MIT Hacker Culture


I’m a senior, currently living in East Campus, and MIT culture is an issue close to my heart. I think professor Abelson summed it up best in his 2013 report to the president:

MIT celebrates hacker culture. Our admissions tours and first-year orientation salute a culture of creative disobedience where students are encouraged to explore secret corners of the campus, commit good-spirited acts of vandalism within informal but broadly – although not fully – understood rules, and resist restrictions that seem arbitrary or capricious. We attract students who are driven not just to be creative, but also to explore in ways that test boundaries and challenge positions of power.

In short, hacker culture celebrates clever and inventive exploration of limits of all kinds: technological, practical, and social. This hacker culture has a home at all the top technical schools (Caltech, MIT, CMU, etc.), and it has played a role in shaping MIT’s history by attracting top students.

I would like to relate an experience of mine from my freshman year that was a formative introduction to MIT’s unique brand of hacker culture. I was sitting in 8.01 lab, running the lab software, when I decided to see if I could break out of “kiosk mode,” and take control of the lab computer. Sure enough, after a while I found an exploit, and had escalated permissions in a persistent way. That night, I ssh’d into the machine, and poked around a bit, when suddenly my connection died, and I couldn’t reconnect! Thinking nothing of it, I simply waited until lab the next day, and started rerunning my exploit. Mere seconds into launching my exploit, the machine shut down. Shortly thereafter, a fellow walked into the classroom, and requested that I follow him out of class. I had clearly been caught. Bracing myself for the worst, I followed him into a side office, ready to receive my punishment.

But, to my surprise, instead he merely wanted to chat about how I had broken out of the kiosk mode, and what my intentions were. I explained exactly how I had done it, and that I was merely exploring the system out of curiosity. He simply congratulated me on my clever hack, thanked me for showing him the bug I exploited, and said I should feel free to keep exploring and hacking the lab computers once he had fixed the bug.

I have many friends with similar stories, some with happy endings, some without. Some of these stories even end with conference talks at venues like DEF CON — hacking is not always just reckless college antics.

This is the sort of culture of creative and playful “white hat” boundary pushing that makes MIT, and especially East Campus, an incredibly special place. I was swayed at the last minute to come to MIT for undergrad entirely because of seeing this culture at East Campus during CPW, and I know many others who feel the same way.

I would strongly urge anyone in an administrative position to think carefully about how to preserve this vital culture, and how to appropriately respond when boundaries are inevitably exceeded.

Thank you for your consideration.