Chaos Communication Camp 2019

Chaos Communication Camp is a conference / festival event that happens in Germany every four years. The theme covers a wide range of topics around technology, society, and how they interact. But most importantly, it's a gathering of various hackerspaces from all around the Europe and more. I had a chance to attend this year's edition and the event surprised me in a lot of ways. It's difficult to summarise the experience (unless you make a whole documentary, but I collected some observations and memories here.

Arrival

The arrival to CCCamp was a memorable moment. I haven't attended a large outdoor event before, so everything was really new to me. We arrived in the late evening, so it was dark already. First there was this huge dusty grassland parking lot with no end in sight, then there was a long walk towards the entrance gate with a bunch of most essential luggage, then there was a small line where our tickets were checked and we got the participant wristbands. This was the first surprising moment - every person I met seemed happy to be there, at 22, checking tickets, issuing wristbands or handing out the camp map. This is directly connected to the most unique aspect of CCCamp - everything is ran by volunteers ("Angel system"), and the staff I met was just camp participants doing the shifts they picked for themselves.

Angel system

Having everything ran by volunteers really set the mood of the whole event. I don't remember seeing a single grumpy person - no matter the task, people were just happy to help out. I was also impressed with the Angel system is thought out: There's a dedicated app (free software, of course!) used for coordinating the work; there's different roles for which you can sign up, some of them require training, approval of other Angels or pre-Camp arrangements, but if you decide in the middle of the camp that you'd like to volunteer, it's very easy.

The camp area

The night we arrived, there wasn't much opportunity for sightseeing - a friend led us through twisty paths between all kinds of tent villages and blinking art installations to our camp area, and I was essentially on auto-pilot all the way until our tents were up and there was time for rest. Only in the morning I managed to have a good look around.

I didn't really do my homework so I was expecting wilderness, but the camp area turned out to be nothing like - it was actually an old brick factory, which normally works as an open-air musem. The place really set the mood for the whole event: there was a large chimney (conveniently placed for network antennas) and a bunch of industrial buildings: one was adapted into a dance club by campers, and another became a pinball arcade. There was a lake and a small beach area, next to which some enthusiasts established a satellite uplink. Everything was connected by old narrow-gauge train tracks, which were sometimes used by campers in both old machines and DIY electric draisines.

All the infrastructure - power grid, water points, phone and data network - was built before the camp by the volunteers. I could imagine how much work this took, but in fact there was a summary talk at the end.

The talks

The Camp had a few typical tracks of conference talks, held in huge tents. I attended a few of them, but after my first day I noticed that it might make more sense to spend more time exploring & participating in all the community-organised events - more so since the official talks were recorded and promptly published on media.ccc.de. I must note that Camp has the talk recording & editing really figured out, and I appreciate that a lot - this must be difficult since even commercial events often struggle with having the talks published afterwards. Anyway, here's a few highlights: (including links where applicable):

  • A talk about securing Kubernetes, including interesting details about container systems as well as some "weird stuff in Linux".
  • A talk about game jams & what's so special about them
  • A talk about the intrinsic sense of ethics, and how we, the technologists, are responsible for talking about the dangers behind new technologies
  • A workshop on what could be a good way to slowly get more people out of Facebook - turns out that Events are the dominating reason [citation needed] that keeps people stuck in this controversial network: event discovery for end participants, and event promotion for organisers. What would need to happen for a more libre alternative to catch on? We explored the topic in groups.
  • A talk about trust, about what Blockchain promised to bring to the table and what it didn't. This one was followed by an impressive Q&A session: Blockchain is a controversial topic because it has both strong proponents and detractors in the tech community, so the audience was divided. Still, the discussion stayed very meritorical and it was a pleasure to hear.

Soldering workshop

Among all the tent villages built by various communities, the Belgian Embassy immediately caught attention. Imagine a heavily adapted bus with a huge tent rooftop attached onto the side, and under it, 20-something desks, each equipped with soldering gear: a mobile hardware hacking area, ready to give soldering classes anywhere, anytime.

