34C3- Reflections on the Hacker Ethos // Chaos Engineering


“Scepticism does not mean the successive doubting, item by item, of all opinions or of all the pathways that accede to knowledge. It is holding the subjective position that one can know nothing…. Scepticism is something that we no longer know. Scepticism is an ethic. Scepticism is a mode of sustaining man in life, which implies a position so difficult, so heroic, that we can no longer even imagine it — the way of desire.” -Lacan, 1977

I spent the last 4 days celebrating hacker culture at the Chaos Communication Congress in Leipzig. The 34C3 is an annual conference organised by the hacking collective Chaos Computer Club. It features a variety of lectures and workshops on technical and political issues related to security, privacy, open source technologies and freedom. The community consists of all people of the web who share the common vision for an open and free technological society: trolls, programmers, activists, artists, philosophers, engineers and every virtual creature in-between. In this post I’d like to talk about my experience and my interpretation of the hacker ethos.

Photo by: Yves‏ @Keksliebhaber1, 29 Dec 2017, Twitter
Photo by Leah Oswald

Conference highlights

CCC is a vastness of space that promotes tolerance, curiosity, fun, open-minded communication, friendliness and cooperation. Much like a cult, a religious movement or the hippie-eco-radical-self expression communities, the CCC community shares a variety of commons, values, references, memes and lingo. Those have emerged from the distributed and interconnected cyberspace where its members reside. This year, some of my favourite talks were on adversarial machine learning, free electron microscopes, open source estrogen, afrotech, humans as software plugins, EU net neutrality, censorship and surveillance in Iran and the inspiring Snowden’s refugees. However, the magic of CCC exists in emergent interactions and creativity that take place in the huge hacker/making zone, the self assemblies, the workshops, the chill-out areas, the anarchists domes, the tea nerds zone, and the hackable-everything-extravaganza all around us. Next, I’ll contextualise this culture, define chaos and explain how I think this community differs from other communities.

Photo by Leah Oswald

The cybernetics of hacking cybernetics

CCC made me reflect on the values of the hacker culture and how these values are not -and should not- be associated exclusively with the hacker culture. The hacker culture takes a political stance on cybernetics. Cybernetics is a transdisciplinary approach for exploring regulatory systems — their structures, constraints, and possibilities, coined in 1948 by Norbert Wiener. One of my favourite definitions comes from mathematician A. N. Kolmogorov: ” (Cybernetics is the) Science concerned with the study of systems of any nature which are capable of receiving, storing and processing information so as to use it for control.” The systems of interest here are technological infrastructures, ecological groupings, human groups of various sizes such as families, tribes, city-states, social or economic classes, and of course modern nations and supranational corporations.

In more detail, first order cybernetics refer to allopoietic controlled systems, whereas second order cybernetics refer to autopoietic machines, those able to build their own components and observe/control other machines [1]. CCC is closer to third order cybernetics, which is the study of mutually observing systems- in our case humans, society and technology. Here, the observer is understood to be part of a co-evolving system — the focus is on how observers and systems co-evolve across different social systems in trying to create even more dynamic models of human and non-human ecologies.

Brian Holmes [2] considers Bateson and Guattari (see the work of Félix Guattari -Cartographies Schizoanalytiques, 1989) as being: “probably the most important reference for the art of composing mutable worlds, where the goal of the participants is to carry out continuous transformation of the very parameters and coordinates on which their interactions are based.” I’d say that this transformation -or maybe transgression- lies in the heart of the hacker culture and it’s crucial for social change.

Transgression is coded in all layers. During the congress virtual and physical became a big editable notebook, able to host a change of rules that creates new emergent behaviours. A big wall with blinking buttons on the front- and on the back a computer with the software that controls the game. People trying to figure out what are the rules of the game on the front and people on the back are changing the code. Those rules are a) open b) self maintaining c) self structuring d) questioned/able at all times. Who is playing the game? Who is making the rules? Then, a chained robot doomed to move eternally around a pole like a digital Sisyphus- a tragic figure of domestication by humans. But here, it’s an open interface- you can access it, change the code and let the creature free.


Radical Chaos

I think the first value of the hacker culture is radical chaos, a parameter that influences the self organising capabilities of the complex systems we live in. Here, Chaos is celebrated at its fullest and it’s a proof of concept that anarchist, self organising societies could maybe one day work.

But, let me explain a bit more about complex systems and chaos. A system whose configuration is capable of changing with time is known as a “dynamical system”. The field of chaos is a subfield of complexity and every chaotic dynamical system is a fractal-manufacturing machine [3].

Complex systems -biological or not- display some characteristics:

  • They contain many constituents that interact nonlinearly. Nonlinearity is a necessary condition for chaos. However, chaos can also be a property of very simple systems.
  • The constituents of a complex system are interdependent. Hackerspaces and people from around the world coming to the Congress are connected through their work and vision. Hackerspaces contribute their common resources such as equipment, food and knowledge that is free and open to all. Nothing is expected but respect to the Commons.
Photo by Nederlandse Hackers‏ @NLHackers 27 Dec 2017, Twitter

A complex system possesses a structure spanning several scales. (community, hackerspace, network, commune, individuals)

A complex system is capable of emerging behavior. Emergence happens when you switch attention from one scale to the scale above it. The combination of structure and emergence leads to self-organization, which is what happens when an emerging behavior has the effect of changing the structure or creating a new structure. Anarchy in the Congress creates beautiful interactions.

