Thank you. Thank you for hav­ing me. Thank you for invit­ing me to speak here at the Freedom to Innovate Summit. MIT’s a very spe­cial place and it’s amaz­ing to be back. Many of you know me, or know that my name is Star Simpson at least. I will go into a lit­tle bit more detail about why I’m here.

It’s been a long jour­ney for me to come to Boston. I grew up in one of the small­est US states. I grew up in the 50th, Hawaii, and I was not sur­round­ed by very much tech­nol­o­gy there. My par­ents are both artists and they ran a hum­ble two-person jew­el­ry busi­ness when I was grow­ing up. So no par­ty of my com­ing here was tak­en by me as giv­en. But I knew that even though I grew up in a place that is for many a par­adise, I want­ed for some rea­son to leave and go do things in the big­ger world.

So what I did was I spent all of my time learn­ing by teach­ing myself by read­ing, learn­ing by doing by par­tic­i­pat­ing in projects. And at some point along the way, I heard about a place called MIT. I prob­a­bly was about 8 years old at the time, maybe 1996. But with noth­ing more than those three let­ters, I decid­ed to look it up on the Internet to find out more. And of course MIT had a web site for me to find. What I found there was a promise. A promise that out there was a place where if you want­ed to learn the tech­ni­cal skills to change the world through build­ing some­thing, that MIT was that place. 

So I went through high school. I involved myself in any inter­est­ing project I could. I worked on build­ing one of the largest WiFi net­works in the world, for exam­ple, cov­er­ing a cou­ple hun­dred square miles. I played with what at the time were inter­est­ing emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies. A new soft­ware con­cept called a wiki, for exam­ple. That was pret­ty cool. So I couldn’t believe it when I was actu­al­ly invit­ed to come and join the peo­ple here in Cambridge who I want­ed noth­ing more than to work with, to col­lab­o­rate with, and to join in build­ing the future.

I would say as a side­note, my gen­er­a­tion wasn’t so much promised fly­ing cars, as is often said by peo­ple like Peter Thiel for exam­ple, as, I would say, wear­able elec­tron­ics, 3D print­ers, and glob­al infor­ma­tion free­dom through the Internet. So those were the sort of things I hope to ded­i­cate myself to.

When I arrived, I want­ed to learn every­thing, as much as pos­si­ble. I want­ed to taste it all. And I want­ed to get my hands dirty. Before my first week of class­es even began, I was explor­ing the com­mu­ni­ties avail­able on cam­pus and came across a small stu­dent group called MITERS. MITERS is a tiny but rich­ly cre­ative group that cen­ters around a machine shop, but it’s a place where any­one is wel­come who wish­es to con­vert their ideas into pro­to­types, who wants to learn to build things. If you find MITERS, you are wel­come to set up shop and build what you might imag­ine there.

To me, it’s one of the few places on cam­pus that keeps alive the spir­it of an old­er build­ing, Building 20, which stood here on cam­pus for quite a long time. It was built as a wartime tem­po­rary struc­ture to house physi­cists who were going to work on devel­op­ing the tech­nol­o­gy the United States would need to win the war, and end­ed up cre­at­ing fun­da­men­tal break­throughs in under­stand­ing microwaves, in radar, and the build­ing end­ed up stand­ing for 55 years. It was famous as a place of cramped quar­ters, not being very well-built, as you’d expect from any build­ing that was intend­ed to last for 4 years and stood for 55. But it was a place where you could come an devel­op ideas. 

It was even­tu­al­ly demol­ished, but MITERS was actu­al­ly cre­at­ed there, and moved to a small build­ing now just north of cam­pus. And I immersed myself there. I was also for­tu­nate to join the Media Lab as an under­grad researcher as a UROP here, and I found a research group here that was sim­i­lar­ly engaged in pro­duc­tive and cre­ative pur­suits. I joined peo­ple I looked up to in work­ing on excit­ing new projects. For exam­ple, my grad stu­dent advi­sor Jeff Lieberman and I paired up to build what at the time was pret­ty cut­ting edge. We set out to build a wear­able gar­ment that would sense your pos­ture, tak­ing advan­tage of the new­ly low-cost accelerom­e­ters and micro­con­trollers that then-new smart­phones were driving.

It real­ly felt like we were build­ing some­thing that no one else in the world had at the time. This was before wear­ables, this is before fit­ness track­ers were a thing. So I would come here to work, and I felt like I was cre­at­ing some­thing that nobody else had, some­thing that was brand new, which is as research should feel.

