Every four years, the Netherlands countryside is invaded by roughly 2500 people obsessed with technology. Together they build a futurist experiment, a massively hacked data network, and a party. Here's a gallery of last weekend's Hacking At Random camp.
At first glance, HAR appears to be something like an outdoor rave or music festival, with its brightly-colored flags, tents, and ice cream stands. Except the entire outdooor area, packed with hundreds of campsites, is threaded with ethernet wires that terminate in blue port-a-potties. These toilets have been repurposed as computer network hubs dubbed Datenklo, German for data toilets. Switches furred with wire sit in neat stacks on top of toilet seats, and a wireless access point in the roof broadcasts a local wifi network too. As one of the network administrators explained to me, toilets are the perfect spot for outdoor data hubs – they are weatherproof, mobile, and can easily be locked to keep out drunken party-goers. Cables from the Datenklo lead to a hut called the NOC or network operations center, and are threaded through a window into a series of servers cooled with a portable air conditioner.
It's one of the more nicely-designed computer networks I've ever used, and it was set up in less than a week in the remote vacation village, called Vierhouten, where HAR was held. The group even laid a kilometer of donated fiber optic cable to bring high speed internet to the HAR campers' network. If you wanted to set up a server, there was also a pretty swank colocation facility located in a tiny hut, labeled ETH0 in duct tape.
Elsewhere, a group set up a DECT wireless phone network and sold phones with phone numbers usable only in camp. Another group built a free GSM mobile phone network, and handed out free phone numbers to anybody who promised to test the network, which ran on experimental software and hardware. For anybody who thinks of their cell phone as a device entirely controlled by Sprint or T-Mobile, connecting to the HAR GSM network is like visiting the future. A utopian future where mobile phones are run by community networks that offer free services – and whose operators live in a tent up the road labeled "GSM" just in case you need to ask a question. Imagine being able to control every aspect of your phone, including the very network where you make telephone calls. It seems bizarrely revolutionary.
During all four days of camp, from August 13 through 16, a full roster of speakers gave talks on everything from how to build your own home synchrotron particle accelerator (pictured in the gallery below), to the ways a wily criminal could forge SSL identity verification certificates to make her website appear to belong to a bank or other site online. There were also classes on lock picking, mobile phone hacking, soldering, and beer making. Groups like the anti-censorship organization Wikileaks presented information on how to foster free speech online, while several anonymous people discussed the pros and cons of pirating.
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When you wanted to take a break, you could get a free tosti kaas (a toasted bread and cheese sandwich) from the people running the new .tk top level domain. You'd get a free .tk domain name too, to match your tosti kaas.
The nightlife at HAR is just as creative and technologically-mediated as the daytime experiments. The German hackers from Chaos Computer Club (CCC) brought a searchlight and a disco ball, which filled the enormous campground with flecks of spinning light. Glowing tents were full of music and computer equipment. And on Saturday night there was a silent nightclub, where everybody got headphones and could tune into one of three different DJ sets, dancing to the beats of their choice. Passing by the silent club, you could see hundreds of dancers bathed in colored light, their feet beating a rhythm to something inaudible. Once in a while, a group of them would burst into a snatch of song, responding to a directive from their earbuds.
Hung over the next day, people could wander through a lounge decorated with a giant unicorn, and into the HARcade, full of free pinball machines and videogames. One of the coolest was a racecar game where the cars would go only if you made "rrrrummmm" noises into a microphone. The louder the noise, the faster the car.
I had been hearing about these hacker camps for about eight years ago, back when the event had been called HAL, for "Hacking at Large." They grew out of a loose coalition of technical hobbyist groups and activist organizations, including the decades-old German hacker group CCC. Over the past few years, the "hacker space" movement has been growing, and dozens of hacker groups have started clubhouses of their own in the United States and across Europe.
What is the point of a hacker camp like HAR, or a hacker space like CCC in Berlin, or Noisebridge in San Francisco? It is, in the words of an early hacker space pioneer named Jens Ohlig, to create an alternative educational institution, a place where people can learn about technology and science outside the confines of work or school. It's where people build things because they want to, not because they need to make money. And it's a place, Ohlig said, where geeks can "come out" among like-minded people and "live as if you are in the future."
Want to find out more about hacker spaces in your area? There is a list on the hackerspaces wiki.
Free tostis and .tk domains!
Welcome to the network operations center.
Inside the NOC.
A remote-controlled game - log into this page, and control the fans to blow the duck around the maze.
Camp like a pirate!
The colocation facility where you can park your server.
Inside the ETH0 colo.
Open phone hardware.
CCC party tent.
Game where cars are controlled by you making a loud RRRRRMMMM noise into a mic.