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Life and culture: Hacks, tomfoolery & pranks

At MIT, “hacks” are performed by students who safely and stealthily execute campus pranks according to an informal code of ethics. These ethics, loosely stated, assert that hacks must do no damage to property or any person, must be safe, and must provide joy or amusement to those who experience the hack.

At MIT, hacking refers to more than breaking into computer systems. As the journalist Steven Levy wrote in his history of hacking, the definition of hacking descends from a much older tradition of clever and elegant pranks that exist at the intersection of creative technology and guerrilla art.

As our blogger Snively once posted, the hacker code of ethics can be stated roughly as follows: 

  • Be subtle. Don’t leave evidence that you were there.
  • Always leave things as you found them, or better.
  • Leave no permanent damage, both during hacks and while hacking.
  • Don’t steal anything. If you must borrow something, always return it; perhaps even leave a note saying when it will be returned.
  • Brute force is the last resort of the incompetent.
  • Never hack alone.
  • Above all, exercise common sense. 

There is a great and comprehensive Wikipedia article about hacking at MIT, as well as documentation of historical hacks on the IHTFP gallery. There are also several books written about hacking at MIT, including Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT. If you come to visit campus, there are several preserved hack installations in the Stata Center’s ground floor.