Nightwork: the extraordinary, exuberant history of rulebreaking at MIT

Originally published at:
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.


Fred Hapgood’s Down the Infinite Corridor is also a very good introduction to MIT culture. Fred is a friend and publishes a weekly listing of Science and Engineering lectures in the Boston area at

I publish a weekly listing of Energy (and Other) Events in the Boston/Cambridge area at

What I Do and Why I Do It: The Story of Energy (and Other) Events ( explains my larger purpose for that effort. If you’re interested, please take a look.

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I lived in Cambridge for many years; always looked forward to the next great hack. There was a hack museum for a time.

That said -America loves rule breakers who make money for corporations. That is all.


It should be noted that hacking involves breaking rules within fairly strict boundaries… which is one of the things outsiders often fail to understand. Elegance distinguishes a good hack from a bad one, where elegance is defined by a multitude of factors including doing the least damage possible (ideally none). The first step in breaking rules productively is understanding which rules will tolerate exceptions and which will not, and judging how far they can be bent before they snap in your face.

This is engineering, people. Even if it is social engineering.


Not Quite.

America loves winners.

Thomas Edison, J.D. Rockefller, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg each destroyed many corporations along the way to winning big for themselves. We all loved Lance Armstrong until he got caught.

MIT does not encourage rule-breaking. Rather, it cultivates an alternate set of rules that encourages creativity. To be a winning rule-breaker, one must learn an additional lesson absent from the MIT paradigm:

“Nothing is illegal until you get caught…”

This pedagogical gap leaves MIT hackers vulnerable in the wider world, because

The most important part of the heist is the getaway.


I would be remiss if I didn’t relate a similar culture at one of my alma maters, Rice University. The only prank I was there for was the aftermath of the 180 of the founder’s statue, but that was one of the top ones.

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I can ba rely remember the reputation that colleges had for protests and civil disobedience. It seems that with standardized testing, zero tolerance, and excessive policing, children in elementary school and high school are made to toe the line long before they ever get a chance to make college level mischief. The country is losing out on many levels.

I’m really unsure and unclear what kind of protest or pranks are allowed or tolerated at my university. In principle, if you read the conduct policies, they’re written vaguely and poorly. It’s one thing to be that person who is afraid in some vague sense of “getting in trouble.” It’s another thing to worry that what you do could render pointless the gobs of undischargable debt you’re getting saddled with. It’s usually just not worth it no matter how you slice it.

Which is an added bonus for the corporate captured state. Debt peonage isn’t just highly profitable, it’s also a powerful mechanism for aligning people’s needs with those of the system, and dampening down dissent.


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