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Star Simpson at Freedom to Innovate

This past weekend, with support from the Ford Foundation, EFF and the MIT Media Lab, Center for Civic Media held a two day conference on the Freedom to Innovate. The first day featured experts on cyberlaw, activists and students who’d experienced legal challenges to their freedom to innovate. Sunday’s sessions included a brainstorm led by Cory Doctorow on imagining a world without DRM, and an EFF-led workshop on student activism around technology issues.

I was MC for the meeting on Saturday, and have only partial notes. I hope to post some impressions from these other sessions once I have more time to digest, but I’ll begin by posting my notes from opening talks by Jonathan Zittrain and Star Simpson.

The “second act” of our conference introduced two speakers who experienced situations where their innovations and creativity led to encounters with law enforcement while they were students at MIT. The first speaker in this section was Star Simpson. I asked her how she wanted to be introduced – as a programmer, a hacker, a maker? Her response, “None of those. Please just tell them I was a student at MIT from 2006-2010.”

Star told us that she grew up in Hawaii, with parents who ran a two-person jewelry business. “I wasn’t surrounded by much technology.” But she quickly discovered that she loved to learn by doing and that despite growing up in paradise, she wanted to go out into the bigger world.

When she was eight, she learned about MIT – she looked it up on the internet – and “found a promise – out there was a place where if you wanted to learn the technical skills to change the world, you could, and MIT was that place.” In high school, Star sought out projects that would help her develop her technical skills. She worked on building one of the world’s largest wifi networks, and worked with what was then emerging software with the Hawaiian name of “wiki”. “I couldn’t believe it when I was invited to join people here in Cambridge – I wanted nothing more than to join in building the future.”

Star Simpson, photo by Jeff Lieberman

Star explained that her generation might not have been promised flying cars, as Peter Thiel has suggested, as wearable electronics, 3D printers, and shared information on the internet. Those are fields where she wanted to get her hands dirty, and shortly after arriving on campus, she came across a small student group called MITERS (the MIT Electronic Research Society). MITERS, Star explained, is centered around a machine shop, and everyone is welcome as long as they want to learn how to turn ideas into prototypes. “It’s one of the few places on campus that keeps alive the spirit of Building 20”, a wartime temporary building intended to house physicists for four years as they developed tech the US would need to win the war. Fundamental breakthroughs in radiation and microwave research occurred in that famously poorly built building (it stood for 55 years, not the four it had been intended for.) MITERS began in Building 20 and now is located in a small building north of campus, but Star sees the organization as retaining the spirit of its famously creative origin.

Every semester, the MIT Media Lab hires dozens of UROPs – undergraduate researchers – who build much of the technology the lab is known for. Working with a graduate student, they built a garment that sensed posture using low-cost accelerometers. “We were building something that no one else in the world had – there were no fitness trackers, no wearables.” She wanted something of her own that had the same sense of invention to it, “a garment that would change as I, as an EE student, learned to do bigger and better things, help me take advantage of the community I was part of, help me learn from my peers. What I wanted was to become a walking open hardware circuit wiki, where anyone could participate and build something cool.”

She went about building that, attaching a breadboard – a platform for prototyping electronics –
to a sweatshirt she could wear every day. She wore it around for a week and “found out what it was like to be popular, at least at MIT. People would tell me how cool it was,” and she found the groundswell of positivity surprising and gratifying. She had “grand visions for the project – I thought friends might help me become a walking low-power FM station.” Then she would change her mind and think about building a circuit to display information about the weather. “After
about a week on campus wearing the breadboard, I discovered that like most wikis, people looked but didn’t participate.”

So Star decided to create something as a simple demonstration project. “I took a break after my intro circuits class – which, incidentally, had cut out its practical circuit building lab piece – and went up to MITER, where I arranged 13 LEDs into a star and attached them to the breadboard.” The star, a reference to her name, served as a good conversation starter, and made it safer for her to bike at night. And for Star, it was a tangible realization of MIT’s motto, “Mens et Manus” – mind and hands – “It’s not enough to think up an idea – you must be able to practically effect it.”

“I’m not here because everyone loved my sweatshirt and because you can now buy it at the GAP,” Star continued. “What I didn’t see was the project through the eyes of people traumatized and looking for terrorists. I didn’t see my project through the eyes of someone who’s let their life be defined by fear.” As a person of color from Hawaii, Star told us, she looked like everyone else on the island she grew up on, but was unprepared for the idea that her ethnicity could contribute to being perceived as a security threat.

After a week of wearing the LED-enhanced sweatshirt, Star told us she stayed up until 6am to finish problem sets, then decided to meet her boyfriend, who was arriving at Logan on a redeye. She slept for an hour and then decided to meet him at baggage claim. “Never have my plans gone so awry.” It turned out that her boyfriend hadn’t expected her to come to Logan to meet him and had already left. So she wandered around the airport, attracting attention from people who worked there and worried about the electronics attached to her chest. Someone at the airport called the police.

“The police arrived brandishing more guns than I had seen in my life,” she recalled. But Star is clear that the Boston PD reacted responsibly, and that she owes her life to their careful response. “I was told, after the fact, that I had been in the sights of a sniper. But the sniper realized that I was walking away from the airport, not to it, which wasn’t typical behavior for a terrorist.”

