made and risks taken to uphold the longstanding tradition of hacking.

Anonymous about 6 years ago

Another hacker here. Nathaniel, you seem to think that the Institvte is much more coherent than it is. Admissions is a branch that genuinely loves the hacking culture, and is happy to tell students about the cool things we've put on buildings. Legal, not so much - hacking is a risky endeavor that has lead to several serious injuries, and has high potential for lawsuits.

Thinking "the administration" has one monolithic opinion indicates an overly simplistic understanding of how it works.

Nathaniel Dixon about 6 years ago

To the two previous posters, I think we're really in agreement. I fully understand that there are many daring and interesting hacks, and that the administration (in its scattered forms) cracks down on them when these hacks don't meet their fancy.

The LED "hack", as I see it, is an example of how "The Institvte", meaning various administrative offices, are quick to condone and celebrate hacks when they can carefully regulate them, and that this isn't really in the spirit of hacking. The indecisive and hypocritical policies towards hacking were exactly my target, (i.e. hacks are beloved when they can be used for publicity, and crushed when they are seen as a liability).

To those hackers out there who are carrying on the proper tradition, I applaud, and certainly didn't intend to belittle any of them. My point was that they should resist attempts by MIT to commandeer the tradition.

Anonymous about 6 years ago

Nathaniel - Hackers should do whatever clever, interesting things that come to them (so long as they follow hacking ethics, like safety and keeping property undestroyed). Having a stick up your ass about whether the administration likes it or not (with either preference) is completely missing the point.

Anonymous about 6 years ago

Apparently the Tech's policy is to censor PG-13 language, so let's try again.

Nathaniel - Hackers should do whatever clever, interesting things that come to them (so long as they follow hacking ethics, like safety and keeping property undestroyed). If "the Institvte" (still not nearly as coherent as you think it is) likes it, so what? Seeking their approval is misguided, but so is trying to anger them just because we're "not supposed to" want their approval.

Defining yourself as needing to fight someone is just as dumb as defining yourself needing to stay in line.