So then with the knowl­edge of how to build wear­ables, these things I’d always dreamed might be pos­si­ble, and the con­fi­dence to build them, I decid­ed that I want­ed one of my own. I want­ed to take some­thing out of the lab that I could have for myself that wouldn’t be as pol­ished, but it was some­thing that I could have for myself. And I want­ed, as well, a gar­ment that would change as I, being an elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing stu­dent, learned and learned how to do big­ger and cool­er things. I also want­ed some­thing that would help me take advan­tage of the com­mu­ni­ty I was part of, some­thing that would invite oth­ers to col­lab­o­rate and build with me so that I could learn from my peers.

It came to me that what I want­ed was sort of to become a walk­ing I don’t know…a walk­ing open hard­ware cir­cuit wiki, right? Something where any­one could par­tic­i­pate and build some­thing that was real­ly cool. So I went about build­ing that, and I have to ask, does every­body know what a bread­board is? A bread­board, for those who don’t, is the ulti­mate pro­to­typ­ing plat­form for build­ing elec­tron­ics. If you want to try out some hard­ware idea very quick­ly, you’ll grab a bread­board and build it there.

So I took a bread­board and basi­cal­ly attached it to a gar­ment I could wear every day. I took a sweat­shirt and sewed one to the oth­er in order to cre­ate this thing I had in my mind. A lot of peo­ple here will be famil­iar with what hap­pened next, as a mat­ter of pub­lic record. But I think there are more details that have nev­er real­ly been expressed, that I’d like to share.

For the first week, I wore it around cam­pus and I can’t real­ly tell you what’s it’s like to sud­den­ly be pop­u­lar at MIT. I’d nev­er real­ly received com­pli­ments on my out­fit. But so many peo­ple I ran into were like, That’s real­ly cool.” Some stranger at one point told me that I should sell that gar­ment at the stu­dent cen­ter here. It was just a groundswell of pos­i­tiv­i­ty and peo­ple who thought that this open hard­ware cir­cuit wiki thing was kin­da neat. Which was sur­pris­ing and real­ly gratifying. 

I had grand visions for it. I thought maybe my friends would help me become a walk­ing low-power FM radio sta­tion, and I could walk around cam­pus and broad­cast and that would be awe­some. Or that maybe the next week I would change my mind and have some­thing that dis­played infor­ma­tion about the weath­er using LEDs, per­haps. It seemed like the pos­si­bil­i­ties were end­less and I was so hope­ful for what peo­ple would come togeth­er and build. I had no idea what would happen.

But after about a week of going around on cam­pus with my bread­board, peo­ple like, Yeah, it’s cool,” I was like, So, you want to build some­thing?” But like most wikis, peo­ple just kind of looked at it and moved on rather than dig­ging into participate. 

I thought, okay, peo­ple kin­da get it. But they need to see what’s pos­si­ble. I should start out by cre­at­ing some very sim­ple way to demon­strate this idea. I will build the sim­plest cir­cuit I could imag­ine, some LEDs. Whatever. The fastest thing you could build, spend no more than half an hour and go. I took a break after my Intro Circuits class, which that year had inci­den­tal­ly cut out its prac­ti­cal lab com­po­nent, and I rucked up to MITERS, grabbed a lit­tle con­stel­la­tion of 13 LEDs, and arranged them in the shape of a star. For obvi­ous rea­sons. Then I had a jack­et that no only had a bread­board on it, which peo­ple rec­og­nized, but also sort of showed that you could actu­al­ly phys­i­cal­ly build things. 

It was pret­ty neat, hon­est­ly. It was pret­ty cool. Not only did peo­ple ask, Why is it a star?” It was like, Oh, my name is Star. Hey. Good to meet you.” It was this con­ver­sa­tion thing. It also served as a pret­ty good way to illu­mi­nate me as I biked at night across the Harvard Bridge. It was very func­tion­al, and I loved it, to be honest.

I’ll take a note here to say that MIT’s mot­to is Mens et Manus,” mind and hand. These things have always gone togeth­er and they always will, because it’s not enough to think of an idea, you must also be able to prac­ti­cal­ly effect it.

So of course, I’m not actu­al­ly here because every­body loved my sweat­shirt and it took off and was wild­ly pop­u­lar and now you can actu­al­ly go to Gap and buy one. That’s not why I’m here.

