HOPE Is Where The Heart Is

So I’m back in Oakland! And, a brief panic where my parents drove to the wrong airport, I am safely installed at home. The weather is stunning as usual, all my high school friends are local, and the Giants are winning; it’s good to be back.

But what’s on my mind is HOPE X, the hacker conference I went to over the weekend (and yes, I did tell all my friends that I was going to a hacker conference—and that everyone would indeed dress in black, type inhumanly fast, and own guinea pigs. This is why I’m not allowed to be a real hacker.)

Actually, point of fact, there are a lot of reasons why I’m not allowed to be a real hacker—the first being that, embarrassingly, I can’t even code. I know enough HTML and CSS to, like, be a person on the Internet, and I made an honest effort to learn JavaScript back in April, but when it comes to actually trying to make things happen on a computer I’m more or less entirely dependent on my more technologically able friends.

So why a hacker conference?

Well, because at this point, it’s unacceptable to me not to keep up with what’s happening on the Internet. The fact is, the very phrase “what’s happening on the Internet” is outdated—the separation between the digital world and “meatspace” (does anyone still say “meatspace”? Did anyone ever actually say “meatspace” outside of William Gibson novels?) no longer exists.

And hackers, to steal an analogy from a friend, are like wizards: they know the laws that make the digital universe run, and they have the power to manipulate that universe as they see fit. (Any sufficiently developed technology, etc, etc.) So as someone who’s interested in the world itself—the world as a whole, all sides and aspects of it—of course I want to go to a conference full of people who have knowledge and power about the world that nobody else does.

But the fact remains that when it comes to computer literacy, I’m still reading at a computer third-grade level. So did that make me a passive observer, absorbing interesting ideas and thoughts and philosophies from my fellow conference-goers but bringing nothing to the table myself?

I’m not going to lie: I was genuinely worried about this, and I still am. The hacker community feels very much like one where you have to earn your place; it doesn’t have time or resources to waste on anyone who’s boring, not when there are so many interesting, clever, enthusiastic people jockeying for a moment in the sun.

But it also feels like a community where there is room for people who aren’t tech wizards—especially given that after events like Anonymous’ work in the Middle East, the death of Aaron Swartz, and the Wikileaks scandal, the very skill of being good with computers seems to be increasingly, inherently politicized.

The NSA is experiencing a “critical shortage” of recruits, and I think we can all guess why; “rampant abuse of new technology for the purpose of unconstitutional mass surveillance” isn’t exactly a great guideline for ethical business practices, especially when held up against things like, uh, “Don’t Be Evil.”

In the ’90s, the Internet was a distant, confusing phenomenon; in the ’00s, it was a business opportunity. Here in 2014, after Snowden, SOPA/PIPA, CISPA/CISA, net neutrality, and more, it’s a political battleground.

And while hackers’ skills with computers are unique, their philosophies and ideals certainly are not. These days, the jobs of lawyers, journalists, and activists have tremendous overlap with the jobs of computer engineers and programmers. If the Internet affects every aspect of our lives, well, every aspect of our lives also affects the Internet—and maybe that means that I can actually be of use. Though I can’t write code, I can certainly write English; though I don’t know the laws of the digital universe, I can certainly learn the laws of the United States.

The NSA is experiencing a critical shortage of recruits on college campuses. I’m a college student. I’m not only watching a political battleground unfold on my computer; I am a political battleground, me and all my friends. I know so many people my age who are talented, passionate, and brilliant—any organization would be lucky to have them.

I am part of a critical generation—both in the sense that we are crucial to whatever happens next, and in the sense that we are educated enough and disaffected enough that we are very willing to criticize anyone and everyone. I honestly think the next few years are going to be a tipping point in the politics of the Internet, and I think my friends and fellow students are going to be one of the most important parts of that.

I’m so, so lucky to be spending the next three years on a college campus, just as I was so, so lucky to get to go to HOPE X. This is where things are happening; this is where the world is changing. It’s a fantastic place to be, and I’ll be beyond delighted if I can be of use.

Even if I have to do it in meatspace.

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