Star notes that, at the time she was arrested, you could legally have 11 pounds of ammunition in your luggage at baggage claim. “I had 13 LEDs.” The police restrained her and questioned her on the traffic island outside the airport, quickly determining that she was harmless. But she explained that the police were concerned about wrongful arrest laws – if she had been arrested wrongfully, she could sue. So they went ahead and pressed charges, even though it was clear that she posed no threat.

“MIT elected to issue a statement about what I had done, at a point where even the police didn’t have the facts.” The statement told the press that MIT believed Star’s actions were reckless and created cause for concern. “I will never know why MIT decided to make that statement.”

Star spent the rest of her sophomore year attending court dates. She was eventually charged with “possession of a hoax device”, an object that appeared to be “an infernal machine”. The charges eventually turned into a charge of disorderly conduct. “They needed to prove that I intended to cause alarm, which I certainly didn’t.” The threat of a prison sentence hung over her time at MIT. “I wasn’t sure how seriously to take the situation. I approached professors to see if I could finish my problem sets via correspondence.” She paused. “I was 19.”

“MIT’s statement really shaped how people perceived what happened,” Star tells us. Cycling in Boston, she would encounter people who were overtly hostile to her. A man in Copley Square attempted to push her off her bicycle, saying that she was stupid and should have done time. “He had the full weight of MIT’s words behind him.”

“It has been eight years since the arrest. My life has never been the same. I will never know what might have been.”

Star tells us that one of the most surprising outcomes is discovering just how many engineers have had a parallel experience. “Building something that’s provocative to others may just be a right of passage for engineers.” She hopes that her experiences were not meaningless, that other people who want to explore and tinker will get better protections from the institutions designed to support and nurture them.

“I have to wonder, too, what MIT has learned from this,” Star asked. “My advisor, Hal Abelson, supported me through my case, and only a few years later, would write a report about Aaron Swartz’s case. I was disappointed to learn that what MIT learned from my case is that they should say nothing at all.” Star continued, “It is clear that MIT’s choice did more harm than good… I do not believe that no action as a policy is the right policy.”

Star tells a story from MIT’s history, of a student who pulled a “hack” at the Harvard/Yale football game, a frequent site for MIT pranks. The goal of the hack was to cause a balloon with MIT’s name on it to emerge from the middle of the field during the game. To pull off the hack, the individual needed to wear a trenchcoat filled with batteries, to power the pump. He was caught by police and questioned. A dean from MIT showed up at the police station to support the student… also wearing a trenchcoat filled with batteries. The dean explained to the police, “All Tech men wear batteries,” challenging the idea that a coat filled with batteries should be cause for suspicion. (see note)

“That’s so different from the MIT I see today.”

Star thanked us, as organizers of the Freedom to Innovate conference and activists who’ve pushed for a clinic at MIT and BU that will protect student innovators. “Right now, you can build amazing things at the Media Lab, but it’s not clear whether you’ll have support if you bring them outside of these walls,” Star explains, pointing to Joi Ito’s strong support for student innovators at his time leading the Media Lab. “Instead of MIT attempting to preseve its reputation by distancing itself from creative members, I would like to see MIT using the full weight of its name to tell the world what it means to be an engineer.”

Star received a standing ovation when she completed her remarks. In the question and answer period that followed, students at the conference asked what she was doing now, whether she completed her education at MIT, whether she’s continued working on technology projects. Her simple answer: “No.” In other words, the experience she had is one that will take a long time to digest, and one that has left her far from the path she set out for at age 8.

(Note: As with many stories of famous MIT hacks, there’s distance between mythos and recorded history. According to Night Work, by institute historian T.F. Peterson, the battery story hails back to 1948, where MIT students had placed primer cord on the Harvard football field, planning to use dry cell batteries to ignite the primer cord and burn the letters into the field. One was caught, because he was wearing a heavy coat concealing the batteries on a warm day. In Peterson’s account, the dean did not intervene, but students wore coats with batteries for the following week in solidarity, saying “all Tech men wear batteries, just in case.”

Star’s version of the story – which I’d heard as well – is wonderful in that it’s great to imagine the administration defending hacking in this way. But the historical story has some resonance as well – more solidarity would have helped both Jeremy and Star, even if there was less institutional response than we would hope for.)

2 thoughts on “Star Simpson at Freedom to Innovate”

  1. Pingback: Star Simpson at Freedom to Innovate | Leap Daily

  2. Thanks to Freedom to Innovate for allowing Star Simpson to share with people that matter what happened to her in 2007. In view of the many negative experiences I’ve had in the US and abroad carrying my atmospheric instruments through airport security, I view Star as a kindred spirit. The big difference is that the plane captain who choked me and the various police who showed up at various airports with weapons on display never arrested and jailed me and I never missed a flight. Star’s totally innocent star-shaped LED array was absolutely harmless. Even though the police quickly realized this, they arrested her, interrogated her, placed her in handcuffs and ankle cuffs and put her in jail. An official wearing a suit proclaimed to the media that had she not cooperated they would be taking her to the morgue instead of the court house! After many months Star was sentenced to a year of probation and 50 hours of community service for “disorderly conduct.” Star Simpson is owed an apology from the police, the prosecutors and MIT. If she didn’t complete her degree, the very least MIT can do is accompany their apology with an honorary degree.

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