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.