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?

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