Perhaps the most striking difference between chaos and complexity is the following:

  • A complex system has several scales. While chaos may exist on scale n, the scale above it (n − 1) may be self-organizing, which in a sense is the opposite of chaos. Therefore, another property of complex systems is that:
  • Complexity involves an interplay between chaos and non-chaos. Most nonlinear systems are not 100% chaotic: they are chaotic for some values and not chaotic for others. Some infrastructure and support teams in the congress are centralised (see the infrastructure review) whereas the rest is more chaotic. Then there is the edge of chaos, i.e. the precise value of the control for which the nature of the dynamics switches. Complex systems, manage to modify their environment so as to operate as much as possible at this edge-of-chaos, where self- organisation is most likely to occur. CCC has created the ground to exist in the edge of chaos.
  • Complexity involves an interplay between cooperation and competition. In the congress, trust is distributed. We trust that we will respect our surroundings and the Other. Could it be that selfishness and individualism arise from the mere fact that institutions exists to take care of what should collectively be taken care of ?
Photo by Yves‏ @Keksliebhaber1 27 Dec 2017, Twitter

Tactical queerness

This beauty from chaos cannot exist in binaries. So, I’d say that the second value of hacker culture is tactical queerness. Tactical refers to small-scale actions serving a larger purpose using combat tactics (such as hacking). Queer here is used to describe non-normative (i.e. anti-heteronormative and anti-homonormative) and/or deviant identities and politics. Heteronormativity refers to normalizing practices and institutions that privilege heterosexuality as fundamental in society and in turn discriminates those outside this system of power. CCC is an open community for all deviants.

Queeness is associated with chaos of course, as it attempts to debunk the stable definitions of sexes, genders, sexualities and critiques identity as a constellation of multiple and unstable positions. Here, I can’t see a better celebration of the notion of the cyborg by the legendary techno feminist Donna Haraway [4]. The cyborg can only exist in a continuum of existence and ontological definitions. We expand those definitions to maximise the possibilities for this complexity and chaos to arise. We tweak our genders and hack our bodies. We don’t comply to society’s traditional use of our testosterone and estrogen, put in place to continue it’s own existence, guarded by the patriarchy. We’re beyond survival mode- now, we are exploring the spectrum of our existence.

Transgressive Activism (a.k.a. trolling as art)

How do we achieve this randomness and queer beauty? We introduce unpredictability that comes from playfulness or else, trolling the shit out of everything. A paper hacked with googly eyes, someone silently observing a drunk guy with hick-ups and suddenly scaring him in the funniest way, a troll that changed the name of the wifi, those who started a party just by moving a huge speaker around.

Photo byMaximilian Berger, https://twitter.com/snowdragon92/status/946501280150773760

The boundaries of the control systems are confusing and confused: Who is messing with whom? Who is doing the performance? Is the barman/performer trying to mess with our perceptions or are we messing with his perception by thinking that he’s messing with ours and starring bad at him? Are we controlling the outcome or are we part of a mastermind’s game? Is this mastermind the collective chaos? Are we changing the rules by interacting in a very dynamic system or are we following an algorithm?

Our mere interaction with each other becomes an act of performance. The performance of tweaking the rules of the system and inducing randomness becomes art. As Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski said: “The performance is not an illusionist copy of reality, its imitation; nor is it a set of conventions, accepted as a kind of deliberate game, playing at a seperate theatrical reality… The actor (here : the hacker) does not play, does not imitate, or pretend. He is himself.” Hacking the rules becomes existence.


Epilogue

Hacker culture is far from perfect and this is not an attempt to present an idealised situation. My blog would be inaccurate and incomplete if I didn’t refer to the community’s long struggles with issues of inclusivity, harassment, and allegations of physical and sexual assault. Despite the code of conduct, frustration still exists among women and nonbinary individuals in the hackerspace community as they watch alleged abusers absolved, kept on payroll, and even still welcomed by some in the field. We can do better.

However, the vast majority of the CCC has been deeply inspiring and invigorating for me this year. Political systems and new frameworks such as cryptoanarchy, queer politics, biohacking etc are being discussed, explored and tested. Technology empowers those political ideologies and for the first time in history enables them. Decentralisation is being put in practice- as well as openness and inclusion; Distributed trust and global access to information; Freedom and digital rights; open, editable systems for everyone. If the world collapsed I would trust those people to bring it back, embodying the values of the fathers and mothers of the Web before those were exploited by the googles, the facebooks, and the amazons.

Photo by Fred Thiele‏ @ft1307, Twitter

Finally, as I feel part of this community, I’ll speak in first person:

We are people of the Web. We don’t belong to nations and we despise old symbols and binary models of the world. We embrace chaos and complexity. We celebrate it, we praise it, it becomes our way of being. We are creating the systems and the rules that allow new and emergent systems to be created. We create the foundations for chaos and inject noise and randomness to our commons. We are engineers by heart and artists in spirit.

We use our queer logics and bodies to test/manipulate/edit/transform the boundaries in our societies, relationships and political structures. All systems are up for circumvention, bending and experimentation. We want to achieve a profound twist in control and power. We practice radical chaos and tactical queerness through total transgression and playfulness. We exist in a performative immersion of the observer and the observed in order to increase the space of potentialities for chaos to transform to ever changing beauty. This is the next step of our technological society- and it’s still in the making. It’s working in CCC. Please, edit and hack as you wish and let your (and The) Revolution slowly emerge.


References:

[1] Mancilla, R.G., 2013. Introduction to sociocybernetics (Part 1): third order cybernetics and a basic framework for society. Journal of Sociocybernetics, 9(1/2).

[2] Network, Swarm, Microstructure, Multitudes, May 2006.

[3] Baranger, M., 2000. Chaos, complexity, and entropy. New England, Complex Systems Institute, Cambridge.

[4] Haraway, D., 2006. A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late 20th century. The international handbook of virtual learning environments, pp.117–158.