33C3: Works for Me

The Chaos Communication Congress (CCC) is the largest German hacker convention by a wide margin, and it’s now in its thirty-third year, hence 33C3. The Congress is a techno-utopian-anarchist-rave with a social conscience and a strong underpinning of straight-up hacking. In short, there’s something for everyone, and that’s partly because a CCC is like a hacker Rorschach test: everyone brings what they want to the CCC, figuratively and literally. Somehow the contributions of 12,000 people all hang together, more or less. The first “C” does stand for chaos, after all.

What brings these disparate types to Hamburg are the intersections in the Venn diagrams. Social activists who may actually be subject to state surveillance are just as interested in secure messaging as the paranoid security geek or the hardcore crypto nerd who’s just in it for the algorithms. Technology, and how we use it to communicate and organize society, is a pretty broad topic. Blinking lights also seem to be in the intersection. But on top of that, we are all geeks. There’s a lot of skill, smarts, and know-how here, and geeks like sharing, teaching, and showing off their crazy creations.

Talks and Sessions

The Sessions Schedule (and Commemorative Mate Bottle)
The Sessions Schedule (and Commemorative Mate Bottle)

Ignoring the straight-up hacking at a CCC would be a mistake — there’s no shortage of talks where serious technical skills overcome silicon limitations to get their code running on the machine. Reverse engineering, making encryption, breaking encryption, or securing systems. We’ve covered a few talks, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. As we write this, we’re being forced to choose between attending a talk on one of our favorite open-source reverse-engineering tools, a talk on big data and privacy, and a talk about testing pseudo-random number generators. We’re working on writing up the rest of the standouts, but it’s going to take us a while to catch up.

At the same time as the formal talks, there are autonomous sessions and workshops taking place in many smaller rooms throughout the convention center. We’re missing a talk on numerical weather prediction right now. You just can’t catch them all. And while the CCC crew does a great job of getting all the main tracks up and online within minutes of the end of each talk, the sessions and workshops remain invisible unless you’re here.

Assemblies and Games

Yes, the talks and sessions are (less than?) half of the show. The “chaos” is the thing. Other conventions have hackerspace villages or special-interest areas, the CCC has “assemblies”. And it has them in spades. Four big halls are filled with tables, 3D printers, laser cutters, small robots, blinking things, and other random projects. The assemblies are also a big show and tell that makes most Maker Faires jealous.

Hackerspaces from Germany, and also from all over Europe, are here. Other assemblies aren’t based on physical location — there’s a LISP assembly and an FPGA assembly for instance. The assemblies provide a mini-base for the hackerspace groups, most of whom have been here since the day before the Congress officially opened, setting their stuff up.

There is No Game

Running throughout the 33C3 was a game, called “There is No Game”. Keeping in the spirit of the chaos, the game that isn’t a game is really a series of challenges, riddles, and secret meetings with other teams. Terminals are scattered around the Congress, and teams are issued a USB stick that they insert and receive an envelope each day.

Unlike other crypto challenges or badge games, there’s absolutely no way to “win” this game — there is no game, after all. Instead, the teams all need to get together to solve a big puzzle that unlocks secret rooms, light and music shows, and even a couple of parties.

I walked in on a Mad Hatter-themed event, where all the teams had collected items that the hatter needed to go with his tea. I got sucked in, and spent the evening helping a group from the Munich CCC to shoot a balloon using a servo-driven turret guided by OpenCV. Other groups had to decrypt Iridium pager messages, crack codes, and build stuff. There’s a Doctor Who thread running through the whole game that I really don’t yet understand.

The end result of the game, though, is community building. Connecting puzzle pieces, collecting the information that unlocks strange secret events, and just trying to figure it all out is more than any group could possibly do. It provides a great excuse to run around with a group of people, visit other assemblies, and work with them on their challenges.

Angels and Heaven

Of course, it’s not all chaos. There’s a tremendous army of volunteer “angels” who run everything from the phenomenal networking to the GSM and wireless telephone systems, wrangle the press, translate the talks and interview the guests, and basically do all of the hard work that makes everything flow. No other hacker convention that I know of has preview versions of the talks up and streaming within fifteen minutes of the end of the talk, all multiplexed from a few camera angles and subtitled in German, English, and French. Data flowing out of the CCC peaked around 8-10 GB/s. The infrastructure that gets built up just for the event is epic.

This year there were more volunteers to angel than there was actually need, and that’s a lot; 2,564 angels worked the Congress. What do they get out of it? They know that they made the whole thing work, they get fed, and they get early access to next year’s tickets. Those who angel for enough hours get a T-shirt. And all of them get our thanks for keeping the chaos from devolving into utter chaos.

500px-33c3-logoThe motto of this year’s congress is “Works for Me” — meant ironically. The idea is to get you to think: does a system (computer or otherwise) that only works for some people really work? Is “works for me” good enough? Or should we be trying to make what we make work for everyone? It’s at least a good question to bring with you throughout the next year.

dscf9151What really stands out about the CCC, at least from an American perspective, is the presence of women and children. Let’s face it, US hacker conventions are not family friendly, and some of them can be downright unwelcoming to women. One of the many mottos (chaos, remember?) of the CCC is “All Lifeforms Welcome.” (Although the conference center doesn’t allow people to bring their pets, so it’s probably more like “all humans”.)

Chaos Mentors Take Animal-Head Selfies
Chaos Mentors Take Animal-Head Selfies

Bringing interested outsiders into the community is a very active goal of the CCC organization. I met with [Fiona Krakenbürger] of the “Chaos Mentors”, an assembly that aims to make the introduction to the CCC easier for first-timers and anyone else who’s feeling intimidated by the whole scene. (Intimidation is a totally reasonable reaction — it’s easy to get lost in the building, and there’s just so much everything going on that it presents a real sensory overload.) They take new people in small groups, orient them up, give them a place to call home, and then eventually let them fly free. For people who don’t come here with their own local hackerspace, it’s an invaluable service to create these little micro-communities. It’s telling that around a quarter of the mentors were newbies at last year’s conference.

As I write this, a toddler just wandered past a group of folks sitting on the floor talking about making commits to the Tails GitHub. The human-sized snowglobe, that serves as a haze-filled, laser-lit, all night disco, is currently filled with kindergarteners playing with mylar confetti and brooms. People are here with their significant others. Half of the third floor is dedicated to LEGOs, ball pits, and a race track for the archetypical German ride-on kids toy, the “Bobby Car”. It’s hard to tell if the various games that are scattered around (home-made DDS, video-overlayed ping-pong table) are aimed at children above or below the age of 30.

Hacker Utopia

In the end, the CCC is a four-day long expression of what the German hacker community wants the world to look like: fun, freaky, and brainy, with enough stuff going on to satisfy anyone’s deep interests or short attention span. It’s also great to have the chance to say thanks in person to the people who make or maintain software that you use, buying them a real beer instead of a virtual one. It’s a good thing to take a week off to play, plan, and party. But it’s also a reminder that we can work to remake the rest of the world in little ways during the other 51 weeks of the year.

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