Soldering is kind of special to me; as a kid I observed my dad doing some electrical work and I learned how to solder a pair of wires together, but soldering circuit boards seemed like magic to me. My first step in demystifying this happened back in 2017 was a soldering workshop in Warsaw, led by Mitch Altman. This already gave me lots of self confidence ("Hey I could actually try and maybe build some things now"). The next step in the journey is surface-mount soldering, so I was thrilled to find an opportunity to join Kliment's kitten-soldering workshop.

Some fun facts I learned:

  • It takes practice but it's not so scary!
  • There's lots of ways to solder; I was expecting hot iron, hot air or maybe an oven, but Kliment surprised us with a tiny electric heater
  • With proper technique, a human can place things really precisely
  • Solder paste looks amazing under a microscope
  • We should all be thankful for surface tension because let's admit it, it does all the hard work for us
  • If you want a great pair of tweezers, you should probably travel to Shenzen

As a side effect, after getting home I started binge-watching hardware repair videos on YouTube. I remember that some years ago my laptop broke because of a cold solder joint somewhere (bad line of NVidia GPUs or something), wonder if I could repair something like this today?

Hanging out with Kliment was a great opportunity, for which I'm really grateful. I hope to join more of his workshops during future events.

Creative writing & mood swings

I learned a lot about technology and society during the camp. The talks were just a small fraction of the experience. What affected me the most was the feeling of being surrounded by communities of creative people, all self-organising to build fantastic things together, with the only purpose of building a great experience for everyone.

There is a big contrast between how I felt at the first and at the last day of the camp. Initially it was mostly the "Alice in Wonderland" type of experience - everything was new and uncanny and I mostly focused on exploring. Later, I had a very rough night and I had a hard time finding a place for myself during day two. I was on this awesome camp, surrounded by creative people, all busy doing their own awesome things in their fantastic cyber villages, but somehow I couldn't enjoy it. I felt I didn't really belong there (is "trespasser syndrome" a thing?).

That day I ended up firing up my laptop somewhere on a wooden bench and doing some "therapeutic coding" on a pet project, which somehow managed to improve my mood a lot. During the remaining days of the camp, I started opening up more and talking to strangers - I even had a nice spontaneous game of Go! By the last day, the feeling of alienation was gone, and I actually managed to feel that in some ways I might be similar to the people around me. This feeling helped a lot & actually stuck with me after the camp, which is probably the most important thing I got from the whole event.

There's a lot of random activities that helped me enjoy the camp more and connect with the other participants. One moment I remember in particular was a small workshop about writing. It took place in a very informal and cosy setting - we sat on pillows under a large dome-shaped tent. The organisers shared a lot of practical tips (Hero's journey; stream of consciousness) and had us write a few thematic excerpts. At the end there was some space to read out loud what you've written. I'm kind of glad I volunteered - not that I'm in any way proud of the jottings I came up with, but it was somehow extremely liberating to read them out to a group of strangers without any fear of being judged. I would describe the workshop experience as refreshing and meditative.

There's a few other random activities that had similar impact on me. Once I randomly cooked a huge pan of shakshuka in the Food Hacking Base's field kitchen & shared it with strangers. I'm a total newbie when it comes to cooking, but I got a lot of help and it turned out okay! I also spent some time on post-apocalyptic jewellery workshops, where Paula encouraged participants to convert piles of electronic scrap into unique wearables. I made myself a name tag from a mouse PCB and some thinkpad keycaps! Version 2.0 should include clickable keys...

Summary

The camp experience was nothing like I expected. I learned some new things about technology, but I didn't focus on it all that much during the event. The most important thing I got is a slightly different view of myself - I somehow feel more okay with who I am and what I'm generally doing. Also I observed I'm feeling much less anxiety about making decisions and trying out new things. Additionally, after meeting many people who devote a large part of their life to making technology or society better, I'm much more optimistic on the kind of impact that individuals can have on the world, given enough will and effort.

Comments

Comments powered by Disqus