A master students view of Mozfest

This article is the first of a series of views from students, teachers and others who are associated with the University of Amsterdam. The article reflects the experiences of genuine stakeholders in innovation and their intersection and experiences with triggers for innovation.

Cameron Kelly is a Master student at the Humanities. He is also working closely with the Innovation WG and the Functional Administrations within ICTServices. As a Humanities student Cameron visited the Mozfest 2014 – http://2014.mozillafestival.org

The Mozfest is a busy conference with over 1500 attendee’s from 50 countries. It is about building, hacking, very tactile, where the audience are active  not passive.

Here is Cameron’s  voice.

Mozilla Festival 2014: “We made this together”

There’s a picture on the MozFest 2014 website, from the demo party at the end of the festival on the night of Sunday the 26th of this month. It shows a group of people around a table, unified by no demographic description, but rather by

  • their ubiquitous backpacks and goldenrod-colored swag totes
  • the way several of them are holding some manner of object obsessively close to their faces, like Dwight Frye’s hunchbacked lab assistant with an insect he’s about to munch on.

I’m in this picture too; I’m barely visible at the top-right corner, all in black with a grey waistcoat and a beer bottle, watching the activity around the table. And maybe it’s that I’m writing this the day after a class on contemporary American poetry in which W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” was mentioned, and I was up late last night writing a paper on neurophilosophy so maybe my literary-studies state of mind is leaking into my IT work, but I can’t help seeing this picture as almost uncannily emblematic of the festival writ large.

When I tell people – professors, colleagues, friends – that I spent last weekend in London, being a nerd among nerds, they all seem to assume I was at some sort of conference. I suppose that’s not a completely irresponsible inference – I’m an academic, after all, and I attended the Mozilla festival under the aegis of the Coding the Humanities initiative, and it was held in a university building, and there were even things like panels and keynotes and the like. Somehow, though, “conference” doesn’t quite cover the sense of nerdy enthusiasm that pervaded the place. This was an event at which I could make a quiet Star Trek joke and expect someone within earshot to laugh. (I hope it’s clear at this point that when I use the word “nerd” I’m neither doing so pejoratively nor implying I’m not a giant one myself.) A floor down from the area with the panel discussions was the “Ethical Dilemma Cafe”, where a 3D printer (openly accessible through laptops on either side – a Coding the Humanities colleague with experience in 3D modeling designed and printed a chubby Batman head) stood across from an old-school dot matrix printer turning out ASCII art representations of either the cafe patrons’ Facebook timelines or stills from a hidden camera (it wasn’t quite clear, but the notice board at the cafe entrance made it explicit, in the ha-ha-only-serious fashion of much IT culture humor, that entering the space meant you were consenting to having your data harvested). And just around the corner from that was a set of machines for reading “physical playlists”, charm bracelets with RFID chip charms, each encoding the URL of a Spotify track or YouTube video – latter-day mixtapes, made to resist the hypermodern tendency to allow all our data to disappear unmarked into the ether. In short, this was a place and a moment for people interested in thinking, talking and making (especially making) about the future of technology in general and the Web in particular – the purpose of this festival was to get these people together and get them talking, in the understanding that good things tend to happen when interested, committed, skilled people meet.

Incidentally, I should probably explain what Coding the Humanities is; even though an understanding of the initiative is only tangentially relevant to MozFest itself, it’s important to note that we weren’t only there to be nerds among nerds. CTH essentially does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s an initiative started by a few professors at the University of Amsterdam, aimed at teaching humanities students (and scholars) how to code. This is because, while there’s traditionally been a significant gulf between “the humanities” and “the sciences” (scare quotes are to indicate a healthy scepticism of any narrative so monolithic), the two disciplines have an immense amount to learn from one another, but so far very limited ways of understanding one another. Any collaboration between the two tends to be rather forced and formulaic – “we need a Perl programmer on our team to help us process this corpus”, or “we need a cultural analysis scholar to help sell our technical idea to the grant committee in a way that shows it’s socially relevant”. CTH is about breaking down this disciplinary distinction, in a sense; programming is really just being creative with thought and with language (we are, after all, far removed from the days of assemblers and binary opcodes), which humanities scholars are trained to be, and with just a little basic instruction we can easily move from being dependent on others’ methods and tools (and thus complicit in whatever agendas were being pursued by the people who built them) towards a position from which we collaborate out of desire and shared interest rather than necessity.

