Summary: My report of the 33c3 Chaos Communication Congress in Hamburg
There are many conferences, but only one “Congress” in a Nerd’s life: The Chaos Communication Congress, organized each year between Christmas and new year by the Germany’s famous hacker organisation, the Chaos Computer Club.
What is the congress about? It’s a location where 12.000 and more hackers meet, and like many other tech conferences, it offers session rooms, group of interest tables and up to 5 rooms with talks each day (most of them in English), mostly focusing on cyber-security, hacking (in a broad sense) and the intersection of tech and politics (“Netzpolitik”). It’s an event where you can meet legendary hackers like Mitch Altman, visit one of his soldering workshop and hear him talking about (chinese) Hackerspaces:
Unlike other conferences, it runs non-stop for four days (participants are strongly encouraged to take showers from time to time), with the main talks running each day from 11 a.m. until after midnight. Unlike other conferences, the congress is a real non-commercial zone, you find neither (official) recruiting tables from tech companies nor corporate-sponsored talks here.
The whole thing runs entirely by volunteers, called Chaos-angels, who take big pride in helping to make the event possible.
A part of being a place where politics and hardcore tech news happen, the congress is also a place to discover countless tech-art and meet incredible people.
2016 is the 33rd time that the congress takes place, and the last year of a congress in the iconic Congress Center Hamburg. For me, it’s my second congress in Hamburg, so I can apply some insights from last year:
The 26th December is called Day zero. While the congress is open for registration and bustling with Chaos-Agels doing last minute-preparations, I spent most of the day in the train from Vienna to Hamburg. The fast ICE-trains in Germany offer free wireless internet and time passed very fast. A friend of mine had organized a shared hostel room half a year in advance, in walking distance to the congress center.
In the evening I meet Stephan, an Austrian friend I have not seen for years, for dinner.
I meet Bachi, my room-mate, late at night in the hostel, while already sleeping.
I walk with Stephan to the congress center. We show our printed-out tickets and get a wrist-band. Demand for tickets was so high this year (prices are low, around 100,-€ for a 4 day full price ticket) that a complicated system of vouchers was used. The vouchers were handed out to local hacker spaces and former Chaos-angels and could then be requested from willing visitors via the hacker spaces. The voucher would allow to apply for a ticket online. Additional vouchers were sent to visitors so that friends and family members could also get tickets. Still, each year there are far more people willing to go into the congress than the building allows. It may all change 2017 when the congress moves to a new, hopefully larger, location.
The main lecture hall of the Congress center can hold over 3.000 people and is crammed full at the opening ceremony. I meet more good friends and enjoy the traditional opening film and a short speech by two girls, focusing on the congress motto “Be excellent to each other”.
I remain in the main hall to watch the talk “Assassination grid” by American “Veterans for peace” activist, Cian Westmoreland. He was responsible for the tech infrastructure to maintain U.S. combat drones in Afghanistan and other places and he speaks calmly about his experience and insights and about his decision to go public and not stay silent any more. He is joined by Sonia Kennebeck, a film maker presenting a trailer for her film “national bird”. It’s a film about drone operators, whistle blowers and the consequences they face after speaking out in public. The film “national bird” is planned to be in theaters in May 2017.
Cian is less of an stage person than Sonia, but just after 5 minutes in his talk I begin to be feeling “Wow… I am at the right place at the right time”.
Kill decisions made by computer algorithm, with an human operator only acting as an (more and more irrelevant) moral fig leaf; decentralization of responsibility, obfuscating of civil causalities by use of language…
You can hear and read about those things also on other places, but only at the congress you get them delivered together with other related, high quality content. And only at the congress you can just walk up to the speakers for a friendly chat. I plan to do exactly that but there is already a row of people wanting to speak with Cian. Instead I congratulate the ultra-charming Sonia on her film and get a promotion leaflet from her.
The rest of the day fly by in a blur, I am mostly occupied with admiring the ever-growing blinking light and art installations emerging from the hacker tables. Between meeting and greeting peoples, wandering aimless and in awe the congress center and enjoying the nonstop-podcaster-meetup at “Sendezentrum” and retreating to the hotel for a recharge of batteries i am … enjoying my holiday.
