The Ultimate Boolean

"There's something essential you need to understand," the charming Massachusetts Institute of Technology undergraduate told me, his face grave. "It's the difference between tooling, hacking, and punting."

We were standing outside an obscure building at the edge of campus with several dozen people, waiting for the beginning of the notorious annual Student Information Processing Board Computer Tour. Run by deep geeks, the tour promised to reveal the secrets of computing at MIT: We would be seeing everything from user help desks to an emergency-power battery array for the campus server farm. But I was already learning more than I had anticipated. I was discovering computational possibilities that exist only in the minds of MIT students. It turns out that life at this techno-think tank produces three potential states of consciousness. Your brain can be tooling (working on something you don't really enjoy), hacking (working on something pleasurable that isn't necessarily for class), or punting (goofing off).

This division of consciousness into shit work, fun work, and nonwork floated at the back of my mind as we filed into MIT's vast server farm, which is largely devoted to processing people's paychecks. Stretching across thousands of square feet, rack after rack of Suns and Dells and various other machines reduced our identities to a simple Boolean: pay or not pay. Our tour guide, whose enthusiasm for the machines was obvious, was particularly rapturous about MIT's unusual power system tests. To make sure all the backup power supplies are in working order, the entire server system is taken off the electrical grid and placed on generator power twice a week. "I've worked at Fortune 500 companies where they don't do that," our guide commented. "And sometimes that gets them into trouble when the power actually goes out."

We marveled at the weird, retro-looking generators, surrounded by HIGH VOLTAGE signs straight out of a Superman comic. All of them were connected to a cartoony red button in the server room that was marked "POWER" and protected by a plastic cage. Apparently, some of the server room guys were playing football one day and accidentally hit the red button. But now, thanks to plastic cage implementation, our paychecks exist in a football-proof environment. The hackers could punt occasionally without worry.

One of our next stops was another sort of computer-saturated room, this time one where power sources were all hidden. The two lab geeks who gave us a demo of the Intelligent Room probably had very little idea how their machines would be powered if the electricity went out. What they cared about was how this room -- part of the Oxygen Project in the A.I. Lab -- could make computers so user-friendly that they no longer appeared to have any relationship to those black boxes with the blinking lights way across campus.

Inside the Intelligent Room the ceiling sprouts tiny microphones. A camera in one corner recognizes faces. Other cameras track gestures and movement. Projectors cover the walls with large squares of light that represent consoles: you can browse the Web on one wall and use a special pen to "draw" on another. With the aid of slightly buggy voice-recognition software, you can ask the room to turn off the lights, turn on the fan, and show you maps of Brazil. If you ask the room to bring you coffee, it responds in a synthesized British accent, "I am not your slave." The lab geeks doing our demo were proud of that little detail. It was an Easter egg they'd hacked in their spare time.

Later, in the infamous Media Lab, a graduate student showed us the MIThril project, a Linux P.C. that you wear on your body in a special vest. A tiny head-mounted device allows you to look at the screen. "One time I was wearing the vest, and I noticed that a lot of the lights were blinking more rapidly than usual, so I checked to see what was happening," our guide told us. "I discovered that it was a hacker. And it was as if I was being hacked, not the machine."

As the tour progressed, we had become intimate with the computers we observed -- not because of our growing familiarity with them but because of changes in the physical forms of the machines we met. We could talk to the Intelligent Room; we could wear the MIThril vest. The MIThril vest turned hacking into something like a bodily violation. It wasn't like breaking into some remote server farm.

Of course, one person's violation is another person's fun work. And while the Intelligent Room geeks were punting with voice-recognition software, somebody else was tooling with power sources at the MIT server farm. For one glorious moment, it seemed as if there might be no separation at all between work and pleasure -- the only distinction that mattered was whether I was close to or far away from the machines. But then I remembered the server farm and its driving Boolean "pay or not pay." And that has made all the difference.

Annalee Newitz ( is a surly media nerd who needs to see more explosions. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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