So, this weekend I attended my first hacker conference, “The Last H.O.P.E (Hackers on Planet Earth)” sponsored by 2600 Magazine. Featured con speakers were: Steven Levy, Kevin Mitnick, Jello Biafra, Steve Rambam and Adam Savage of MythBusters fame. Some of the sessions I did attend included: “Evil Interfaces: Violating the User”, “A Hacker’s View of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)”, “Hacking Democracy: An In Depth Analysis of the ES&S Voting Systems”, “One Last Time: The Hack/Phreak History Primer”, Wikipedia: You Will Never Find a More Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy”, “YouTomb – A Free Culture Hack” and all the featured speakers (except I very sadly missed Steven Levy, I loved that iPod book!).
So what’s a librarian to make of all this? Well believe it or not, there is some common ground between the hacker community and us information science professionals. Chief among these are copyright (especially now with all the digitization occurring in libraries), The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), censorship, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) and the ever popular Wikipedia. There are more parallels between library science and hackers than you would ever think possible. We have similar concerns such as: accessibility of information, the sharing of information, collaboration and community outreach.
Hackers get a bad rap. I always had a soft-spot for them, even the nasty ones, as they show great ability to think outside the box and open up previously closed discussions on security and our rights. At the con there were no phones stolen, no re-wiring of the hotel elevators, no malicious hacking, or anything of the like. At the end of the 3-day con I was not surprised to hear this, from the session I had attended and the people I met, I learned a lot about hackers and their community. Hacking from a positive prospective brings attention to topics that definitely need more discussion, RFIDs and electronic voting for instance. Their act of exposing security flaws becomes shared knowledge within the community. They bring to light the shortcomings of processes and systems we depend upon, making way for improvements. Today, many hackers have jobs where they keep our precious data safe by testing systems, exposing vulnerabilities, looking for back-doors and ways to compromise the system, resulting in systems that keep our data safe.
So what can the hacker world bring to the library community? One thing that came clear to me during my attendance at the con was that hackers love to share their knowledge of technology with others. Hackers create community spaces fittingly called “Hacker-spaces” and lots of cities across the world have them, you just may not know it. Visit Hackerspaces.org to find one near you. Many of the attendees to the session I attended on “hacker-spaces” brought up questions such as “I run a hacker-space, how can I get more involved with the community?”. “How can we sell ourselves to schools and institutions as safe places for kids to learn about technology?”. Technology presented the wrong way can be boring, for instance “…so now open your Excel spreadsheet” to quote from one of the talks. However, if you present it properly it can be much more interesting. If libraries or schools are looking to spice up their community learning programs, they could do no better than to get into contact with some of the folks running “hacker-spaces” in their communities and set up an exciting series of technology talks.
There are some very cool projects that speakers at the conference are working on that are great resources for librarians. Take for example Virgil Griffiths “Wikiscanner”. In non-technical short, this tool lists anonymous Wikipedia entries and shows you who’s editing them, what corporations are involved and their page edit histories. Check out some of the great stuff this tool has uncovered and read Virgil’s FAQ. In his talk Virgil also discussed other interesting Wikipedia centric projects such as: Coloring text by Trustworthiness by the UCSC wikilab. In which “The reputation of authors is computed from content evolution: authors who provide lasting contributions gain reputation, while authors whose contributions are reverted in short order lose reputation. Thus, the reputation system provides an incentive towards constructive behavior.” The other fun project is “YouTomb” co-developed by brainaics from Harvard and MIT as part of the MIT Free Culture student organization. In short it “tracks videos taken down from YouTube for alleged copyright violation” creating patterns of information that can be used to gauge current copyright practices and trends.
What can librarians do for hackers? We have lots of knowledge that we could share including, our research abilities, our knowledge of government and corporate organizational processes and our ability to organize information. Lots of projects involved the gathering and recording of data and/or data-mining. Who knows metadata standards and controlled vocabularies better than librarians?
So if you’re a forward thinking librarian or digital archivist out there, support the hacker community and spread the word about its projects. The library and information science community needs to know about great tools like the “Wikiscanner” and “YouTomb” and many others on the horizon and one of the best ways of doing that is to become more involved in the hacker community. I’m not encouraging random “friending” of hackers, but rather encouraging information science professionals to start paying attention to the hacker community especially its projects and conferences. Hackers and their curiosity of all things mechanical, social, technological brings important issues into the public venue and we as librarians are often on the same fightin’ side. They know where the lines are drawn, because they take chances walking really, really close and some times even stepping over them. I take their approach that you can learn much more by breaking something open than you can by just sitting there and watching it work. This thinking “outside the box”, initiates creativity, change and results in a better, safer, more informative world for us all.
To read a more journalistic review of the H.O.P.E conference, here’s a recent Cnet article “HOPE Conference Highlights Everyday Hacking”.
Cnet or rather Elinor Mills, was nice enough to take my picture watching the coffin go by, at the conference as well.
Here are some fantastic shots of the con from alice_zero.
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Metadata and Taxonomies are my thing. I spend an awful lot of time drinking coffee and having existential dilemmas on how to categorize what the hell I do for a living.