September, 1981. A handful of computer hackers meet in the West Berlin offices of the alternative newspaper Die Tageszeitung. This is the first meeting of the Chaos Computer Club (CCC), one of the first groups to imagine computers as a properly political tool. Birthed mere miles away from the headquarters of the notorious Stasi secret police across the border in East Berlin, these hackers were keenly aware of the power of information and its potential abuse by authorities, and the CCC quickly became the beating heart of the European hacker community.
Fast forward nearly forty years and the CCC’s annual conference, the Chaos Communication Congress, has become the largest hacker event in Europe, attracting 17,000 hackers and hacktivists from around the globe. It hosts talks by some of the giants of internet activism, such as Edward Snowden, covering the spaces where technology intersects with politics, security, science, and art. In the clip above, a spokesperson for the CCC talks about the humble beginnings of the Congress, and of how they suddenly outgrew their community center venue after the explosion of the World Wide Web. While the growing ease of access to the internet helped to bring people together online, the annual Congress brought people together face to face and provided a meeting place for building social connections and sharing cutting-edge technical knowledge. In the musical number “All Creatures Welcome” in this featured video, we see some of the people and projects the Congress attracts: a weird kaleidoscope of humans and machines, a “utopian” vision of the digital age, to borrow from the documentary’s own tagline.
But are all creatures truly welcome? In the film we see women, families, people using wheelchairs, but we also see that the vast majority of Congress attendees are still white men. Technology events have long had a reputation for harboring misogyny, and over the past ten years a growing number of female hackers have spoken out about their experiences of harassment or abuse. The CCC has taken some laudable steps to make the Congress a safer space for all attendees, and has developed visible processes for dealing with conflicts and discrimination as well as for supporting blind, deaf, and autistic attendees, but putting these processes in place is only half the battle. Feminist and anti-racist hackers have spoken out about the CCC’s failures to enforce their own Code of Conduct, and about the backlash from some parts of the hacker community who believe that hacking shouldn’t be sullied by “politics”: an ironic stance, considering the CCC’s proud political roots and ongoing hacktivism.
Achieving the digital utopia dreamed of in “All Creatures Welcome” requires more than just laying out the welcome mat and expecting people to walk over it. It requires us to continue doing the hard work of challenging power and abuse, just as the CCC set out to do, and to hold our own community to the same standards that we hold authorities. It requires us to make sure that our culture, not just our door policy, is truly welcoming.