Posted by Wxcafé on Mon 13 May 2019

So, this past weekend I was at ‼️con (pronounced bang bang con), a conference in NYC about “The joy, excitement, and surprise of computing”. This was a great experience! I loved it! I met a lot of very cool people, many who I knew from The Internet (mostly Twitter, let’s be honest), and some I didn’t know at all and am very glad to have met there (moving to another country can be a bit lonely, meeting people is a great remedy)! I watched a lot of really good talks about computers and all the fun things people can do with them! For a very short selection, there was one about making Lo-Fi Hip Hop from npm install logs, an exploration of what game feel is, a bike trainer game about the food delivery industry, some machine-learning assisted dadaist poetry, a primer on designing 3d-printable dilators in go, some NOR gate synthesis from bacteria, a musical about tail-call optimization, and a CD-quality music on a gameboy demo. I even discovered (kinda late I guess) opensteno by… talking to Mirabai Knight, the stenographer who was transcribing the talks! From that list it might seem like I don’t know how to choose (which is, admittedly, partly true), but also there were just so many good talks there. It’s also a very actively inclusive conference, and it was a generally queer experience, which is really cool and is a very nice change of pace when it comes to tech conferences.

Now that I’ve talked about the basic stuff, let’s go into what I really want to talk about. That will be split into three parts, because I don’t want to have my points clash with each other. Let’s start off with the first point, which is probably the one the conference organizers would most agree with:

Having a con about the joy in computing is truly revolutionary

And how. Tech is depressing. I mean, to be completely honest the world is depressing, and the state of the US is even worse, but tech is depressing in so many ways. Everything is broken. No, really, everything is broken. This isn’t (or, if it is, shouldn’t be) news.

Broken hardware platforms, 
broken operating systems,
broken network protocols,
people programming, in broken languages.

Broken ethics,
broken diversity,
broken idols,
broken tools.

Seems like every time you stop and turn around
Something else just hit the ground

I am talking technical here, obviously, because as exposed in that blog post everything technical is broken, but I am also talking political, because we have monopolies living on selling user data, companies funded by a guy who likes to drink young people’s blood, so much sexism and racism that the about:blank page isn’t the whitest thing in the domain, and collaboration with fascists (I’m talking about the US government here to be clear).

Yes, everything is broken. And, from that perspective, it’s really easy to feel discouraged and give up, believing that you can’t do anything and that tech is unredeemable.

Tech might well be unredeemable, but computing has brought many of us joy in various ways. To speak of my own experience, I’ve loved exploring, understanding, and often breaking operating systems (and systems in general) so much when I was a teenager (that isn’t very far, to be fair) that I made it my job (and I love it sometimes!!). For many of the people at ‼️con, it’s making things, feeling the power of getting the computer do what you want it to do; or using the power of the dumb machine to help your community or your family; or building the cool games you loved playing; or making art with that tool; or a thousand other reasons that computing is exciting, fun, and sometimes surprising.

And when our day-to-day outlook at tech is so gloomy and depressing, actually remembering that tech can also be a fun thing is powerful, and even revolutionary, in the sense that it turns the perspective that the field is trying to push onto us around and tells the Thiels and the ESRs of the world that we will have fun with this, and it doesn’t matter what you do.

In a way, ‼️con feels kind of like the CCC does, in that there’s acceptance and a form of inclusivity, but also in the way it’s not centered on a specific topic and welcomes all sorts of discussions. (Of course, the CCC isn’t focused on the joy of computing, even though I’d argue it is very much on the excitement, and all these things aren’t explicitely stated. It’s also a much bigger event.)

That being said, taking joy in computing shouldn’t make us forget about our social struggles

Having fun with computers is powerful. It can motivate us to fight and improve things when we’re demotivated because of all the negativity. It’s also a way to improve the diversity of the field, removing the seriousness enables people who wouldn’t have dared to get started with programming, or to take on projects that they wouldn’t have otherwise. Feeling that asking for help and that you’re in a friendly circle is incredibly enabling too, especially for traditionally disenfranchised people (women, PoC, queer people,… ).

But while it’s good to forget about the negativity, we should not forget that liberating ourselves isn’t the end of the fight, and it’s actually only the beginning. It’s a tool to help us fight, not a way to escape from the fight.

Let me be clear: I’m not accusing anyone at ‼️con of doing that. The organizers are doing a huge amount of work on exactly this simply by making such a inclusive and positive event, and many of the participants I’ve met were involved in multiple political struggles themselves! And, as I said, I think that ‼️con is a powerful tool in that fight.

