A few weeks ago a kindly professor went over my resumé with me, to help ensure I was presenting myself well in job applications. One of her major critiques, surprisingly, was that the conferences I’d spoken at were all over the map. “I can’t tell what your home conference is,” she said. I agreed I didn’t really have one.
Actually, I realized later, I do. And one of the reasons that wasn’t clear is I tend to bury it somewhat on my academic vita. It’s not a peer-reviewed conference, but there are academics on the speaker review board and a number of academic papers are presented. More to the point, though, it’s the Hackers On Planet Earth conference, also known as HOPE — and I am never sure whether it’s a good idea to throw the word “hacker” in my resumé.
But by now I’ve been attending HOPE since 2002, speaking at it since 2006, and helping organize since 2010. Over the past ten years, HOPE may have had more of an impact on my scholarly worldview than any other conference. It is HOPE participants I feel I have the most useful exchange with, bringing them the results of social research and taking their thoughts on privacy, security, and copyright back to Teachers College. It was a HOPE colleague from Alaska who voluntarily read my dissertation, wrote me feedback, and got up at 5 a.m. his time to sit in on my dissertation defense by phone. (This is a man who runs a supercomputer; his field is, by most academic measures, pretty far from my own work in anthropology and conversation analysis.) Frankly, HOPE feels like home to me, as an interdisciplinary scholar, because intellectually, it is a bigger tent than any other conference I go to. Bigger than the American Educational Research Association, that factory farm for tenure in educational research, so reductive in its marginalization of philosophy, qualitative methods, and whatever else is unpopular in a given era. HOPE is always an additive conference; if we think there’s something to be learned from hosting a talk on bat echolocation or the postal system, we’re darned well going to accept that talk.(1)
So I’m coming out of the closet: HOPE is my home conference. There should be no need to apologize: anyone studying or working in technology ought to be aware that computer engineers and programmers who aren’t up to anything criminal have historically called themselves hackers. The word has a rich tradition among the people who invented computers as we know them today; it has implications of creativity and invention. Quoting The Jargon File, aka The New Hacker Dictionary:
Hacking might be characterized as ‘an appropriate application of ingenuity’. Whether the result is a quick-and-dirty patchwork job or a carefully crafted work of art, you have to admire the cleverness that went into it.
I have learned at HOPE, because it is unabashedly not just a conference for experts. Each year there are a number of talks which serve as basic primers on a technical topic like the wireless spectrum or voting machines. Most academic conferences seem to be places to see and be seen by colleagues doing work about which you already know a great deal, to present your research and learn about theirs (if we’re being cynical: so you can figure out who to cite to up your Erdos number, or whatever).
Here’s six reasons why I am especially excited about HOPE this year, to try to convince more of my academic colleagues to come out for the conference (which is July 13-15th, 2012, right across the street from Penn Station):
Maybe it’s because my car-guy dad imbued me with more of his enthusiasm for mechanical engineering than some of my computer-oriented peers have, but I am pretty excited about the large-motor talks at this conference. I managed to convince a couple of ComBots organizers to come out and talk about the history of combat robotics, which felt to me like a major hole in previous conference lineups (perhaps because I grew up being pulled out of class by said Dad to go see the ME72 competitions at Caltech). We have an entry-level talk on hacking your car computer, which is great; previously I think we’ve mostly only talked about that in terms of Right To Repair. There’s a talk on SCADA, the systems vulnerable to the Stuxnet worm which was recently proven to have been developed by the US and Israeli governments to attack Iranian nuclear facilities. There’s a whole handful of talks on 3D printing and circuit printing. And there’s a talk by a woman who hacked together a device to improve her own hearing, possibly my favorite DIY talk of this HOPE. And speaking of her, we have…
Ever-improving gender parity.
In an age when we often see unhappy posts and tweets about tech conferences where women are assaulted behind the scenes, talks are given which slather slides with bikini babes and assume a heteronormative male audience, and where high Dave-to-girl ratios prevail, HOPE is proving to be ever more friendly to women (and I think it’s pretty friendly to queer folk, too).(2) I’ve been going to HOPE since 2002 and have seen the gender balance improve each year, but I was surprised by the number of women we had submitting talks this year. Many of them are highly technical; women are also well-represented on legal talks. We’ll have a great workshop on making women feel welcome in your hackerspace, led by two highly experienced and talented hackerspace veterans from Philly.(3)
And, unexpectedly addressing another minor pain point for female conference attendees, the conference has wholeheartedly championed the cause of female organizers like myself who complained about the lack of women’s conference shirts! This might make HOPE eligible for a bounty which has been offered for tech conferences which address this sartorial issue.(4)
We’re still not at a 50/50 ratio yet, but we’re getting there. As one of the organizers, I have to congratulate the women who are stepping forward to make this conference wonderfully diverse both in topic and perspective, and also the wonderful men working behind the scenes who have been allies, routinely stepping forward to back me up when I argued that something was offensive, expressing concern for gender balance in talks, recommending honoring female pioneers in computing through naming of conference rooms, and myriad other ways.