What I didn’t see was…I didn’t see my project through the eyes of peo­ple who were trau­ma­tized and look­ing for ter­ror­ists. I didn’t see my project through the eyes of some­one who maybe has let their life be defined by fear. And I grew up in Hawaii, so I looked just like every­body else where I grew up and I didn’t think to expect oth­er­wise. I was fair­ly unpre­pared. Even to me then, I would say I thought that ter­ror­ists were oth­er peo­ple. So it nev­er ever occurred to me that I could be seen in that light.

If any­one here’s unfa­mil­iar with that sto­ry, I have a hard time gaug­ing these things. But basi­cal­ly at the end of my week of wear­ing my LEDs, I stayed up all night to fin­ish a cou­ple of prob­lem sets. Like actu­al­ly until 6AM. Not a good idea, but you know, under­grads. And at the time my boyfriend was going to arrive on Friday at about 7AM on the red­eye to Boston from California. So okay cool. That gives me time for one hour of sleep, and then I will go to the air­port and meet him at the bag­gage claim and then we’ll head back to cam­pus togeth­er, I’ll turn in my prob­lem sets, and maybe go up to MITERS on the week­end and build some­thing. It’ll be great. Never have my plans before or since gone so awry.

I spent about 15 min­utes after get­ting to the air­port bag­gage claim look­ing around, but it turns out my boyfriend didn’t actu­al­ly expect me to get up that ear­ly (I was over­achiev­ing, as it were.) and he’d already left. So I sort of fruit­less­ly wan­dered around, and at some point peo­ple who worked in the air­port had noticed the sweat­shirt I was wear­ing and become very unnerved by it, and called the police. They arrived bran­dish­ing more guns than I had ever seen before in my life to yell then arrest me, and thus began the very weird­est day of my entire life.

I should say this. I actu­al­ly owe my life to the Boston State Police, because some­one I know got the infor­ma­tion that I was in the sights of a sniper who sort of vague­ly saw me walk­ing away from the air­port ter­mi­nal and not towards it, and had the thought that that’s not what a ter­ror­ist would do. And so I’m able to be here to tell you about this sto­ry today.

It’s also worth not­ing that in the bag­gage claim, at least at the time, you’re legal­ly allowed to have up to 11 pounds of ammu­ni­tion on you as a pas­sen­ger. I had 13 LEDs.

I had my hands grabbed behind me. I was ques­tioned there on a traf­fic island in front of the ter­mi­nal. The Boston State Police had very good peo­ple respond, who in the course of about 5 min­utes were able to deter­mine that what I had was harm­less, and yet they con­tin­ued because Massachusetts has wrong­ful arrest laws so if you arrest some­one and it turns out that the arrest as wrong­ful, then the police can be sued. So they went ahead and pressed charges and took the case for­ward, even though it was pret­ty clear pret­ty ear­ly on that there was no threat.

Before I left ques­tion­ing, though, before I left the police sta­tion, MIT elect­ed to issue a state­ment about what I had done. Which is real­ly sur­pris­ing because let’s be clear, this is a point in time where not even the police felt they had the facts. But MIT, the bas­tion of truth and sci­en­tif­ic inquiry, elect­ed to say to the press that my actions were reck­less and under­stand­ably cause for con­cern. I’ll nev­er for­get that phrase. I will nev­er real­ly know why MIT elect­ed to make that state­ment. But it def­i­nite­ly had a tremen­dous effect.

I spent the rest of my sopho­more year attend­ing court dates and was even­tu­al­ly charged with pos­ses­sion of a hoax device, which con­vert­ed into a dis­or­der­ly con­duct charge. I don’t know the law very much at all. I cer­tain­ly didn’t know a thing about it at the time. But it turns out that in Massachusetts a hoax device is defined as an infer­nal machine,” which I wouldn’t know what that was if I saw some­thing that was labeled infer­nal machine” at all. And you also have to prove that some­one intend­ed to cause alarm to have had one, which I cer­tain­ly didn’t.

I was look­ing at maybe going to prison. I had no idea whether or not to take that seri­ous­ly. I actu­al­ly went to my pro­fes­sors to ask if they wouldn’t mind send­ing me my prob­lem sets so that I could fin­ish them cor­re­spon­dence in the even that that hap­pened. I was 19.

And I think that it’s a case where MIT’s state­ment real­ly shaped how peo­ple per­ceived what had hap­pened. For exam­ple, for the entire rest of that year, less so on cam­pus but Boston I would encounter peo­ple who were at times quite hos­tile. Once, I was rid­ing my bicy­cle through Copley Square, and a man attempt­ed to push me off of my bicy­cle and he yelled at me that I should’ve done time and that I was stu­pid. Which, like, 19 year-olds make mis­takes. But he had the full weight of MIT’s words behind him, which is I think part of what made it hurt the most.

