Saturday, July 30, 2005
Thursday, July 28, 2005
WhatTheHack, first dayI am now at WhatTheHack, an outdoor hacker conference that traces its roots back to similar conferences that have been arranged every fourth year since 1989. These events have been called 'the Woodstock of the hacker scene'. The whole thing takes place in a field some kilometers north of Eindhoven in the Netherlands. Hackers of all persuasions have put up their tents around four 'circus tents' where the talks take place. In addition there are tents with bars, restaurants or just for hanging out. Most (all?) of the tents are equipped with power and network outlets, and there is supposed to be a WLAN spanning the whole site. For some reason, I am unable to connect wirelessly, so I found a free network cable in a tent that boasts a bar as well as a row of good old-fashioned pinball machines and video games. The conference started with a two hour long welcome speech by Rop Gonggrijp and Emmanuel Goldstein (aka Eric Corley), two 'old-school' hackers who have been active since the 1980s. They clearly wanted to draw the lines back to their pioneering days and wanted to see this conference as part of a hacker culture that goes back to the good old days of 'phone phreaking' and the early computers. This didn't seem to be too controversial among the crowd, but I'm not sured everybody followed when Goldstein wanted to bring in political activism under the hacker umbrella. He drew in the current political situation in the US and brought up issues of surveillance and the Patriot Act as something hackers should actively fight against. I then went to another tent to listen to Biella Coleman talking about a report she has been part of for the US Social Science Resarch Council about the politics of open source adoption, with emphasis on NGOs in the developing world. The bottom line was that those who want to fight for FOSS adoption will have to appeal both to idealism and pragmatism in their approach. In the first case by appealing to ideals of openness and accountability, but also to the pragmatics of 'clams (money), control and choice' that can be obtained by using FOSS software. I quite enjoyed a talk by Arjen Kamphuis on 'Free Software in the Boardroom'. This was a 'tutorial' on how to talk to company board members and big-whigs about FOSS and how to sell the idea to non-technical manager types. Lesson one: Wear a tie! Ties were distributed and we were taught how to tie a perfect Windsor knot... The rest of the advice was basically about hiding your idealism, staying away from technical details and being clear. Board members are like spoilt children with short attention spans, apparently... The atmosphere here is quite relaxed. I guess there is around 2000 people here, but they don't make much out of themselves. Bermudas, sandals and a hacker T-shirt seems to be the attire of choice. People are shuffling between listening to talks, relaxing in their tents or in the hammock area (wired for power and network of course), and having a snack or a beer (or something stronger - I detect more than the occasional whiff of marijuana...). My impression is that this is first and foremost a social event, where people get together and relax.
Friday, July 15, 2005
Thursday, July 14, 2005
OSS2005, final dayThe OSS2005 conference has just ended (for me anyway, there is a post-conference workshop tomorrow that I won't attend). Today was the PhD symposium, where 10 PhD students (including me) presented their research. The project spanned a wide range of topics and approaches, but I was pleased that there were 2 or 3 other projects that had a sociological, qualitative approach. Chengetai Masango and James Howiston from Syracuse University in New York are doing research on socialization practices in FLOSS teams and coordination of unreliable collaborators, respectively. What was interesting was their qualitative, ethnographical method which is what I will be doing myself. Maurizio Teli from the University of Trento was perhaps the one I had most in common with theoretically. He too bases his research on concepts from STS, actor network theory as well as John Law's notion of 'modes of ordering'. He will be studying the OpenSolaris project. I think we both felt that our own 'mode of ordering' was a bit different from the rest, coming mainly from information science and business/economy backgrounds. Both Maurizio and I were grilled a bit on the generalizability and practical importance of our projects, the selection of 'representative samples' and issues of objectivity and bias in doing participant observation. I felt that my own presentation went reasonably well after the initial nervousness had subsided. Several people came to me afterwards to say that they found my research interesting and wanted to draw my attention to related research. Especially the notion of 'communities of practice' sounded relevant and I will look more into this. After all the presentations we pretended to be 'the European commission' and had to select two projects that deserved further 'funding'. My project got 2 votes, which was actually quite good, since one project focusing on release management in FLOSS projects got almost all the votes... All in all it was a good conference that clearly showed the breadth of research being done on FLOSS these days. A few themes emerged: No one is much concerned with the motivations of FLOSS developers anymore. The emphasis seems to be on understanding how the collaboration works, how the development process can be improved, and how standard software engineering can learn from FLOSS projects. I leave the conference with a lot of inspiration, several theoretical threads to follow up and some new contacts within the FLOSS research community.
