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