HAL 2001: A Geek's Progress

By JJ King, 10 September 2001
Image: mjt productions

Hacking at Large – and sometimes close together in a wet, Dutch field. JJ King on a gathering of the clans

The geeks came in two by two, from all over the world, in planes, trains and cabs, shouldering their tents and backpacks, making with grim determination for a wet, muddy field in the middle of North East Holland. Everywhere they seemed to strike a mixture of fear and curiosity into people: ‘Do you know how to get free cable?’; ‘Will you be reading my private email?’; ‘Can you get me some credit card numbers?’ They kept their heads down. They were headed for Hackers at Large, the biggest festival of its kind in Europe and the definitive meeting place for the continent’s nerds – and they wanted to at least get there without being arrested.

There was good reason to be wary. Representatives from many of the world’s security agencies really were stalking the HAL site recruiting or looking for people to arrest. Probably they had very little idea of what the thousands of sweating fiends whacking away at notebooks to the sound of jungle and death metal were up to – but they were watching them nonetheless. And the Dutch authorities were ready too, sitting on pre-signed agreements authorising the gigabit uplink that was being piped into the fields to be severed if the HAL network became a source of any... problems. ‘They’re waiting to cut our link to the world,’ warned the Hackers Guide to the Campsite, the festival’s manual. ‘Yes, you read right: cut the link. 100% packet loss.’ For your average hacker, that’s about the biggest stick you’re going to find.

Who knows, maybe there really was some sinister conspiracy going on somewhere at HAL to overthrow a state or two, hack into the Pentagon, or set off the proverbial thermonuclear war. Sure, there were presentations with titles like Transport of Intercepted IP Traffic, Worms – What is Possible?, and Hacking Digital Watermarks, which could well have bothered your average lawman, but by and large it was all Linux-boxes-this, Free-BSD-that, the merits of wireless networking – pure, 100% geek.

And people were smoking far too much pot to cause any really serious damage. The atmosphere was positively carnivalesque. One guy, a master yo-yoer with a mouse cord wrapped round his hat and a USB network adapter dangling from it billabong-style, was giving out yo-yos to anyone who wanted them – Coca-Cola had given him three hundred thousand to dispose of. A man dressed as Lara Croft, complete with pneumatic falsies, was making his way around looking oddly grim. Network cable was strewn everywhere, criss-crossing stretches of grass. Geeks in tents were blinking out from behind tottering processor towers clutching cans of Jolt. A man who didn’t know what his name was or where he was from kept stumbling into our tent, brandishing a ragged Windows 95 manual he’d somehow saved from the ritual Microsoft manual burning, demanding hashish, food and shelter. Once we recognised him for what he was – a classic festival casualty – we realised that, computers or no, HAL was in fact a festival cut from the mould of the early ‘90s, with all the attendant insanity. The geeks were relaxing, getting into it, letting their guards down. Even the law enforcement agents looked like they might be having a good time. No one got arrested. And, most importantly of all, the gigabit uplink stayed intact.

JJ King <jamie AT> is a contributing editor to Mute

HAL2001 []