(Due to a few problems and confusions with timing submission and editing, this piece about the Next HOPE never ran at Gizmodo. It’s presented on my blog instead because… you know, why not? I almost never name my own articles, that’s my editor’s job. But I have names for them in my head, and this one was called:)
Scenes from a Hacker Conference
The Hotel Pennsylvania was packed the weekend of the The Next HOPE conference, full of New York’s summer tourists as well as hackers. But it’s wasn’t hard to tell the hackers apart from the civilians. They were the ones in all black– goth with funnier t-shirts and no make-up.
The look may have risen nearly to the level of self parody, but the enthusiasm was genuine. The vacationers were far outmatched for pure excitement. People were grinningly happy to be here. “This year was… the HOPE that people thought would never happen, but we’re still here despite the economic problems and other issues,” says founder and organizer Emmanuel Goldstein. “This was The Next HOPE. It was about renewal.”
HOPE stands for Hackers On Planet Earth. It was created by the community around 2600, the Hacker Quarterly, mainly by 2600′s co-founder, Emmanuel Goldstein, less well known as Eric Corley. It’s been going since 1994, every 3-2 years. The HOPE conferences are much more hacker conferences than computer security conferences, embracing an ethic and aesthetic that goes beyond security. “There are other conferences that relate on certain themes (to HOPE), but most don’t hit the politics/anarchy/hacking all at once. It’s actually a pretty rare combination,” says Aestetix, one of the conference organizers.
Goldstein has made the HOPE conferences by far the most European of the American hacker gatherings– a political event, with a worldview that exceeds the technical. American hackers have often taken the mantel of bad guy hooligans much more than their European counterparts, for whom defiance and transgression are seen as more righteous and politically active. European hackers have often swung socialist, the Americans, libertarian. Goldstein tries to be as inclusive as possible. “The idea is to get people to come out of it saying ‘that’s really something different and I had my mind opened,’” says Goldstein.
The talks ranged wildly, from coding to resist botnets to sex and food and a talk about how we perceive color. They are political, technical, scientific, social, and often funny. But one of the things people notice about the HOPE conferences is that they always bring the drama, and The Next Hope was no exception. This year featured a WikiLeaks keynote that brought out federal agents looking to question Julian Assange, and the public appearance of Adrian Lamo, with whom WikiLeaks has been in an embarrassing public pissing match over the case of alleged leaker Bradley Manning.
“As annoying as drama can be to watch unfold, it’s also really exciting. I think general news stories follow the same line, drama sells,” said Aestetix, and the organizers weren’t shy about playing up the drama.
Goldstein took the podium in front of a packed room for the WikiLeaks keynote. Goldstein is a middle aged man with a soft, welcoming face. He looks like a man perpetually ready for a backyard BBQ. A two minute hate of this Emmanuel Goldstein would feel like chewing out a favorite uncle. He looked over the crowd with a grin. “Everyone having fun?” The audience cheered. “Alright. There’s a lot of feds here. I don’t understand it. There’s all this interest in the conference this year for some reason. So hi, how are you doing?” He laughed, and went on to introduce Jake Appelbaum in the place of Julian Assange.
The next day he brought Lamo to the stage to defend himself, admonishing the hackers to listen to the same man he’d castigated the day before. Lamo did a remarkable job, and the tense room broke partly for him. Even his opponents conceded he’d displayed the kind of courage hackers value over almost anything else. As Lamo walked out of the hotel, one of the attendees called him a bastard. He then grinned and laughed, and added “You’ve got balls, though.”
Beyond the talks, drama, and clothing choices there’s the touches that are unique to HOPE. What passed for an expo floor at the Next HOPE really wasn’t. The most capitalist of the booths were the little businesses like SecuritySnobs.com, selling fancy padlocks alongside lockpicking kits, and Adafruit industries, which sells kits and supplies for electronics hacking. There was a hackerspace village with tables laid out with soldering irons for whoever needs them. Off to the side 8 bit DJs blasted unexpectedly good music, music that found its form within the constraint. Beyond that a lockpicking area, and a Segway track. Right in the middle of the floor boxes of imported Club Mate were stacked nearly to the ceiling in an unlikely cardboard tower. Like so much of HOPE, 2600, and the hacker scene in general, it had the feel of an impractical solution undertaken just to see if it could be done.
You can’t really get the feel of the event without talking about the Club Mate, a vile German caffeine drink based on the South American yerba maté plant. The drink became popular with American hackers after being imported at the Last Hope by 2600. It’s everywhere, and people refer to it constantly. “Have you had your Club Mate?” Speakers admonish their audiences. It’s thrust into my hands by a conference organizer. I thrust it into someone else’s hand. It may be hacker vitamins, but it tastes like sucking on a pill. I’d rather have a meth habit. Even the brewer, Loscher, acknowledges that it’s an acquired taste. The 2600 store ships it around the country, “supplying various hacker spaces with pallets of the stuff” according to the website.
I wandered over to see the lockpicking area gatherimg a crowd. There was competition going on, and a team finishing up. This was the the Defiant Lockpick Challenge (Named for the 1958 movie the Defiant Ones). Two people form a team, bringing their personal lockpicks. They’re given a box and five minutes, and handcuffed together awkwardly. The timer starts, and they pick the box open. Inside are eight padlocks, four pairs, for the contestants. They can pick the cuffs and escape from them at any time, but that’s the last lock they’re allowed to pick.
The next team was two men in black t-shirts, one with a black fedora to match. Time was called, and they worked frantically. Fedora was seated, his team mate hunched over the table across from him. The box was easy, but the locks inside vary from easy to much harder, and it wasn’t apparent which were the easy locks.
They were mostly quiet except for the sounds of the picks, their badges knocking against the table, and the occasional yell and crash of a lock thrown against the table when they got one. It’s surprising how enthralling lockpicking can be to watch. It was tense, and the concentration seemed like a palatable force emanating from their table. The crowd grew as they went along, complete with photographers circling around the contestants. Four locks, five locks, they’ve gone through them faster than anyone before them, the event announcer told us. But they were getting to the hard ones. The hunched over man picked his way out of the handcuffs first, and watches while his loosened companion settles into a final pick. Fedora was still seated, left hand completely covers a padlock, with an index finger gently pushing a torsion wrench at the base of the keyhole while he raked across pins with his right cuffed hand. His partner inserted a shim into the handcuff still on him, and waited. The time was nearly up. People in the crowd, along with an announcer, began counting down. Some held their breath. The man in the fedora popped the last padlock, and in nearly the same motion, his partner popped the cuff off his arm.
Everyone burst into relieved applause while the partners threw their arms to the ceiling in triumphant Vees. They’d won by one lock. Generally lockpicking for fun is called locksports largely to avoid trouble with the law, but here it lived up to the moniker.
Later, when the organizers are closing the conference Goldstein fields screams from the audience to make the conference annual. It’s been a success. Goldstein points out to me later that despite holding a conference with several thousand attendees who pride themselves on being transgressive, and refusing to set up explicit rules, there wasn’t a single incident over the weekend. “Our crowd has always been fairly mature. There’s immature people of course, but they’re drowned out by the mature community around them,” he says. “If you treat people like adults then they’ll act like adults”
Goldstein’s been there from the beginning, and he sees the community getting more complex. It’s more inclusive of women, politics, and dissent than it once was. “It’s a strange community to gauge,” he says, “Is a hacker anyone that says they’re a hacker? If we included everyone that called themselves hackers, I’d say we’ve grown up. We’re talking abut a lot of things we weren’t talking about 10-15 years ago. We have a wider net around what defines us.”