Attack of the Lawyers!
HOPE, 2600 Magazine, and Off The Hook have always brought something slightly different to the table from other conferences like DEFCON. Our major strength is addressing the social ramifications of technology, and activist movements with technical dimensions.
Somehow, this year, we have a surfeit of talks from hackers’ legal allies, who will be addressing everything from drone attacks to free speech. The ever-challenging law professor Eben Moglen will speak again on his ongoing theme of liberating ourselves from companies like Google and Facebook which have a hammerlock on our free speech. A previous talk on this theme spawned Diaspora, the distributed open-source Facebook alternative, and Moglen’s FreedomBox project to enable people to run their own servers. This time he’s tackling mobile devices.
We’re also clearing out the offices of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, almost all of whom seem to be coming to speak at the conference. And at the last minute we got a submission from the ACLU on whistleblowers, echoing our keynote by NSA whistleblower William Binney. Seems like we’re the place to be for legal discussions of technology this year.
Bleepy bloopy music.
Major bias on my part because I’m organizing these, but once again I’m psyched about the great musicians and visualists we have performing at the chiptune concerts on the 13th and 14th. Music made with hacked Game Boys, Nintendos, and other bleepy devices fits in well with a hacker conference. I’m hoping we’ll manage to clinch one performance by an out-of-town artist we don’t see in New York much, but that’s still not firmed up enough to announce as a done deal…
A handful of our chiptune folks are also giving talks about how art and hacking are related. One is doing a talk on the early 20th century phenomenon of apophenia — using radios to “talk to the dead.” For those who enjoyed my impromptu ranting about the Geek Dance Movement at the last HOPE concert, some of that should be available too.
More things to DO.
This year, HOPE has a whole track set aside for workshops, making a place for speakers who want to provide their audience with a more hands-on learning experience. That track will feature everything from a how-to on building a keystroke detector to workshops on dealing with depression, and of course the workshop on gender and inclusiveness. I’ve watched HOPE feature more and more hands-on stuff over the years, with the Hackerspace Village growing to encompass more opportunities to learn soldering and build circuits. I’m also curating art exhibits, many of which will be interactive. Good to have more variety than just lectures.
The Yes Men are keynoting.
HOPE is a little different from other American computer security conferences in that the political activist side of hacking is well-represented. This means we’ve seen talks on Anonymous (including Anon themselves growing up on stage as they realized people took what they could do seriously — I was timekeeper on that panel, and it was pretty amazing to watch), appearances from Wikileaks organizers, of course lots of stuff on whistleblowing this time around, and appearances by folks like punk musician Jello Biafra and Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder who often seem a touch baffled that they’ve been invited to speak at a hacker conference. This year’s fertile crossover with political art is The Yes Men, and I can’t wait.
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So if I’ve convinced you, register. I hope to see you there ^_^
(1) I have more to say about the idea of a “home conference” and what it means for interdisciplinary scholars — and more generally the troubles faced by those of us who have studied in interdisciplinary programs — but that will have to wait until later. Once HOPE is over and I’m well into post-partum depression about it, I should have more time to write.
(2) [EDITED] That said, there is one speaker who has been known to casually lace his conversation with racist or homophobic asides: Steve Rambam, a private investigator whose talks on the changes to privacy in age of Facebook are otherwise pretty compelling. I’m being called unprofessional for saying this publicly as a conference organizer… but what is the professional route? Let a guy who calls himself “an equal opportunity offender” (uh huh. let’s hear you offend some straight white guys) go without comment, knowing he has a tendency to do things like imply that people are gay because of the drink they order or make much of the ethnicity of restaurant staff? Even when I’ve just gone on about how friendly the conference is otherwise — which it is, because the organizers are great, and they set the tone for the conference, and one obnoxious private dick doesn’t spoil the whole barrel? I suppose “get his talk proposal turned down” would be another option; if he gets any worse, I’ll certainly lobby for it. Meanwhile, if Steve pisses you off, you’re not alone. I just treat him like other hackers whose idiosyncratic speech habits I have to filter in order to have a conversation.
(3) You may notice there is also a panel on inclusiveness in hackerspaces being led by a white male from Vienna, Austria. I did argue with the speaker committee about green-lighting this when we also have two women leading a similar session. Ultimately, though, they will be doing theirs as a workshop, so his panel may serve to give the issue additional coverage; and the panel will also address issues of race and questions of the profit motive in hacker culture, which are also much needed. Fair? Well, who knows. I am going to take Johannes as an ally in this case, as he presents himself as one and is trying to take up the issue to begin with, and let the audience at the talk address incongruities of representation.
(4) Come to think of it, there was also that moment at a previous HOPE when Philly con-goers printed pictures of a uterus on shirts and captioned it “The Internet: A Series Of Tubes/Senator Stevens, Don’t Tie Our Tubes” back when Congress was threatening net neutrality. Emmanuel wore said uterus onstage throughout the closing ceremonies. This was some of us out after the last day of HOPE 6:
Love that shot of Emmanuel, who is framing the uterus so nicely. Hee.