What I’m saying here is that personally, when presented with this kind of environment, I feel an impulse to satisfy myself of this. I feel comfortable, and I don’t want to get out of that comfort, and I have to consciously take the time to get back into the right mindset. Of course, a large part of that is that I don’t face these oppressions much, and it’s clear that people who do don’t feel that kind of things. But I also know there are people like me in the ‼️con audience, and I feel like thinking about the effects the “think positive!!” message can have on attendees can be a good thing

I also feel that the “act positive” attitude of ‼️con, while really good (it allows people to talk about what they like freely, without dreading someone telling them OH YOU USE SUCH AND SUCH?? DID YOU KNOW THAT OTHER TECH STACK IS WAY BETTER LOL) also shuns some criticism, and criticism is sometimes valid! That’s not a big deal! It’s a two-day con, there are other times for discussion of these topics… but that “everything goes” attitude leaves me wondering

There is a difference between building and making, and I’m on the other side

Finally, and kind of unrelatedly, I’d like to talk about a thing that I felt and realized during the con, while watching the talks, while listening to other attendees talk, and while trying to talk about stuff I’m doing; and how I felt kind of out of place (but this is not a critique!).

So ‼️con is special in that it’s a con that’s about makers. Not the “I have a 3d printer and I love shop class” kind of makers, but the “I can just whip 300 lines of code to make this thing go” kind of makers.

As an Ops person, this makes me feel awed and humbled. I see people talk about “simply” taking a few dozen libraries and suddenly a text file is transformed into music. I see people talk about elm parsers, or Rust VMM bindings, and while I understand the theory, and when I see the code I can follow it, I am awed by their capacity of taking these disparate pieces and making a cohesive thing out of them, and especially I am humbled by the way they talk about these things as if they were so easy.

I don’t know why I’m so utterly unable to connect the dots when I really get the theory and the syntax and everything that’s necessary, maybe I’m just missing the creative spark that makes these people able to make things appear out of thin air, but that’s possibly the subject for another post, not this one.

What I know how to do is building infrastructure. I know systems, I know networks (mostly). I know how to build redundancy and (surprisingly, knowing my living habits) I know how to be rigorous in setting up and managing complex pieces of software interacting together. This is a thing I have, and similarly I don’t know why. It’s clearly important and necessary, and I appreciate it accordingly.

But. It is definitely not the same thing. It’s building, it’s not making. And so, I felt kind of out of place at ‼️con sometimes, because I am outside of the paradigm assumed by the con and the attendees. I don’t have any “recent stuff I’ve made” to talk about! I don’t have anything to contribute to their making apart from my awe. And the only additions I can provide are actually restrictions: here’s how you could host this. You could make this part more redundant. And even then, a lot of the “ops” tools used by devs now (FaaS, docker and orchestration, stuff like that) are outside of my domain too.

I’m not saying ‼️con should change, because it really shouldn’t. It’s really cool to have a place to see all those projects and small miracles shown off! But I’m thinking of two things that were said in the second day of the con:

First, in the keynote talk, Jenn Schiffer was talking about glitch, a “programming social network” (a social space that allows you to build programs with Javascript directly on the website and share them with people, mostly on twitter, without hosting or deploying anything yourself), and she said:

by taking the DevOps part away from the app building experience, the Glitch platform allowed Justin to focus on the impactful part of the app

(link here)

And… she’s right. Yes, Ops (and in general, the “building” part) is a limitation on the creativity and impact that the makers can express. And, this being a maker-oriented con, her comment is totally on point! This is the first thing that made me reflect on this maker/builder divide.

Secondly, in the outro, Erty Seidohl said:

there were three kinds of talk idioms this weekend:

  • here’s a thing I did,
  • here’s a thing I found and want to share,
  • and […] here’s a thing I am doing”

(link here)

That made me reflect on the divide, too. These are very maker-oriented talk idioms (the second one could be builder, too, but it’s still more maker). And I think that talk formats from builders, talking to makers, could be something like

  • here’s a thing I know that I would love you to make things about
  • here’s how this infrastructure you use works underneath
  • here’s how you can build your own infrastructure

These are the ones I found off the top of my head, I’m sure there are more.

But my point is that there could be positive exchanges between the two groups, instead of the vaguely antagonistic relation that exists now. I’m thinking of proposing a talk for next year’s ‼️con, among other things because the conference seems very accessible (talks are short, the crowd is very positive, and subjects are very broad), and I hope I can bring something new to the makers the same way they give me that awe.

In conclusion

I hope this post wasn’t too unclear to read (it should probably have been three or four posts, honestly), and that what it conveyed what I wanted to express correctly. Thank you for reading it, and please do contact me either by email, twitter or mastodon if you have comments! I would really love to hear what other people on both sides of the “divide” think about this, and if you think the whole concept of the divide is complete and utter bullshit I’d love to hear about that too!

I also hope it was clear that I’m really glad I went to ‼️con, that it was amazing in a different way than CCC can be, and that the slight out-of-place feeling I had was a) not the fault of the con and b) not at all enough to spoil the fun!