Saturday, July 30, 2005

WhatTheHack, second day

I got up early today to catch a talk by Yuwei Lin from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. I was looking forward to the talk, since several people in Genova suggested I look into her work. Her qualitative approach to the FOSS community uses concepts like social worlds and communities of practice which seem very relevant for my own research. Unfortunately, her talk was canceled without explanation. I then attended a talk about Tor, an anonymity service run by the Free Software Foundation (FSF), which means anybody can use Internet services anonymously, i.e. without revealing their true IP address. As a Tor user, you can eventually choose to appear to be surfing from the location of your choice, bypassing any filtering based on IP origin, such as gaining access to Olympic Games results for Americans, or gaining access to the Republican party web site which is normally blocked for traffic from Europe. This is perahaps controversial in these 'war on terror' times, but it seems authorities and security agencies are willing to tolerate the existence of such a service in order to use it for their own ends. The speaker mentioned in passing that he had presented the system to Norwegian police and they were suitably impressed... I also had high hopes for a lecture on 'Digital Identities and the Power of Hacking' by Stephan Humer, a hacker-turned-sociologist and PhD student from Free University Berlin. However, while the talk might have been appropriate at a sociology conference, it failed to capture the interest of the hackers. The tent was quite full at the start, but emptied rapidly, and especially when the poor sociologist spouted off long lists of references that were meaningless to the hackers. I also think that the talk was held at an abstract level that was alien to this group of hands-on technologists. The feel of the conference today was much more quiet than the first day. I may have to revise my estimate on the number of people to closer to 1000. People are very relaxed and sitting around in small groups around the network switches focused on their laptops. I am a bit surprised that there is nn apparent mobilising of the hackers either in terms of political or technical projects. But maybe that isn't the point of this conference - or maybe the crowd is just to diverse in its goals, beliefs and technologies of choice?

Thursday, July 28, 2005

WhatTheHack, first day

I 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

DebConf05, sixth day, 16. July I talked about dress code the other day, and there is something I have to add to that. Among this plurality of not very dressed up Debian-hackers there are indeed codes of commonality. It is too easy just to celebrate the heterogeneity of this “wild bunch” (as New Scientist called them some years ago). I'm not going to try to draw a complete picture. I'll just mention two codes of commonality. The first one is the cotton T-shirt, and not just any kind of T-shirt that half the planet would tend to wear on a warm day. There's the special kind of geek- or hacker-T-shirt. The most common one at this conference is a Debian T-shirt. It has the Debian-sign on it. It might be the T-shirt we got for this conference, or perhaps a T-shirt from earlier Debian- or Linux-occasions. And then there is the self-ironical geek-T-shirt. There are many of them, like this one: One the chest it is saying <.geek.> (without the dots - I had to add some noice to prevent my blog machine to treat this as a real html-tag), which means “geek begins” in the html-programming language (just as < .i.> without the dots means “italic begins”). On its back it says <./geek.>, which means “geek ends” (again without dots). Within these tags is enclosed the body of a geek. There is no strong normativity connected to the T-shirt. No-one makes a comment when you do not wear it. Your operating system, however, will be commented upon. I booted my laptop at the hack-lab the other day. “Are you using SUSE!!”- “The worst!!” I have installed Linux on my laptop, as dual boot, which means that I may choose between booting Windows or Linux. I did this dual boot installation using the German SUSE-Linux, because at the time (some years ago) I thought SUSE was user-friendly enough for a non-geek like me to be able to do it. Debian, certainly, was not. I don't know what these guys would have said had I fired my Windows, but SUSE was bad enough. They offered me help to install the newly releases Debian 3.1, with codename “Sarge”. I refused but offered them my hard-disk if they installed KDE-Ubuntu (Kubuntu), the new end-user friendly version of Debian. They refused. But I am sure someone will help me to do Kubuntu tonight. (If I need help at all, Ubuntu is not very difficult to install. Except I may still need some help to get the wireless card to run. That is still a hassle under Linux.) No one will hurt you if you don't wear a proper suit and tie at a wedding, but you may expect a comment or two. Its the same with your operating system here at DebConf. Debian is plain, taken for granted normality, and Debian developers wear their operating system. It is a sign, I guess of knowlwdge, skills and connection. But I have to add: They all wear their Debian (on their T-shirts and laptops) because they are passionately and professionally convinced about its technical superiority.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

OSS2005, final day

The 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, Genova

Genova 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, 2005

I 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

The Bergen Gathering

Imagine a world where IBM is bragging about using $ 100 mill on building Open Source innovation labs in China and Brazil, where those two states have large development programs for rolling out Linux in their state administarations, and where HP is providing complete Open Source systems, where the same firm they develop all their printers in labs only running Linux machines, thus also unofficially supporting the Linux world with top quality drivers for all their printers. But HP does not ship these drivers with the printers (and with official support). They feed them to the distributors, such as SUSE, who then feed them to the end users, free of charge and with no warranty. But it might be that HP is writing their printers drivers for Unix before porting them to Windows and Mac. Isn't that strange? Well, anyway, and to me even mor fantastic: In this environment of coming Big Business, Open Source / Free Software is still also made by enthusisats. A couple of week ago, I slept on the floor in a classroom, thogether with about 20 "hackers", one week end in Bergen, at St. Paul school. People live cheap, travel cheap and eat cheap, in order to afford the gathering of as many people as possible. They hack, translate and talk about free software for a week-end, all for free, and to the benefit for the many schools (including St. Paul) that have installed "SkoleLinux" or similar Linux systems on their computers. Are you worried about the health of political engagement? Your worry should not be general. In a place like the free software there are plenty of engagement -- it is just a bit difficult to see it as it escapes classical definitions of politics. The size of open source / free software is vast. The impurity in terms of actors, intersets, projects and political commitments is equally facsinating. Above, there is an image to capture some of that size and impurity. The selection of actors represented here is arbitrary and makes up just a tiny fraction of a much bigger collage. And here is a bigger one: Collage (big) To give you an idea of the content og the gathering, here is a comment to the event, made by Frode Jemtland at the list
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. :) )
Next event, to me, is the much bigger "gathering", or conference, DebConf05. See you in Hel...