Hacking in Tents

It was another historic summer.

For a good number of us, the accomplishments mirrored those of previous years.  For many others, it was something entirely new.  For the hacker community at large, the summer of 2009 represented a reaffirmation and a significant expansion into brand new territory.

The concept of a hacker camp was first realized in 1993 as Hacking at the End of the Universe (HEU) was held in the Netherlands.  There, for the first time, people in our unique community figured out a way to build a mini city in the middle of the wilderness, complete with power and connectivity, dedicated to the world of hacking and innovation.  It was enough to inspire us to move ahead with the first HOPE conference a year later in New York.  That, in turn, was the first American conference to draw over 1,000 attendees.  History was made.

Another Dutch hacker camp took place four years later in 1997, known as Hacking in Progress (HIP), held in conjunction with the second HOPE conference (Beyond HOPE).  Then, the German Chaos Computer Club put together the first German hacker camp in 1999.  From that point, HOPE conferences in New York were held during even years and alternated with the European hacker camps which, in turn, alternated between Germany and the Netherlands during odd years.  The Germans held Chaos Communication Camps in 2003 and 2007 while the Dutch held Hackers At Large (HAL) in 2001 and What The Hack in 2005.  Add to that list this year's presentation of Hacking at Random (HAR).  Apart from a seemingly neverending supply of clever names, the spirit of these events also seems limitless.  Not to mention contagious.

For this year also saw something brand new.  The first ever hacker camp in the United States became a reality in early July.  ToorCamp took place in the middle of Washington State at, of all places, the site of a former nuclear missile silo.  It wasn't nearly as big as the European counterparts, but it was every bit as significant.  Just as we once thought it would be impossible to hold a massive hacker conference in the United States, we also believed pulling off a hacker camp most certainly would never happen in this country.  We're happy to have been proven very wrong.

With a little ingenuity and a lot of spirit, all kinds of events in the most unlikely of locations can be successfully coordinated.  To have hundreds of hackers occupying a site that once could have been a trigger to the end of the world is both surreal and inspirational.  We've gotten used to the Germans having camps and conferences at old military airports or former communist training centers.  How is it possible to measure up to that level of coolness?  This summer, a big step was taken in achieving parity.  Not only was ToorCamp held in an amazing setting, but the sheer amount of responsibility the attendees displayed rivaled that of the overseas conferences, where everyone is a volunteer and security is relatively seamless and transparent.  The only way an outdoor hacker conference can possibly work in a place like an old missile silo is if everyone works together and makes sure safety is a priority in a potentially hazardous environment.  With this accomplished, there is almost no limit to the potential of where the next outdoor hacker event might take place in the States.  Now that we know it can be done, we have a whole country of really neat places to hold the next one in.  Let's hope the inspiration from this event leads to many more of them.

Of course, we expected greatness from HAR and there was certainly no shortage of that.  Four full days of talks and gatherings including people from so many different nationalities made it truly impossible to be bored.  The time flew by incredibly fast.  Naturally, an event of this nature has a great number of challenges and all of them were tackled by a very dedicated group of people, many of whom had arrived days before and wound up staying days later to ensure that everything worked out.  A few of the tasks included keeping the wired and wireless connectivity going, managing the actual infrastructure of plumbing and power, dealing with the steady curiosity of the media and the authorities, coordinating the speaker schedules, even running two separate phone systems.  Yes, the camp had both a DECT wireless telephone system and its own GSM network, each allowing attendees to use their phones to call others on site for no charge.  An FM radio station ran around the clock and captured the spirit of the proceedings with all sorts of interviews, news coverage, and music, every bit of which was done in a professional and fun manner.  There really seemed to be no end to the innovation and fun that was possible at this event.

While this type of magic has started to become almost routine for those of us involved in the hacker community, we do need to have this reinforced on a regular basis.  With every one of these milestones, more new people get involved and become inspired.  This is essential in order for our community to continue to flourish.  Having the same people doing the same thing, no matter how great it may be, would still be a form of stagnation.  At all costs, we must avoid anything that erects barricades to new participants.  And those new to the scene must try and learn from the experiences and mistakes of those who've been involved in the past.

The kinds of conferences we've seen in ToorCamp and HAR (and we'd like to assume our own HOPE conferences) are significantly different from those events that treat their attendees as a mere audience.  Some people prefer it that way because they don't really have to do anything except pay their admission fee and follow the instructions.  The people who run such conferences are very different and separate from those who attend and the hierarchy is painfully evident to all.  A good hacker conference, however, has only a slight difference between those organizing the event and those who attend with no previous involvement.  Often times, the latter turn into the former, sometimes in the course of the event itself.  This is how great things are possible - with the potential for innovation, change, and something completely unexpected and unanticipated.