Photo credit: Gerald Grote on flickr.com

World without marketing: the hacker utopia of 31C3

31C3 was my first-ever Chaos Communication Congress. If you have never come across it, CCC (or “the Congress” – Wikipedia) is Europe’s largest and most venerable hacker conference, organized since 1984 by the Chaos Computer Club, which in turn is Europe’s oldest and largest hackers association (founded 1981). It is estimated that 12,000 people participated in it. Like everyone else, I absolutely loved it. So many things made me and my fellow travelers (I participated in the Edgeryders assembly) feel welcome, at home and in awe at the same time:

  1. The intellectual firepower. These guys will gladly crowd a lecture on elliptical curve cryptography at 10.00 pm on a Saturday night, then head off to a session on how to design antenna arrays based on Maxwell’s field equations right after.
  2. The playful, take-no-prisoners attitude. You have to love the way the CCC crowd plays with technology, science, philosophy and their own bodies: it’s no holds barred. DJs all night long; the guy 3D printing colorful dildos (by night he plugged the printer next to the dancefloor. I wonder if that was a pickup line?); the internal pneumatic-tube messaging system cheekily nicknamed SeidenStrasse (Silk Road), which is hardly necessary for a conference that boasts having more Internet users and bandwidth than North Korea, but is (apparently) fun to build it, just because you can. The amount of human labor and ingenuity that goes into building stuff that has absolutely no purpose other than being “cool” or “fun” is bewildering. Fun is very serious for this crowd – these are people that will cheerfully dig trenches to lay optic fiber so they get faster Internet at their summer camps.
  3. The wild wild diversity. People from every walk of life showed up to engage in every kind of activity, and there seemed to be a place for everyone (certainly there were toilets for many kinds of creatures). From meditation to bondage workshops from beginners, from gaming to math, from lockpicking to metalworking, from cryptography to cooking. We hanged out a lot with our new friends of Food Hacking Base, who sported some pretty impressive DIY kitchen appliances – and used them to prepare tasty “wormburgers”, based on dried insect larvae. Yum!
  4. The generosity. Most people are at CCC to give something to the community. All workshops I know of were free. You are charged to get in, but 100 EUR is not much for a four-day conference of such a stellar level – I doubt there is much profit in it. Food Hacking Base gave delicious food, free of charge, to anybody who showed up, at any time of the day or of the night.

In the small hours of the third day, when the party was in full swing (with most people dancing, but a few diehards coding away on their laptops, two meters from the dancefloor), it finally hit home: I had not seen a single advertisement in the whole conference (if you don’t count laptop stickers). 31C3 is the most marketing-free public space I have ever been in throughout my entire adult life – OK, except the small, radical events like Living On The Edge, but those are a hundred times smaller. It felt just great to be in a social space, enjoying the company of others, with no pressure whatsoever to buy stuff so that you can conform to some ideal archetype.

It cannot be easy for the CCC crowd to keep marketeers out of their space. Why do they do it? Do they not need money? With 12,000 people with disposable income, companies must be salivating to brand the Congress.

I suspect there might be a connection between the freedom and creativity of CCC and its disdain of marketing. With the desire machine turned off, the pressure to conform to the rich and beautiful people in the commercials goes away. We get extra space in our brain, which we can reallocate to the full range of crazy stuff we, as a society, are actually interested in. All in all, CCC feels much like the early Internet, where indeed commercial activities were forbidden until 1995.

Don’t get me wrong: I have many friends that work in marketing. I don’t mean to invoke a prejudice against the whole discipline. But, after the taste of a world without marketing in CCC, I wonder how, exactly, that discipline is contributing to the advancement of humanity, and if we would not be better without it.

Photo credit: Gerald Grote on flickr.com

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8 thoughts on “World without marketing: the hacker utopia of 31C3

  1. 0xFACE1E55 (@0xFACE1E55)

    I saw one advertisement at 31c3. It was an A3-size sheet of white paper, with nothing more than big red letters saying: FOR PIZZA CALL 7492 (PIZA)

    Reply
  2. Marco

    Forse il marketing non è il Male Assoluto, di certo però è un dispendio di energie. Henry Thoreau, un hacker ante-litteram (uno che per due anni vive in mezzo al bosco da solo non può essere altro che un hacker), scriveva: “Instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them”.

    Reply
    1. Alberto Post author

      Interessante, Giovanni. Tu l’hai letto? Dalla descrizione sembra un libro molto antimarketing, più che uno che si chiede “cosa succederebbe se la comunicazione commerciale sparisse o abbassasse di molto il suo volume?”.

      Reply
      1. Giovanni Calia

        Si, letto. Lui è un uomo di marketing puro. Ha deciso di provare a vivere in maniera radicale provando a eliminare ogni forma di costruzione mediatica volta alla vendita di un prodotto o alla brand awareness attorno a noi. E’ durato un poco. Il libro spiega il perché e porta degli esempi molto interessanti (e sconvolgenti a parer mio) di azioni di marketing a lungo termine. Lo ritengo molto interessante anche da un punto di vista antropologico, psicologico e in termini di costruzione del senso collettivo di Junghiana memoria.

        Reply
  3. mikesierra

    You could also buy so called ” supporter tickets” for up to 140 euros, which about 25% of the attendees did, to help funding and get people to the conference, who could not afford the 100 euro.
    The 25% is afaik mentioned in the closing session.

    Reply
  4. Marquel

    The (N|P)OC names its sponsors on its wiki page, which are namely the companies providing the hardware and internet access for 12000 people to actually have more bandwidth than North Korea and be able to use it.
    Yet, those products are usually a bit too expensive (and feature-bloated) for the regular home user, so there’s no point in openly advertising for them. And companies as targets have other means of learning about them.

    if I do compare the C3 to my worst experiences of being pressed into consumerism, my airport experiences spring to mind immediately. While the C3 seems to take care that there’s absolutely nothing to distract your concentration (unless you want to), airports are the absolute opposite: There’s basically nowhere to look at (except books brought along) without looking into something that tries to lure your money out of your pocket.

    I like the C3 way better.

    Reply

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