Not Your 'Traditional Hacker Camp': Inside Electromagnetic Field Festival

The weekend-long British tech gathering is based on a simple idea: We are all hackers, now.

by Victoria Turk
Sep 2 2014, 5:05pm

A couple work on a lathe in their tent. All images: Victoria Turk/Motherboard

Tech conventions can often come across as elitist and inaccessible: the kind of place you expect to be greeted with a largely homogenous and hard-to-please crowd who know more than you do, or at least like to make sure everyone thinks they do.

UK hacker event Electromagnetic Field Festival, held over the last weekend, was a refreshing exception. "This is not really a traditional hacker camp any more," organiser and London Hackspace founder Jonty Wareing told me when I visited the site on Saturday. 

Inside the laser cutting "village"

It was the second time he and cofounder Russ Garrett played hosts to a weekend-long event, and this year the festival, held in a field near Bletchley, attracted over 1,000 speakers, visitors, and tinkerers of all stripes. 

"It's the hackers, the makers, the artists, the crafters," Wareing said. "There's so little difference these days, they've all merged into one to be honest."

It's a bold claim to make while others in the tech community fight back against the adoption of the term "hacking" to refer to anything other than breaking into computer systems. "I've always fought for people to use the word 'hack,'" Wareing explained. He said there was a big debate on whether to use it when he and Garrett first started the Hackspace, but they've never once had a complaint since.

The Awesome Retro gaming tent

"When you just say 'make,' it's so wide, and it doesn't include people modifying stuff," he went on. "A lot of the things people do here that are really fun is using existing technology in interesting ways—it's not necessarily building something new, it's maybe just using it in an unexpected manner."

I've always fought for people to use the word 'hack.'

So it was that a programme of talks on more conventional tech subjects, such as app-building or security and surveillance, were offset with activities as diverse as 3D printing, laser cutting, blacksmithing, lock picking, and retro-arcade gaming.

A blacksmithing workshop

A drive along a dirt road on the back of a truck took attendees to an outdoor space that looked largely like any other festival: a sea of tents. But walk around, and you'd see that many of these weren't just temporary living quarters. They were "villages," a concept borrowed from German hacker festivals like the Chaos Communication Camp, where each tent houses its own contribution to the hacker community.

I peeked around the porch of one tent and found a lathe in full swing as a couple of campers cut a wooden bowl. I unzipped another and came across a ham radio station, with two men searching for signals from strangers. "It's like a pre-social networking social network," amateur radio enthusiast Steve Netting told me.

Inside a ham radio village

In turn, he pointed me to another marquee where a bunch of young guys were tracking a high-altitude balloon they'd launched earlier that day; it was then floating somewhere over the North Sea. Further along, I came across the canopied home of Nottingham Hackspace's "BarBot," a robot that mixes cocktails ordered over email.

The spirit of hacking pulled the festival together in more than just a figurative sense, as much of the infrastructure was put together by the event's small army of unpaid volunteers. The one thing the team demanded of their outdoor venue was that it had to have internet access—which meant installing their own wifi network.

The on-site data centre

Wareing gestured over the hills to where they'd erected a 30-metre radio mast with an antenna. "Over in Bletchley we have another 30-metre-high mast in the backyard of a garage that we had to give some free tickets to," he said, explaining that they'd quite literally gone knocking on doors to find somewhere that would agree to install it.

Fibres ran from that mast to a hub he wasn't allowed to name. He let me look inside the locked shipping container that housed their "data centre," less a rack and more a haphazard stack of servers.

It's like a pre-social networking social network.

To distribute the network, along with power, they used another idea from Germany's Chaos Computer Club, the "Datenklo" (literally "data loo"). These are a series of portaloos that serve as mini base camps and modems around the campsite from which campers can run cables. The portaloo keeps everything dry and secure at little cost. Most of them still had toilet paper in them.

Jonty Wareing opens a "Datenklo"

In line with the inclusive attitude, the festival this year adopted an anonymous submissions process for speaker applicants, something Wareing attributed the diverse line-up to. It also laid out a strict code of conduct—"We spoke to lawyers and tried to really nail it down," Wareing said—that forbids any kind of discrimination and also warns that "Aggression and elitism are not welcome—nobody should be afraid to ask questions."

Most surprising was the provision of free professional childcare throughout the weekend. UCL sponsored the children's crèche, which Wareing said would otherwise have been impossible to fund, and kids were kept busy with tech-themed projects like making lightsabers out of pool noodles.

Argue about the term "hacker" as much as you like, but as the Hackspace movement continues to grow, offering an outlet to those neglected or shunned by more narrowly focused tech communities, the territory is expanding and evolving. We're all hackers now.