Nocturnal manoeuvres in the dark of the dormitory


October 10, 2003

Nightwork relates the pranks, or hacks, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students over the past 100 years or so. Is a book such as this really necessary? If it were very amusing and well produced, thenthe answer could be yes. But neither of these qualities is evident in this wooden and badly illustrated account. Undoubtedly, the resourcefulness of the students is admirable and their inventiveness commendable. Unfortunately, the very qualities that make these students the cream of American young scientists and engineers make an account of their activities poor copy.

The foremost of these qualities is the nerdish behaviour of the students, which is more or less celebrated by the institution. The love-hate relationship the students have with their alma mater is best exemplified by the IHTFP acronym that is regularly pasted in all sorts of unexpected places. This stands for "I hate this f-ing place", or variations on that theme. The acronym is not the only thing that is put in unexpected places. Perhaps the most striking is the realistic mock-up of a campus police car on the roof of the Pantheon-like dome at MIT.

We get a very partial picture of what life is like for these nerds whose anonymous nocturnal activities are presumably meant to alleviate the drudgery of excessive study. But their motivation may well be born of disillusionment - we learn that 75 per cent of freshmen think that they will be in the top quarter of their year. The jokes are all in-jokes. This is not a catalogue that is likely to amuse those outside the institution.

The campus vocabulary is so obscure that a glossary is provided, leading to a curious positioning of the text: scholarly dissertation or coffee-table book? If the jokes have to be explained in such laborious detail, they cease to amuse.

There are exceptions to the monotony, but they are not written by the author. Nothing written by Richard Feynman can be boring and his account of the mystery of the disappearing dorm door is very funny and typical of the man. But I would say it is probably better read in one of his autobiographical sketches.

There are also short extracts of some interest by other protagonists or victims (hackers and hackees in MIT parlance). For example, Charles Vest describes being led to his office on his first day as MIT president and not finding it because hackers had masked the door with a noticeboard full of cuttings about his appointment. Fortunately for the hackers, he found this amusing.

Indeed, it is extraordinary how tolerant the authorities are of the hackers. This might well be because some of them were once hackers themselves. Overall, though, these accounts are not really enough to make the book worth reading.

The very worst aspect of the book is the quality of the photographs. They are mostly very unclear. Even allowing for the fact that the originals may have been somewhat fuzzy given the nature of the events that they record, I believe that their reproduction could have been considerably improved.

The purpose of Nightwork is also unclear, as is its intended readership.

Ultimately, the very qualities that make pranks amusing, such as familiarity with a context, belonging to a community, immediacy, surprise and excitement, cannot be captured in a description of this type for the general reader.

It cannot even be seen as an inspiration to the prankster since a precondition of the prank is that it should be original and unexpected. The prank is essentially ephemeral. Freezing it for later re-creation is impossible and undesirable.

Tony Valsamidis is senior lecturer in information systems, University of Greenwich.

Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT

Author - T. F. Peterson
Publisher - MIT Press
Pages - 173
Price - £12.95
ISBN - 0 262 66137 3

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