I'd not normally use the word hack - the disparaging self-definition some journalists use that seems to celebrate - and so excuse - sloppy work. However it is too tempting in the context. I'm currently in Boston visiting MIT, where my daughter is an engineering undergraduate. MIT is famous for producing Nobel prizewinners - and hacks. Here a hack is not a scibbler - though they do have a fine newspaper The Tech. An MIT hack is a practical joke, but one carried out with skill and ingenuity. Often a hack involves some sort of violation of the landmark MIT dome. Two years ago students built a solar powered subway car that circumnavigated the dome. On another occasion they stuck a police car on top and, most recently, a Doctor Who Tardis. Like the Tardis, the hack must appear from another dimension - or at least arrive overnight and unexplained. The best hacks put a smile on the city's face and make the news beyond Boston. Even those who are hacked see the funny side - and the advantages. Once a burger bar that famously had a lifesize cow on its roof found the bovine kidnapped by students. It was returned wearing a little mortar board, chewing on an MIT "degree". The restaurant was delighted by the free publicity.
The cow features in a college exhibition devoted to hacks. I liked one from 1987 where a warning traffic sign featuring a human figure was changed to Nerds Crossing. The figure acquires glasses and carries a...floppy disc. Definitely a period piece. One of MIT's founding fathers made a famous speech in which he said an education there should be like drinking knowledge through a fire hydrant. So the students somehow acquired a street fire hydrant and and linked it to the college drinking water system so it could be used as a fountain.
The exhibition features a list of hack rules for students, such as never steal, never endanger yourself or others, never hack alone, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. These are more than jokes, of course, requiring imagination, weeks of hard work and technical ability. But still they reflect the sense of fun and mischief that motivates many young people. My daughter's dad, Pat Kane, would call it the Play Ethic. In Scotland, in time gone by, student pranks were tolerated and enjoyed, and it was not uncommon for medics to do unspeakable things with body parts. Today even throwing flour bags is likely to result in a breach of the peace. And for young people without the benefit of full time education, any high spiritedness will immediately be branded anti-social. There were reports of kids being cautioned for throwing snowballs during the last cold snap in Scotland...and when sixth year leavers decided to turf their gymnasium in Scottish school a few years back they were all expelled...
Of course when youth is left idle, unstimulated, stripped of any cultural pride, respect for others or themselves, the most likely outlet for natural thrill-seeking is drunken mayhem. It is worth remembering that pent-up energy and creativity need to be released somehow. That doesn't have to mean causing damage and upset. At MIT the results are impressive and applauded. Perhaps there is a lesson there as to how we view youthful abandon. A little less condemnation and a little more direction perhaps...?