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<nettime> Three Electromagnetic Field Lines
nettime on Wed, 10 Aug 2016 19:07:44 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Three Electromagnetic Field Lines


Three Electromagnetic Field Lines
=================================

The EMF Camp [1], on the country estate of Loseley [2] in the deep south
of England, was good fun. Some 1700 people descended for the weekend
on the field below the big house and camped amongst fire belching art
installations, video game consoles from the 1980s, black- and
silver-smithing, soldering and blind navigation workshops, and marquee
tents with interesting talks of which I sadly managed to see too few.

There was, however, something missing. Something difficult to
articulate clearly, and in large part cultural -- though only in a
very minor way related to national culture of the UK as compared to
other places. It has more to do with the gulf between the hacker and
media activist collectives of ten or twenty years ago and the
makerspaces of today.

The Ethernet
------------

There was ethernet and power available to most every tent, and an
overloaded wireless network somewhat in the style of events like the
CCC [3]. This might seem an odd place to start, but the observation
was made at the camp infrastructure talk, where they described how
fibre was run a few hundred meters along fences to the nearby business
park and between the Datenklos [4], that very few, by an order of
magnitude, people chose to avail themselves of the ethernet,
preferring instead to use the wireless. Markedly different proportions
to similar events on the continent.

Why should this matter? It doesn't, really, but it is suggestive of a
different distribution of relationships to infrastructure among the
attendees. Ethernet, with public addresses and possibilities of
fancier things is something you can build with, something not commonly
available to most attendees. Edge wireless, not so much. If you like
to be in control of your own computing and means of communication, the
utility of higher grade infrastructure is evident, even if only for a
weekend. If, on the other hand, computing consists for you in placing
faith in Other People's Computers wrapped in clouds of Terms &
Conditions, you might not know what to do with a real connection to
the rest of the Internet. The Internet itself, the very means by which
we communicate, the medium in which we spend so much of our lives,
and which is still open for anyone to participate on a fundamental
level, is evidently uninteresting to most of the campers, which is
itself an interesting observation given the purported demographic of
those present.

The Sponsors
------------

The headline sponsor of the event was Microsoft. No longer quite so
dangerous a monopoly as in the past, they are hardly the hacker's
friend. Yes, it costs money to put on an event of this scale, but
there are other ways. When we see articles such as this one [5] about
facial and emotion perception technology being promoted for use at
political events by the main sponsor of a "Hacker Camp" the best that
can be hoped is that the organizers -- and attendees -- were naive and
duped into assisting with the whitewashing of such things that should
have been odious to everyone present. But then, we must remember that
the EMF Camp is "a camping festival for those with an inquisitive mind
or an interest in making things" [6]. Ethics doesn't enter into it.

For the first time at an event like this, I felt marketed at. Let me
explain. The conference badge, like at similar events, is an
electronic gadget [7]. It is pretty cool, has a beefy processor (by
microcontroller standards), plenty of peripherals for I/O, is a Free
Hardware design and runs Free Software. It seems particularly good as
a teaching tool for python programming and interacting with the
world. But there was a problem [8]. The organisers ran short of funds
and were relying on sponsorship rather than ticket sales to fund the
badge, it was nearly cancelled. That would have been a shame. At the
last minute, several sponsors, including Microsoft, stepped in [9].

One of the sponors was Nexmo (Vonage). Vonage is a behemoth of the
Voice-over-IP industry and to those of us who have worked in the field
are known for vendor lock-in and preventing interesting and innovative
use of their service by taking measures to prevent use of other than
the supplied hardware. Nexmo seems a little bit of a departure,
offering some access to the underlying telephone network facilities in
a pre-packaged sort of way. Not nearly so useful as providers that
will give you more raw access, but not especially problematic in
itself.

The badge came with a program called "Messages". That sounds
cool. Perhaps it would be possible to send messages between badges at
the camp. Nexmo even provisioned it with a phone number, even cooler,
right? Unfortunately not. The program is recieve-only, so you must
have and use a mobile to send messages to it (for which Nexmo gets a
cut of the charges, and usefully for marketing a list of attendee's
mobile numbers for those that choose to try it). There is no way to
send a message from the badge even locally within the camp, though
that would not have costed a dime. With a little bit of effort,
perhaps an afternoon of programming, and a paid subscription to the
sponsor, it could be made to work though. Great.

The Photography
---------------

Unusually for a hacker camp, however consistent with a lack of
explicit ethical statement and a major sponsor pushing surveillance
technology, there was no policy on photography. Personally, I do not
have any strong objection to being photographed, but it's polite to
ask. It is a standard thing at such events to have a social norm of
asking, and many people think it is invasive to photograph them
without asking. Sometimes this is even enforced quite strictly.

When I brought this up with one of the organisers, he recognised the
concern, but thought it would be a shame not to document the
festival. This is true. Photographs can be valuable aide-memoirs. But
it is also valuable to have temporary autonomous zones with different
social conventions and without having to think about what may end up
in a "social" network feed some time in the future. I'm honestly
unsure of what the right balance here. Certainly the sign in the child
area warning that your children would be photographed and video taped
was beyond the pale regardless of whether that was the "contractor's
thing" or not. And why do we, as a community, need contractors to care
for our children anyways? That suggests a serious problem with
hackerdom in the UK at least if that is the case.

Epilogue
--------

Reading over what I have written, it is more negative than I thought
it would be, and perhaps more than I intended. The camp was fun, there
were lots of wonderful people and some good, even edgy, talks and the
organisers put in an enormous amount of effort over many months to
make it happen. However I canot shake the feeling that the ultimate
effect was of a corporate-sponsored simulacrum of a hacker camp. Which
is a shame, but perhaps the fault lies with my expectations, that I
was expecting the EMF Camp to be something that it is not.

[1]: https://emfcamp.org/
[2]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loseley_Park
[3]: https://events.ccc.de/category/camp/
[4]: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datenklo
[5]: https://theintercept.com/2016/08/04/microsoft-pitches-technology-that-can-read-facial-expressions-at-political-rallies/
[6]: https://wiki.emfcamp.org/wiki/Electromagnetic_Field_2016
[7]: https://badge.emfcamp.org/wiki/TiLDA_MK3
[8]: http://blog.emfcamp.org/post/144514906298/tilda-mk%CF%80-the-hackable-conference-badge-that
[9]: http://blog.emfcamp.org/post/145667126793/the-emf-tilda-badge-is-saved
[10]: https://www.nexmo.com/

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