Wednesday, July 13, 2005
OSS2005, GenovaGenova is quite hot, too! Why is it that countries that really need air conditioning never has it while in Norway any lowly office building is fully equipped? But I digress... I'm here for the OSS2005 conference, aka the 1st International Conference on Open Source Systems. Today is the second day of the main event. This is a more traditional academic conference with the occasional industry participant (most notably Microsoft, IBM and even BSA). Most of the people here seem to be researchers within computer science and information science, including a colleague from the University of Oslo, Knut Staring. I have met one or two who are fellow ethnographers/sociologists/anthropologists, but the vast majority seem to be into modelling and quantitive approaches. A lot of papers yesterday dazzled us with utility formulas and graphs from mathematical simulations of open source projects. A Japanese researcher had done a cluster analysis of the 107 different open source licences in existence... Someone else asked the pertinent question: What had these presenters learnt from their models and simulations which they didn't know going in? The keynote speakers were quite good, pointing at the fact that the OS field is developing, becoming more professional, and the struggle is on to stay true to community values at the same time as making money, making the development model more professional and predictable - not to mention the issue of software patents. After the reception and the free drinks, yesterday night was spent with Italian colleagues at a Genoese restaurant, sampling the local delicacies...
DebConf05, Third day, 12. July, 2005I ended up speaking about (US) Americans the other day. The next day was much more in the name of the global. The sessions was introduced by an Indian, and one of the morning sessions was about Free software in the third world. “The third world”, of course, is an ethnocentric generalization by some others, but this talk was not. We got to hear some very specific stories about how people try to “push” Free Software in Latin America. One challenge, just to take an example that I remember, is the highly political position of Free Software. Some political parties in Latin America, notably left-winged parties, are eager to promote Free Software. Its easy to give them our support, and their case is obviously good: Cheap software and local control of the innovations is clearly what Latin America – as many other countries – need. The problem, however, is that changing governments, political instability and the rhetorical need to produce difference means that the opposition tend to be very much “against” Free Software once one party has declared its passionate support to it. So, as the case have been in Mexico, Governmental support tend to come and go every third year. This makes the necessary long term development of locally adapted Free Software very difficult. But back to DebConf. It is an international conference, and this was more visible the second day. The Germans are as visible as the Americans, and there are Japanese, a few Chinese, some Latin Americans and Europeans of all kinds. I want to talk about the heterogeneity of the gathering, but not particularly about the national or ethnic heterogeneity. There is something about heterogeneity in relation to uniformity and knowledge. I'll talk about dress code, not because I think it is very important, but because it is not entirely unimportant either. There is a liberalness about dress code that I have not seen many other places. Punks or Gothic heavy rockers may be very unconventionally dressed. And many hackers share their unconventionality: But punks and heavy rockers do not diverge much internally. There is nothing as predictable as a heavy rocker. Their dress code tolerates nothing. There are a few “heavy rockers-light” here, a few “cowboy”-kind of Americans, a bit more “hippi-light” people, and some almost boringly conventional people. No dresses, a lot of T-shirts – it's still hot summer. Almost only males. I sat next to some male, mid-30ish people at the hotel the other night. They were probably attending something at a Nokia site (not far away) or something. Talking about some small portable PC-kind of gadget, looking like a large PDA (running Linux!). They where looking casual but smart, and I understood that there are engineers elsewhere that look very different from this untidy bunch here at the “hack lab”. By the way, it's midnight and still there are something like 30 people working with their PCs here, jacked in to a provisionally mess of Internet-wires. Here is a picture: So what is the point I am getting at? It is this, and it is late and I have to go to bed, but this: The hacker community is a “do-ocracy”, a meritocracy. That is how they describe themselves, and they are not much wrong. They are “inside” because of what they know, can and master, not so much because of what they look like. They are what they master. There is something about gender here, because they are almost all males. And if its a strict meritocracy, then it may be that female exclusion is merely a matter of lack of devotion to skills. A women at “Debian Women” I talked to objected to this, and she will give talk in a couple of days. I'll return to the issue. Good night.
