The True Hacking Tradition

September 25, 2009

Dear Freshmen,

Welcome to MIT. In your first year, you will learn a lot about MIT traditions. This letter is about hacking, which is one of our traditions. Hacking is the design and execution of harmless pranks, tricks, explorations, and creative inventions that demonstrate ingenuity and cleverness.  Hacking is an MIT tradition that has figured into the presentation of MIT to the outside world and within our community as an example of friendly competition and community-building.

Historically, hacks have been thoughtfully executed and designed creatively without injury, destroying property, or diminishing the privacy and personal dignity of individuals. The true hacking tradition embraces a "code" that requires hackers to identify themselves and leave instructions explaining what was done and how restoration can be completed. True hackers quickly identify themselves when they encounter the police. They neither confront nor evade the police nor do they create public hazards. When hacks conform to this code, they honor our tradition.  For a history of this tradition at MIT, I would encourage you to read Nightworks: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT published by the MIT Press.

Over the past three years, I have talked with student leaders, and others, about the evolution and continuation of the tradition. The conversations have been helpful in framing two points I want to make to you. First, several events in recent years have highlighted a need to re-emphasize safety and responsibility. The incidents that give us pause come with a concerning frequency. Hackers (or want-to-be-hackers) have suffered serious injury in recent years. Other incidents have put students at risk. 

Second, times have changed.  What was once acceptable as a hack is now a violation of law or prohibited by safety regulations. For example, post-9/11, new security and safety regulations and standards assign new responsibilities to the Institute for access to certain campus locations and how particular materials and equipment are secured. Hacking in the public’s mind is no longer playful pranks but behavior associated with breaking into computer systems or disrupting public activities. We cannot deny the fact that what was tolerated in the past, and may even have been celebrated, is now viewed differently. We have little control over these shifts.  

I encourage you to embrace the true hacking tradition and the community spirit it represents. I urge that you embrace it responsibly. Those who violate the tradition, by endangering themselves or others, by breaking the law, or by departing from the "hacking code of conduct" cannot seek protection from responsibility. They will be held accountable for their actions. The statement on hacking in the Mind and Handbook includes the code of conduct and provides more details on student responsibility in this area. I hope to continue my dialogue with interested students and student leaders around this topic in the future.

I am always interested in hearing your feedback and ideas, on this or any topic. 


Phillip L. Clay
Professor of City Planning