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Hackers of the Free Software Movement by Patrick Davison March 31st 2009 Delicious

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Wintercamp 2009
Institute of Network Cultures
FLOSS Manuals
James Wallbank

Wintercamp 2009

Amsterdam's Wintercamp 2009, the week-long conference (but maybe it's better to describe it as an un-conference) hosted by the Institute of Network Cultures, concluded last week on March 7th. The theme of Wintercamp was simple: Networks. Get a bunch of different networks together, give them the opportunity to do whatever they do for three days, and then let them talk to each other. Simple. And it was, on the whole, really effective. The opportunity to bring members of an international group together in one place, some of which (or all of which) had never met before, and allow them the space to work together--it was great.

I participated as a member of FLOSS Manuals. For those that don't know (which included me as recently as two months ago) FLOSS stands for Free Libre Open Source Software. FLOSS Manuals is an organization that believes in the importance of free software and believes that one of the biggest barriers it faces is the lack of readily available, quality documentation. So they strive to provide free documentation for free software.

It's a great organization and a great cause. But free software, even as it gains momentum and popular appeal, is still pretty underground. Like I said, it was a culture that I had no idea existed two months ago, and now...

Maybe I should say that I spent the whole plane ride to and from Amsterdam reading Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash. It was published in 1992, almost ten years after William Gibson's Neuromancer and it is a pretty good example of what Neuromancer might have been like had it been written after the internet’s invention instead of before. And if you haven't read Neuromancer either, well, the point is that both books are drenched in (or invented) cyberpunk. The idea of the computer programmer as a hot, sexy, savvy, competent cowboy drip from between the dystopia-laden future-pages of both. And for these books, hacking doesn't mean using a phone line to get into some remote, secured computer and dropping off some virus or copying some bank account info, it refers to any act of digital creation. For me, this idea is fun, but is just as interesting as wizards casting spells, pirates looting ships, or cowboys having shootouts. Because they're all works of fiction.

Except their not.

At Wintercamp, I quickly realized that I was surrounded by people who currently, actually, self-identify as hackers. Really. They pride themselves on knowing how their computers work from bottom to top, knowing how to make them do what they want, knowing how to write and modify their own software. These people exist, and they make up the modern-day free software movement.

I pride myself in being a professional computer user. Every single thing that I do to make money is based on my ability to use a computer, expertise with a piece of software, or capacity for figuring out something digital. People ask me for computer advice. I have other friends who know more than I do, sure, but we're all in the same ballpark.

But the hackers of the free software world put me to absolute shame. Every time I turned around, someone was asking me to generate a new SSH key for the .git repository I would need to access for versioning, or talking about reprogramming the user-interface of the 3-D modeling program they had created and used, or DJing music at a party from the command-line--the command-line. I had just purchased the most recently released, stupidly expensive MacBook Pro when I met James Wallbank, who hasn't bought a computer since the early 90s. He knows enough about assembling computers to just take the machines everyone throws away and assemble entire media centers from them. He does things with the machines people throw away that I can't do with the brand-new laptops I shell out crazy money for.

This is real. These people are hackers — certainly not as sword-wielding or espionage-involved as Hiro Protagonist--but they are real. So that counts for something.

Wintercamp was great for FLOSS Manuals. We formed new, important committees. I got a chance to talk user interaction and redesign the logo a bit, and we scheduled future additions to the website that have been a long time coming. But the real thing that I took from the week was this new secret plan of mine. I need to get onto Craigslist and find a free kicked-to-the-curb computer. I need to install Linux. I need to write a program that does something I want it to do, have it have cost me nothing, and give it away for free. I want to be a hacker.