Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The Hacker Conference: A Ritual Condensation and Celebration of a Lifeworld1

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The Hacker Conference: A Ritual Condensation and Celebration of a Lifeworld1

Article excerpt

Abstract

This piece draws on ethnographic experience at various hacker conferences to rethink how face-to-face interactions work in concert with digital interactivity to constitute social worlds. Through a process of ritual condensation and emotional celebration, the conference works to perform and thus confirm what are otherwise more frequent, though more prosaic forms of virtual sociality. This focus allows me to decenter the historical priority placed on digital interactivity and examine the complementary and intertwined relationships between face-to-face interactions and online interactivity among a group of people often thought of as the quintessential digital subjects. More generally, approaching the conference in light of its ritual characteristics may also demonstrate how social enchantment and moral solidarity, often thought to play only a marginal role in the march of secular and liberal modernity, is in fact central to its unfolding. [Keywords: Hackers, Free Software, Conference, Ritual, Publics]

The Joy of Conferencing

Much has been made over the fact that hacking and the development of Free and Open Source Software (F/OSS) production unfolds in the ethereal space of bits and bytes. "Indeed, serious hackers" writes Manuel Castells, "primarily exist as hackers on-line" (2001:50). Undoubtedly, the substantial academic attention given to the virtual ways hackers- aficionados dedicated to the craft of computing-produce technology is warranted and rich and has advanced our sociological understanding of virtual interactions and labor.3 But what this literature fails to substantially address (and sometimes even barely acknowledge) is the existence and growing importance of face-to-face interactions among these geeks, hackers, and developers.4 Perhaps this is so because much of this interaction seems utterly unremarkable-the ordinary stuff of work and friendships. For example, many hackers see each other with remarkable consistency, usually everyday at work where they may share office space and regularly eat lunch together. During down time, they will "geek out," perhaps delving deep in conversation about technology, hacking on some code, or patching and recompiling their Linux kernel just to try something out. On a given day, they might dissect the latest round of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) lawsuits launched against P2P file sharers and bemoan the discovery of a particularly obnoxious security hole in the Linux kernel.5 The following day, they might tackle some work related technical hitch and express their relief that the security hole was patched. They may, if they attend school, take classes together and in the evening spend hours together in the Computer Science lab where they hack on projects, interacting in ways strikingly similar to Steven Levy's famous portrayal of hackers before the advent of large scale connectivity (1984). On weekends, closer friends may informally socialize at a bar, during a camping trip, at a technically oriented meeting, or at a Local Area Network party (a temporary gathering of people together with their computers, which they connect together in a local area network [LAN] in a location primarily for the purpose of playing multiplayer computer games). If they live in a location with a particularly high density of geeks, usually big cities with a thriving technology sector (for example, Amsterdam, Munich, Bangalore, Boston, São Paulo, San Francisco, Austin, NYC, and Sydney), face-to-face interactions are more likely to transpire, especially since geeks are often roommates or interact through informal hacker associations, collectives, and workspaces that are grounded locally.6

The advent of networked hacking should not be thought of as a displacement or replacement of physical interaction. These two modes silently but powerfully reinforce each other. Reading the latest technical, legal, or social news about F/OSS on a web news portal every morning, then posting the article link on a mailing list board (perhaps with a brief analysis), and discussing this news with friends over lunch, bolsters the validity and importance of such public discourse. …

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