Monday, July 11, 2005
DebConf05, First day, 10. July, 2005
So, I am attending Debconf05. Helsinki is warm, but I won't speak about the weather. This is a conference, an international one, and I have attended quite a lot of international conferences. This one is different.
An international conference, to me, has a certain formal style. There is a certain distanced politeness about them, probably due to the fact that many people don't know each other very well. The Artificial Life conferences were sometimes very formal, I suspect much because of the high concentration of Japanese reasearchers. These "hackers" or "geeks", however, ... not that they aren't polite :), certainly not, but they have a very informal style. They do seem to know each other fairly well. Some of them know each other very well, and some of these make up the core of the conference. This core, then, often talk to each other as if they were a group of good friends chatting, which they are, of course, and that makes the whole athmosphere very relaxed. But they also do it in the large plenum-hall, with 200 people listening in. It seems to me that this group to a large degree is made up of US Americans, or at least they tend to take the word in this very informal way. I know, or I think I know, of Europeans that are very central to the Debian project. So, why are the Americans so present in the public, informal space of the talks, making informal comments, being personal? Am I talking about differences in national ethoses here? The difference between Japanese Artificial Life researchers an American geeks fits well with received national differences, such as those that Sharon Traweek describes in her ethnogrphy about high-energy physics. So, perhaps the Americans are more relaxed, than the more formal Europeans -- but then also a bit more dominating, as they sometimes tend to occupy the public space.
Well, sorry for making national sereotypes here, I may be wrong in my analysis, and it certainly is the case that there are quite a few US Americans in the core of Debian, independently of what "the American ethos" may be, or not be.
Nationalities aside then, the fact remains that some people know each other very well at this conference. They are at home. At home in the Debian, and thus in the DebConf05.
I am an outsider, no doubt about that. That's the nature and also the sad fate of doing anthropological fieldwork. I also felt lost when i studied "ALifers" (people doing Artificial Life). Here I feel lost in another way: lost because the others are so wery much at home, at least the most visble part of the others. Lost despite the fact that this group of people are open, inclusive and truly friendly. But they are still exclusive, because they are so extremely skilled and devoted. This is perhaps a more scientific community than any other community I know of. "Scientific" for tree reasons: For their celebration of open knowledge, for their empatic celebration of systematic knowledge, and for their deep identification with being a knower on those terms of knowledge. They are taking and preserving within computer science some of the best sides of science.
Sunday, July 03, 2005
Next event, to me, is the much bigger "gathering", or conference, DebConf05. See you in Hel...Hi all, and thank you, to everyone who attended the develper gathering in Bergen. And a special thanks to St. Paul's catholic school. The schools location, in the city center was a great time saver... And also the accommodation at the school made the developers time for travel, to and from, non existent. :) The school created user accounts for our translators on their production machine, so it took the translators minutes to get up and running. The network was a standard skolelinux net, and ssh, ftp, irc ++ and other protocoles we needed was up from the first minute. So on behalf of skolelinux/debian-edu comunity, thank you St. Paul's catholic school, this was a very effective gatherings, with great accommodations :) (Even thou we had a lot of meetings that, in them self was very interesting, but they stole precious development time. But more about that in another mail. :) )