Later in the congress center I watch with great pleasure a talk of Thomas Lohninger about Netzpolitik in Austria. It’s a review about the legal battles won and the war about to lose for protection of citizen rights. Even as an political very interested and informed Austrian i learn some new things, and i feel happy that some people care enough about politics and make an effort to hold democracy and basic rights alive, in a time of terror, hysteria and political ignorance.
Finally around 23:00 I retreat to my hostel, while the daylight-shunning hackers at the congress become more and more social.
My lifestyle is not very congress-compatible: I tend to wake up at 6:00 a.m. when most hackers got to sleep, and I start to become tired before midnight when most hackers are in party mode.
I start the day with catching some Hamburg sunlight in the harbor of Hamburg (Europe’s second largest after Rotterdam) and with the plan to make a harbor boat tour together with Stephan. Disorganized Austrians that we are, we discover that we are too early arrived. We enter the Cap San Diego instead, an impressive museum ship. It’s one of the last non-container freight ships, made in the 1950’s and is still sea-worthy. The museum ship also features a very cozy breakfast room and we promptly miss the first harbor tour boat.
After a short wait we enjoy the next available harbor boat tour where the captain explain the sightseeing, from historic “Speicherstadt” to dry-docks, giant cargo freighters, luxury yachts made for Russian millionaires and military ships.
All the walking, sightseeing and talking makes me pretty tired as I finally arrive in the Congress in early afternoon. I Run into a funny group of Spaniards. To my delight they agree to be interviewed on video. Most introvert hackers are pretty shy to be interviewed, and on congress a strict “only take pictures if EVERYONE on the pictures agree” is enforced by North-korean style Chaos-angels watchdogs attached to every official camera team.
I also manage to get into an most interesting talk about Wikidata, a set of online tools to query the database of wikipedia articles. It’s more a workshop than a lecture, and the little room is overcrowded. In the short time I attend I am able to grasp the web interface and the general idea. Now all I need is a good computer, good internet connection and much, much free time to explore Wikidata. The nice thing of wikidata is that the web-interface to help you create the database queries is very helpful and supports a lot of amazing data-visualisation tools.
After my afternoon-nap (and horrible train-station junk food), I return to the congress in the evening, hanging mostly out at the podcast — sendezentrum and wandering the halls. I record a bit audio for my weekly german-language Biertaucherpdocast with Stefan Haslinger and he helps me to get the microphone operational. Later i interview an hacker from Ukraine and one female Chaos-angel. Also I become “Podcast-Pate” (podcast-godfather?) by an attached sticker and I am now supposed to help hopeful not-yet-podcasters to realize their first podcast projects.
Everyone waits for the Fnord Jahresrückblick Show (starting at 0:45 a.m.) so i sit myself at 22:00 p.m. in the big lecture hall and listen to the NSU papers, a review of the right-wing terror murder series in Germany and the involvement of Germany’s secret services. It’s important stuff, but not funny, and i feel instantly sober despite having had a beer just before. At 23:00 i decide to watch the show later online and to retreat home. I met Thomas Lohninger at the table of Vienna’s famous hackerspace, the Metalab. I congratulate him to his talk yesterday and have a interesting chat about political work in Austria and the European union.
My roommate Bachi looks really exhausted after playing the social hack “There is no game”. Yesterday, he was -very unusual- in bed before me. I try to understand what he tells me about the game in the morning but it is mostly gibberish. I will interview him and his other co-players later.
Writing this report takes time. Suddenly, it’s already noon, congress starts at 11:00 a.m. and i realize that writing about the congress instead of being there is a bit inefficient.
I manage to visit my favorite session of all all conference: Lightning-Talks
At Lightning-Talks, every speaker has a maximum of 5 minutes to speak. At the congress, a complex clock devices and a loud crowd makes sure no speaker can overstep his time limit.
