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.

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