December 29, 2009

This is one if for you: the hacker conference as ritual

Category: Academic,Debian,F/OSS,Geek,Hackers,My_work — Biella @ 10:08 am

One of the most frustrating things about being an untenured anthropology professor (aside from being untenured) is that, for the most part, the articles you must write to get tenure strike those you write about as hopelessly boring and jargony. I always imagine that when geeks read my articles, the experience can be represented as follows:

%*&%*&*(((& Linux *(&*(^%&%%^%% DeCSS &*(&^&&*^&^&^& Free Speech %^&%^%^%%^ Hacking &*(&^*(^^*^**^*Code*((*&&**&&*&* Emacs **(**)*( New Maintainer Process *&())))))))))&*&7&&*&)*&*&*&& DMCA **(**((( Copyleft. ****W$$&& TINC

Well, finally, I have my hands on the uncorrected proofs of an article that is far far more readable, accessible, and truth be told, romantic than anything I have written “The Hacker Conference: A Ritual Condensation and Celebration of a Lifeworld.” This article’s ancestry goes back to this ancient blog entry that I wrote after Debconf4 in Brazil, later made it into my dissertation, and finally a gabillion years later is on the verge of publication.

Debian developers, in particular, might dig this piece. I made use of your blog entries, mailing list discussions, interviews, and photos to reveal what is special about these events and also memorialize some important events, such as the the founding of Debian Women.

So while some I am sure some academics will find this piece distasteful for idealizing these events, so be it. I grew very fond of these conferences, they changed the way I thought of computer hacking, and why not write something that makes those you worked with feel good (as opposed to bored and confused). Finally, academics have totally missed the theoretical boat when it comes to conferences, which are probably one of the most important ritual forms of modernity and yet there is so little written on them—an issue I address briefly in the conclusion.

Note that this version has various mistakes (including the name of Joel “Espy” Klecker and the caption under Figure 3, and Figure 9). Since many of your are human debugging machines, if anyone takes a preview read and finds any typos, feel free to send along as I will be sending the proofs back next week.


  1. [...] This post was Twitted by planetdebian [...]

    Pingback by Twitted by planetdebian — December 29, 2009 @ 10:27 am

  2. Fantastic — I have enjoyed your long-form dissertation writing, this is a lot more approachable.

    Comment by martin langhoff — December 30, 2009 @ 1:15 am

  3. Thank you for an interesting article.

    Problems noticed (as per request):
    – on page 110, the name of Erinn Clark
    – on page 115, there is a spurious paragraph break between Victor and Turner.
    – By endnote 13, the notes appear to be out of sych, for example, Figure 2 is annotated with 13 but the corresponding endnote is numbered 14.

    Comment by Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho — December 30, 2009 @ 2:13 am

  4. Great paper – makes me sad that I’ll miss Linux Conference Australia this year.

    On page 111, next to the photo of Bdale, I think:

    (“Under x’s disk in his Michigan dorm room”)

    should probably be:

    (“Under x’s desk in his Michigan dorm room”)


    Comment by Michael Carden — January 5, 2010 @ 11:08 pm

  5. I am humbled and honored that my only meaningful DebConf contribution is apologizing for being an ass. The conflict and consequences that arose out of the mishandling of those funds was a very big learning experience for me. I managed to turn the big positive of straightening SPI’s finances into a big negative by wanting to “administer justice” to those who made the mistakes. I still harbor confusion about how that situation should be handled (ie. it shouldn’t be covered up) but I did firmly learn a lesson that playing judge, jury and executioner doesn’t win any hearts and minds at all.

    Comment by Ean Schuessler — January 7, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

  6. Hi Biella,

    I don’t know why you think that real anthropologists won’t be interested in this topic! I think it’s great. There is, I suppose, an old-school contingent opposed to any kind of research on social worlds that converge on the ones we inhabit ourselves as academics, but there is equally a contingent that’s quite eager for ethnographies of conferences and other contemporary social forms. I’m thinking of Rabinow’s work on laboratories, various ethnography of white-collar office work, Annelise Riles’ first book which centers on an ethnography of a UN women’s conference in Beijing, an unpublished paper by a friend of mine who wrote a gift-theory analysis of anthropological life and called for an ethnography of the AAAs… and not so far from our discipline, there are great articles by Bourdieu and Goffman on the lecture and an important book by William Clark about the birth of academic forms like the thesis defense, the lecture (again) and the research seminar — all of which surely have some relation to the historical roots of the conference. Strikes me that this historical genealogy of related forms of social gathering (seminar/meeting/lecture…/conference) would presumably lead in a different direction than the link to depersonalized publics you talk about, and might be an interesting complement to that analysis.

    But I really do like your idea about the conference as the flip side of a physically separated public sphere. I’ll have to think more about it. Off the top of my head, do you think a qualification about different kinds of conferences might be in order? It seems to me that a conference of hackers who seldom meet in person is pretty different, emotionally and ritually, from a more local conference of, eg, academics who might see each other all the time anyway. For instance, there are things like grad student conferences and local campus conferences, and these may be organizationally pretty similar to the big international conferences, but radically different in their social functions.

    While I’m at it, let me flag a few points in your paper that struck me as particularly fascinating:

    -”Though organizer spend many months of hard work planning these conferences, the participants tend to experience them as evanescent.” I love this observation; it’d be great to hear more about how this kind of disjuncture in structures of temporal orientation can be productive and functional.

    109 “Even while typing furiously away, eyes scan various open windows on the computer, but their ears are usually perked up, listening to the chatter, ready to contribute to the conversations unfolding in the room. Here and there, material and virtual, their bodies sit at an intersection, processing bits and bytes as well as other physical bodies, who do the same.” This multiattentional attitude seems non-normative in lots of other similar spaces — it’s frowned upon in classrooms or more academic conferences, for example. It would be great in some future work to hear different people talk about their conference experience in longer interviews, since presumably not everyone experiences this multiattentional space in the same way; and the sociologist node in my brain would love to hear how different experiences might track the demographic variation that presumably exists within the debian hacker world…

    115 “If immediacy and immersion set the tone of the con experience, as soon as one leaves a new experiential metabolism takes its place: one of heightened reflexivity.” Maybe there’s a more general point here about how certain moments are especially apt to provoke local reflexivity? Reflexivity has its temporalities and that would be really neat to know more about: here in my fieldwork in french academia, for example, the university protest movement of last year has dwindled into a moment of “reflection.”

    Anyway, I was particularly delighted to find this paper because here in France I’ve been doing a LOT of conference ethnography — if you keep working on this topic I would love to talk more about it. And there’s something important here about your project of doing ethnography as celebration (of hackers). You sound like you feel somehow guilty about that, as if it’s not anthropologically hip to celebrate and not critique, but it seems like a valid, valuable project to me. Have you ever seen Eve Sedgwick’s stuff on “reparative reading” as opposed to “paranoid reading” in literary studies? There’s a parallel there with your celebratory ethnography, I think.

    best, eli

    Comment by eli thorkelson — January 7, 2010 @ 6:24 pm

  7. Wow Eli,

    Now this is a comment! I am traveling in NZ and not on the computer much but just wanted to say I will craft a proper response when in Wellington at a, yep, you guessed it, at a Linux conference :-)

    Comment by Biella — January 9, 2010 @ 10:23 am

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