NOTE: “The word hack at MIT usually refers to a clever, benign, and “ethical” prank or practical joke, which is both challenging for the perpetrators and amusing to the MIT community (and sometimes even the rest of the world!). Note that this has nothing to do with computer (or phone) hacking (which we call “cracking“).”


MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito gave me my copy of Nightwork when he appointed me Activist-in-Residence to the Media Lab, taking it from a huge stack. He hands it around to a lot of people. Ito is a big fan of disobedience: he was Timothy Leary‘s godson, helped finance Mondo 2000, and started the ISP business in Japan by building out a PSI network operations center in his apartment’s bathroom.

Joi ito: “I lent them my bathroom to be their first POP in Japan. (People wouldn’t rent space to an unknown US company.) I was probably one of the first people in Japan to have a 128K leased line in their toilet.” Nowadays, among other things, he’s on the board of directors of creative commons.”

More recently, he got Linkedin founder Reid Hoffman to put up a $250,000 prize for “disobedient research,” announcing the prize onstage at the Forbidden Research summit, where EFF announced its lawsuit against the federal government to legalize hacking DRM and Edward Snowden and Bunnie Huang announced their project to build a spyware-detecting phone case to defend journalists and activists from governments.”

by Joi Ito, Director, MIT Media Lab  /  Jul 21, 2016

“Last March, the day after I participated in a Free Software Foundation protest, I wrote a blog post on disobedience. It was triggered by a question following a panel on the Digital Rights Movement, but actually is something I’ve thought about quite a bit. Over the past months, as it has become increasingly difficult to locate the world’s moral center, disobedience has once again come to the forefront of my thinking: How can we most effectively harness responsible, ethical disobedience aimed at challenging the norms, rules, or laws that sustain society’s injustices? 

“The CP car’s flashing lights made it eye-catching in the darkness, causing curious spectators to start gathering even before dawn.”

Today, at the Media Lab’s Forbidden Research symposium, we announced the creation of a $250,000 MIT Media Lab Disobedience award — an award made possible through the generosity of Reid Hoffman, Internet entrepreneur, co-founder and executive chairman of LinkedIn, and most importantly an individual who cares deeply about righting society’s wrongs.

“Jack Florey is the fictitious name often used in hacks by the fifth floor of the East parallel of East Campus. Note, however, that nothing from the hack indicated that Fifth East hackers were necessarily the perpetrators…”

This prize is a one-time experiment that, if successful, we will consider repeating in the future. It will go to a person or group engaged in what we believe is excellent disobedience for the benefit of society. The disobedience that we would like to call out is the kind that seeks to change society in a positive way, and is consistent with a set of key principles.

“This cordial relationship fosters a culture of safety and skill among hackers, who make sure their hacks conform to building and safety codes, come with disassembly instructions, and include gifts and snacks for the crews who have to take them down.”

The principles include non-violence, creativity, courage, and taking responsibility for one’s actions. The disobedience can be in — but is not limited to — the fields of scientific research, civil rights, freedom of speech, human rights, and the freedom to innovate. This award is a work in progress, which will be further defined during and after the event. Stay tuned for more…”

by Joi Ito  –  Mar 21, 2016

“In the Q&A, someone asked me what I thought about disobedience. I said that I thought it was important and tried to explain why. I’m not sure I did a terribly good job, so I’m posting something here that’s a bit more complete. One of my Nine Principles is Disobedience over Compliance.

The Disappearing President’s Office (The Bulletin Board Hack)

One day, when meeting with Mark DiVincenzo, the General Counsel of MIT, he raised an eyebrow when he saw this on one of the displays in my office. I had to explain. You don’t win a Nobel prize by doing what you’re told. The American civil rights movement wouldn’t have happened without civil disobedience. India would not have achieved independence without the pacifist but firm disobedience of Gandhi and his followers. The Boston Tea Party, which we celebrate here in New England, was also quite disobedient.

There is a difficult line–sometimes obvious only in retrospect–between disobedience that helps society and disobedience that doesn’t. I’m not encouraging people to break the law or be disobedient just for the sake of being disobedient, but sometimes we have to go to first principles and consider whether the laws or rules are fair, and whether we should question them.

Society and institutions in general tend to lean toward order and away from chaos. In the process this stifles disobedience. It can also stifle creativity, flexibility, and productive change-and in the long run-society’s health and sustainability. This is true across the board, from academia, to corporations, to governments, to our communities.

I like to think of the Media Lab as “disobedience robust.” The robustness of the model of the Lab is in part due to the way disobedience and disagreement exist and are manifested here in a healthy, creative, and respectful way. I believe that being “disobedience robust” is an essential element of any healthy democracy and of any open society that continues to self correct and innovate.”