How did I fit into all this? As the picture shows, I had a fairly peripheral relation to everything at the festival, for a couple of different reasons. First of all, this was only the second event of its kind I’ve attended in a university context – the conference I’m helping to organize, which will also be the first real paper I’ve presented to a group of professional academics, is still a month off (I spoke very briefly about Coding the Humanities at the Digital Humanities Benelux conference in the Hague a while back, but that was mainly as a demonstration of the initiative, which the professor I went with had explained in his talk – the fact that I had coded something was more important than what it was, even though it was pretty cool and I had a lot of high-flown literary-studies rationale to back it up). Even if MozFest hadn’t been substantially different from the conventional understanding of a conference, though, I still probably wouldn’t have intuitively known the way to get the most out of my time there. Secondly – and this is undoubtedly a related phenomenon – when I say I attended under the aegis of Coding the Humanities, I mean I was under the impression that we were there to promote it as a team (the sweatshirts with the team logo did nothing to discourage this assessment) and thus spent a probably unproductive amount of time concerned with what other members of the team were doing. It took me until the end of the first day to figure out that if I wanted to see or do something I needed to go ahead and do it, and worry about networking later. (And anyway, it turned out that one of the professors there with us had done quite a bit of networking himself that day, likely the most out of all of us.) More research is needed (how we academics love that phrase) to determine whether this holds for more conventional conferences, but perhaps the most important take-away was a methodological one: on the second day, I arrived with a goal and a plan, and thus had criteria with which to decide between sessions (since several equally interesting things were usually running at the same time), and my day was much more productive as a result.

This isn’t to say, though, that the first day wasn’t interesting or productive, or that no networking got done. In fact, all the student members of the Coding the Humanities team who had come along to London – me and another MA student, and five BA students – attended the first session on the Saturday, about “maker spaces” (places for technologically creative sorts to come and do their thing – “hacker spaces” used to be the term, before the advent of 3D printing), kitted out in our CTH sweaters and ready to talk about the time we spent a month in our old lab (which later became the University of Amsterdam’s new helpdesk at the P.C. Hoofthuis), working more than 40 hours a week on a huge collaborative project. In exchange, we heard stories from people who ran other kinds of maker space, from a pair of academics who installed every kind of design hardware imaginable in an arts college’s old wood shop, to the organizer of a commercial space where members of the general public were invited to come and make things for a modest membership fee and the cost of their materials. (Here’s a hot tip, literally: a laser cutter is evidently the best possible investment for spaces like these.) Later that same day, my 3D-printing colleague and I took in a session called “the Mind-Reading Web”, about the Internet of Things and coding for devices that can detect micro-movements to read the user’s intent without her consciously deciding to move. After a demonstration in which the session organizer – a performing magician – knocked a nail into his nasal cavity, presumably for effect (unless there’s a very subtle metaphorical connection I’m missing), we divided into groups and brainstormed on possible applications for micro-movements, giving 30-second pitches at the end of the session on what we could code today and what might be possible in the future.

The entire day, though, I’d been itching to get up to the 7th floor, where the theme of the space was “policy and advocacy” – I’d wager that more than half of my floor time in all the media through which I communicate is spent advancing some manner of social polemic, I’m of the conviction that information wants to be free, and though I don’t (yet) have the kind of institutional clout I’d need to really call myself a zealot, I’m certainly a firm believer in the aim of the CTH project. The problem was that none of the other team members – even the professors – seemed very interested in following any policy or advocacy sessions (though this was probably more due to cynicism than apathy on the part of the professors, with which I can’t really argue). I did eventually make it up to the 6th floor, however, which seemed to revolve around community-building (with a section for collaborative art exhibits and games), where I had a fruitful conversation with two activists about the ever-present threat of being doxxed (ie., having your personal information posted online so you can be harassed by anonymous cowards who don’t like what they’re hearing – which in the case of the tech and games industries is usually “anything critical said by a woman”). I say “conversation”, but the activist who approached my colleague and I called it “skill-sharing”, which she suggested because we’d missed the session where strategies were discussed for dealing with the threat of doxxing as a silencing tactic.