I’d say it’s been about 8 years now since I was arrest­ed, and my life has nev­er been the same. It hasn’t been easy, and I’ll nev­er know what might’ve been. I’ll nev­er get all that time back. One of the most sur­pris­ing out­comes since then is to find just how many peo­ple I know who are engi­neers [have] had some expe­ri­ence with the law. It’s unbe­liev­able the num­ber of peo­ple who’ve come to me and said, Look, the same thing hap­pened to me when I was a teenag­er, when I was in col­lege, a lit­tle after.” It almost seemed to me like some­how build­ing some­thing that was provoca­tive to oth­ers was like a rite of pas­sage for becom­ing an engi­neer. Which is wrong. It should not be effec­tive­ly crim­i­nal­ized to be curi­ous, to be cre­ative, to build things. I don’t think it’s okay.

I have to won­der if after all that hap­pened, if my expe­ri­ences were mean­ing­less. But I don’t think so. I do think there will be more peo­ple like me, to bor­row a term, the crazy ones.” The ones who’re fos­tered to do great things by hav­ing ear­ly on the free­dom to exper­i­ment and explore. There will be more cir­cuits, there will be more clocks, more fear, as we expand tech­nol­o­gy. And younger gen­er­a­tions who will come up who also want to explore and tinker.

I have to won­der, too, what MIT has learned from this. My advi­sor Hal Abelson, who sup­port­ed me through my case and who only a few years after mine would lead the inves­ti­ga­tion into and write a report on MIT’s treat­ment of Aaron Swartz’ case, I was embar­rassed and dis­heart­ened to read in a foot­note in that report that what MIT took from what they learned about hav­ing made a state­ment in pub­lic in my case was that the best pol­i­cy was to sim­ply not say any­thing at all. And I won’t go into any more details there, but else­where it’s clear that MIT’s choice there again did more harm than good.

I don’t believe that no action as a pol­i­cy is the best pol­i­cy. It also didn’t used to be that way here. In the his­to­ry of MIT there’s a famous sto­ry about a stu­dent who elects to pull a lit­tle prank at the Harvard-Yale foot­ball game, a famous site for MIT stu­dents for some rea­son to pull hacks,” as they’re called, who was attempt­ing to cause a bal­loon to emerge from the mid­dle of the field that would dis­play the MIT logo or say “MIT” on it dur­ing the mid­dle of these oth­er two schools’ foot­ball game, and who in order to pull this off need­ed to wear a coat filled with bat­ter­ies. Not even some­thing so scary as LEDs but actu­al­ly a trench­coat filled with bat­ter­ies. And who was caught wear­ing that gar­ment filled with bat­ter­ies and ques­tioned, and who had a dean of MIT turn up to sup­port him, also wear­ing a coat filled with bat­ter­ies like, Oh you believe that wear­ing a coat full of bat­ter­ies is sus­pi­cious? Come on.” And the famous phrase is, All tech men wear bat­ter­ies,” destroy­ing any ques­tion that wear­ing bat­ter­ies implic­it­ly made you guilty of caus­ing trouble.

It seems to far from the MIT I know today. And that’s why I believe that what’s hap­pen­ing here today is so impor­tant. It’s amaz­ing to me that MIT hasn’t, in recog­ni­tion of its very spe­cial cul­ture, had a way to sup­port, legal­ly, its stu­dents, seem­ing­ly in any way at all until now. It was point­ed out to me yes­ter­day in prepar­ing for this that here in the Media Lab we’re in a place where you can build things that are amaz­ing, that have nev­er been seen before, but you don’t know, if you take them out­side of these walls, whether some­one else will be afraid of what you built, and if that hap­pens whether or not you’ll have sup­port from the institution. 

That seems like something’s miss­ing. So what I would like to see is this: Instead of when things hap­pen MIT attempt­ing to pre­serve its rep­u­ta­tion by dis­tanc­ing itself from its cre­ative mem­bers, that instead it used its full weight of its name to tell the world what it means to be an engi­neer. And I hope that it also uses the pow­er behind its name, and that I hope the insti­tu­tion sup­ports this legal clin­ic in perpetuity.

Further Reference

"Understandably Cause for Alarm" a follow-up from Star after speaking at this event.


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