At the Chaos Communication Congress, there are hackers and a hacker “scene.” The two overlap like a Venn diagram of social life. But the differences between them are obvious to anyone who spends any length of time observing what happens at this conference in between the lectures and technical demonstrations.


Traditionally, hackers are people who like to explore the way technology works. Often, in the process, they come to question the way corporations and governments control computers — or use technology to control people. This humanitarian, explorer spirit is what holds the hacker community together. It’s what motivated Alan Bradley, one of Friday’s late-night speakers, to deliver his entire talk via a VOIP phone whose data stream was double-cloaked with two software tools that hid the origin of his telephone call. “This is a proof of concept that demonstrates you can engage in completely anonymous public speech,” his broadcast voice said. Everyone in the room listened to an empty podium (see photo at left) that contained only a computer while Bradley explained Tron, a tool that cloaks data stored in computer memory. It’s also what motivated Hunz to give a talk called “Void the Warranty!” in which he encouraged people to open up “blackbox” technologies like printers and cell phones “because it’s easy and fun.”

But the hacker community isn’t all about technical expertise. It’s also about partying, music, art, and socializing among people who aren’t likely to demean you for pulling out a laptop at a nightclub or obsessively reciting details from the latest Doctor Who episode. That’s where the hacker “scene” comes in. Unlike other professional conferences, CCC is full of people who just want to drink beer or goof around online with their friends. It also includes people whose hacks are cultural in nature — instead of reverse-engineering magnetic card readers with an oscilliscope, they reverse-engineer and question social norms. That’s why some of the most packed talks at CCC were delivered by non-technical people like civil liberties activist and musician John Perry Barlow and copyright reformist attorney Lawrence Lessig. As CCC attendee and speaker Autumn Tyr-Salvia put it, “People at this conference often have to do things that aren’t documented in the manual — they’re creative, and that’s why the environment is a mix of work and play.”


Many events at CCC are purely recreational, but nevertheless infused geek values — there’s Hacker Jeopardy and “powerpoint karaoke.” Other events take place outside the conference center at nightclubs like the hacker-run C-Base and at after-hours parties in the hotel rooms of conference organizers. Sure there may be some posing going on , and at CCC in general, but that’s simply proof that hackers are more than robots with no social lives. They’re as cliquey and drunk as any other group of people who have gotten together with 5000 friends for the weekend. Are people who identify as part of the “scene” any less important the people who see themselves as computer professionals? It’s hard to say. You couldn’t have CCC without both. –Annalee Newitz