The quality of the talks is as broad as the range of topics: From crowd-sharing legal advice to jobless people in Germany (and thus in effect creating an unconditional basic income) to creating an(other) open-source copy of the Age of Empires II computer game, there is always some fascinating topic to discover.
I spend most of the day (after my ritual afternoon nap) wandering with Stephan through the ever-blinking, ever-bustling congress halls, meeting people, drinking beer and chatting away happily. Also, i document an giant cockroach robot attacking humans with his his nerf gun.
Johannes Grenzfurthner, famous Austrian artist and Roböxotica activist, invites me to his film “Traceroute”. I was looking forward to seeing his film on the congress but had completely forgot about it already.
Tracerroute is a two hour long “tour de nerd” roadmovie about Johannes driving through America, visiting nerdy places and talking nerdy stuff with nerdy people. It’s full of nerd references, it’s witty (Johannes is also the narrator) and done on a shoestring budget of 10.000 dollars. After the film preview, Johannes told that his impulse was to put the whole film online as soon as it he was done with editing. But doing so would have made it impossible to show the film on festivals and eventually find an distributor. He hopes to sell the film eventually to TV stations, where he would get paid to translate his own voice from English back to German.
Directly after showing Tracerroute, Sonia Kennebeck shows her film “National Bird”. I chat briefly with her and am confused to learn that she is a German native speaker.
Sadly, i am too tired to see two films in a row and retreat home.
It’s already the last day of Congress. Why is good time flying by so fast? Stephan is catching his flight back home directly after breakfast, and I visit the congress in an somewhat sad mood. I see goodbye scenes everywhere, the Congress is full of people with luggage. Still the official program runs from noon until 19:00, but the party is over. Chaos angels are starting to clean up and dismantling installations.
My friends who played “There is no game” are still quite exited about the experience playing it. I wanted to interview them but neither the audio file I recorded nor the picture (!) i made were useful. Here is the summary of the interview, only slightly mutated by my memory:
We heard about “There is no game” and discovered a travel agency (!) in the congress center. We registered as players, had to fill out our own skills and the first task was to form a “gang” of 9 or 10 people with different skill sets. So we were forced to speak with strangers. (Later, we selected a communication-person from our group for such tasks). We learned to know each other really well as we constantly explored the whole congress center on the search for hints and trying to solve riddles, quests and side-quests. We also communicated with other gangs, even set up wiki pages to collect hints. Communication in the group was in English, even among German-speakers. The group was pretty mixed-gender, mixed-national, mixed-everything.
To learn about each other, we invented an introduction round where each group member told about him/herself. Then he had to repeat what he knows about the previous member. And the one before. And the one before that, until back to the first one.
We got an usb-key and had to search for special devices to plug it in. The riddles were quite hard sometimes. One example was source code from a capture the flag game, written in an exotic programming language. But we discovered that one of the maintainers of this programming language (visible on github) was a member of our group. Another riddle was to enter a code in a device hidden deeply into the ball-bath in the children zone. Without asking the children (who discovered the device while “diving” in the ball-bath all day) we would have never found it.
Also we run into problems because an recorded phone message (a hint in the game) was not supposed to be heard by us.. either the phone system was hacked, or the game. Lucky for us, the game masters were always really helpful. The amount of work the game masters put into the quests is amazing, different groups had partly different quests.
Finally, there was no clear final goal to archive, aside of solving riddles and hunting the hints. There is however a webpage with a countdown. We decided to create our own victory condition: To stay in contact with each other! So we will send the usb-key to around from one group member to the next by snail-mail.
This sandbox was already there at the last congress: a sandbox. With an distance-sensor on top, measuring the height of the sand. A connected computer generates a heat-map in real-time (white for peaks, blue for holes), and this image is projected on the sand. By playing around with the sand, big and little kids alike can create mountains and lakes and feel like god.
There was plenty of art at the congress, most of it of a non-permanent nature
The annual congress is now a fixed planned holiday in my calendar, and i can recommend it to everyone with even the slightest interest in computers, net-politics or hacking. There is an CCC summer camp every four years that i will also visit again.
Thanks to Dennis Daniels and Sven Guckes for proofreading