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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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