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If you see something, say something.

December 26, 2011

‘I think someone hacked the MBTA Red Line.’

This is a little story about how the grinchy MBTA is trying to steal Christmas. (UPDATES: MBTA General Manager Richard Davey appeared on Fox News to say that the ‘Deck the Halls’ dispatcher will not be punished, however, I’ve gotten word from Channel 5 and Metro Boston that he will face a written warning. The Boston Globe‘s Eric Moskowitz who wrote the first major story on the incident writes that the anonymous 20-year MBTA veteran has become a ‘Twitter hero.’ The Globe even wrote an editorial in defense of the dispatcher in ‘Falalalalagate.’)

Yesterday was Christmas Day. I was returning from an Occupy Boston general assembly downtown. There weren’t many people on the subway train (or T) platform. I helped one man with directions, then fumbled in my bag for the book I was carrying (which incidentally included chapters with vivid descriptions of high-tech pranks the city is known for).

I happened to be in the T during the exact, narrow window of time that something unexpected happened. I happened to film it.

I heard an unusual sound from the main announcement message board. The LED screen lit up, and with it people’s faces. A droning robot voice repeated:

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, Fa la la la la la la la la. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, Fa la la la la, la la la la.

The machine’s emotionally indifferent delivery and the repetitive, familiar merriment of the lyrics created a burst of palpable social energy.

Like the people around me I was in a state of happy disbelief. The metro—usually a space of dreary tedium, boredom, silence, rudeness, performed apathy, mild alienation, or just staring-into-the-air non-thereness—for a brief moment became a source of collective bemusement. People don’t generally laugh without abandon on the rails but now everyone around me was grinning.

I filmed a 10-second clip of the screen before the oncoming train arrived and posted it on Twitter. You didn’t have to be a connoisseur of Keith Haring’s ‘subway drawings’ to get that this was cool and funny and alive.

I didn’t stay glued to the reaction but gathered that it ranged unanimously between ‘This is awesome’ and ‘The MBTA actually has a sense of humor.’ Friends and I speculated who its author(s) could have been. Too local (and target-less) for Anonymous. Too securitized a system for MIT students (not that I doubt their ingenuity, but train systems are highly systemized) to hack into. We figured it must’ve been someone  within the MBTA itself.

I casually tipped off a local reporter who was the first to mention it in a brief article. Later the Boston Globe contacted me for an interview, reporting:

For Red Line riders, who contend with decades-old cars, periodic delays, and weekend construction shut-downs, the digitized carol brought brief, unexpected joy, as if Santa’s elves had hacked the T’s central computers.

(As someone who is squarely situated with other Santa’s elves one might already guess where my feelings about this dispatcher’s actions lie.)

At the time the Globe published this article the video had 1,600 hits. It now has nearly 6,000 12,000 more than 15,000 and was posted to the Subway Art Blog.

A Globe reporter first told me that the art piece, or art happening—and I am committed to calling it that—was an ‘inside job,’ and unnervingly, that the MBTA was considering reprimanding its maker. The reprimand being considered this week (anything from a write-up, a suspension, or a termination) is for ‘unauthorized messaging.’

I was shocked to hear that a serious rebuke is being considered for a small, innocuous (and well, totally wonderful) occasion. The operator hadn’t used his privileges selfishly or detrimentally—just the opposite. In fact, the entire ethos of the surveilling, Homeland Security-like securitization people have become acclimated to rests on asking these questions in the negative rather than the affirmative, and viewing them through a lens of hysterical safety psychosis.

Other reactions:

@SubwayArtBlog: Baby Jesus forbid anyone from smiling on their commute.

@MBTAassholes: It comes down to intent, did he/she try to harm anyone or operations? Were they abusing resources for self gain? No and no.

@JPatienceB: How is Deck the Halls different than ‘Go Pats’ on buses?

I agreed to give interviews to two local television stations and share the video with a third (these two are also doing stories), with the understanding that the added exposure could help produce leniency for the T operator.

Instead of considering that a Christmas carol risk someone’s job, perhaps the MBTA should consider that this tiny, single act arguably had a more positive public effect than all its organizational PR stunts combined. (Several trains on this same Red Line, for example, are inoperative until March 2012, something which has cost the train system considerable points in public satisfaction. Also, I’ve seen my own death flash before my eyes by a hair’s breath on the Green Line, which houses the country’s most ancient subway tracks.)

And what usually greets commuters on Boston trains? Alarmist signs like this one.

Is the MBTA’s super-securitized, super-alarmist, and super-paranoid radar on such a dominant blast that it can’t detect mirth? Ironic too that the prank simulated a jolly human within a machine and the MBTA’s response constitutes an unfeeling machine within humans.

Some fellow T riders have said, not entirely jokingly, that a serious reprimand of the creative dispatcher should bring on an ‘Occupy T’ action.

My message to general managers at MBTA: please proceed with caution, and consider that this is the best thing that happened to you this year.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 28, 2011 11:00

    I suspect the MBTA is thinking as follows: They recognize the power the message signs have to communicate with people at large. If staff didn’t fear being reprimanded for using the system for their own purposes (by that, I mean non-MBTA), then more of the staff would use the signs that way. Doing so changes the MBTA’s image (IMO, for the better) and that should not be something left up to the staff to decide.

    I think the MBTA should have whomever it was who put up the message lead a group within the MBTA whose role is to help shape the image of the MBTA to one that’s more human. There’s a conductor on the Red Line who fairly commonly would announce to passengers (in addition to the usual messages), “don’t let anyone get you down”. We need more of this.

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