I’ll admit to being jaded enough that “skill-sharing” sounded like a New-Agey buzzword at first, but it’s a concept which deserves some attention. This activist also invited us to a session she was running on the Sunday about IRC and community (n.b.: to someone who is frequently pinning the care-o-meter in any given context while everyone else’s response is further from that and closer to “meh”, it’s physically painful to hear someone else have to use an apologetic tone to tell you they care about something, as though this is what they’ve learned to expect). This sounded good initially, but I eventually decided against attending since it turned out to be more of a primer on IRC in general, and I figured that if I went I’d be taking up valuable space which could be more usefully occupied by someone who might have never even heard of IRC. I like to say that I have about 90% of the social advantages one person could reasonably have, so I’ve learned to practice a philosophy of thinking very critically about whether or not my presence in a given space is really necessary or desired. Apparently, though, this attitude was not the expected one: I saw her later at the demo party, and she said that I could have attended anyway and skill-shared. It makes sense in context; for any given technology, there are as many ways of interacting with it as there are users, so theoretically everyone has something to contribute that might be useful. A different perspective on the same data turns out to be just as valuable as new data – let that be a lesson to anyone who thinks hackers and other tech-minded folk forget about the human side of things.

I said before that I came to the festival on Sunday with a goal; catalyzed by the twin realizations that

  • other people at this festival cared about things, and
  • they just straight-up approached people to talk about them,

I decided that this was what I was going to do. I took in a morning session on lock-picking (okay, the session was about the Internet of Things and how we introduce vulnerabilities into physical systems when we attempt to make them more convenient, but we all sat there discussing that while trying to pick open some practice locks the session organizer had provided) and then headed straight for the seventh floor, where I asked the first official-seeming person I could find about becoming an academic advocacy mole. See, I’m pursuing a research MA, and intending to go for a PhD after that; in short, I plan to be affiliated with the academy for most of my working life, and part of that 90% of social advantages is access to the academy’s resources, material and otherwise. In particular, there’s a kind of institutional credibility contingent on the academy that I could see serving as a kind of counterweight to the anonymity behind which harassers hide. It’s probably not possible to protect oneself that way while speaking up or speaking out, and it’s questionable whether one would even want to – aside from being heard, the point of speaking is to have understood who is speaking and from what position. But imagine: what if your harassers could be prosecuted, with your local university as a plaintiff, because you used its service as a platform for your voice and were doxxed as a result? An ISP might not release harassers’ data to private individuals unless forced to by a lengthy and expensive legal procedure, but a university has a reputation to uphold and a commitment to both confidentiality and an ethics of openness (which are really two sides of the same coin – a progressive attitude towards data – a fact that was obvious from even a quick look around the 7th floor at MozFest). Of course, the radical leftist in me has big and uncomfortable questions about the idea of handing the safety of activists over to a State-affiliated institution, but for the moment at least I’m convinced that there’s more that could be done by the academy to protect the free flow of ideas a democracy requires.

Obviously, something like this isn’t going to happen without a hard sell by people on the inside that includes a clear plan for the IT aspect, nor will it happen without knowledge of the relevant policy issues, but as an academic (and, let’s face it, a straight white male) with knowledge both of IT and of the social dynamics that make it important to continue to be able to speak out, I have what may be the best possible position to push for this kind of change. This position promises to become even stronger in the near future, since as a result of my explorations at MozFest I ended up exchanging emails with Dave Steer, who was introduced to me as the Mozilla foundation’s “advocacy guy”. He, in turn, spoke about a project to operationalize IT knowledge which could prove very useful when coupled with the skills we’re developing with Coding the Humanities, as well as a system which, when he described it, I called “GitHub for ideas”, which made his face light up since he had never considered it that way before.

We rounded off the evening with the aforementioned demo party, where everyone had a chance to showcase the things they had made during the festival – or to continue practicing their lock-picking, as that’s where I’d gone after my conversation with Dave, and whence we eventually relocated to a spot near the tables where festival personnel were serving drinks. If the picture had been taken a minute earlier, I might have been one of the people clustered around the table picking locks in the middle of a party, but as it is I think it still illustrates what should be obvious from my thoughts on the intersection between discursive and literal technologies: give hackers an interesting problem (whether it’s a technical or a social one, whether they hack Perl or poststructuralist critique) and they’ll find it near-impossible to resist.

(I saw the activist from before at the party, and offered to skill-share on lock-picking to make up for my lapse in judgment as regards her IRC session, but she already knew how to pick locks, so it probably just came across as mansplaining. Oh well – sometimes you lose.)

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