The Hackers On Planet Earth (HOPE) conference is a staple of The Hacker Community™ that has been happening bi-annually since 1994. It’s a huge, well-renowned event that regularly brings international superstars like Edward Snowden to their stage. This year, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the conference was moved entirely online.
Although the wholly-virtual conference format was a disappointment for many regulars, it was a very welcome change for us at Tech Learning Collective. It was specifically because of the decision to move the conference online that Tech Learning Collective members felt comfortable enough to submit workshop proposals for consideration. Had the conference been held in person, we would have chosen not to participate because of the fact that mainstream “hacker community” spaces are not spaces where we feel particularly comfortable or safe. Offering an alternative to those more mainstream spaces is, after all, one of the main reasons Tech Learning Collective exists!
We were happy to have all of our proposals accepted by the HOPE 2020 workshops selection committee and are grateful for the opportunity they gave us to showcase our different cultural, pedagogical, and philosophical approaches to classic hacking topics such as phishing, hash cracking, and Web exploitation. And while we hope the three two-hour workshops we facilitated for HOPE 2020 ticketholders were educational or at least fun for everyone who showed up, our own deeper hope is that people who are looking for something liberatory and ambitious, beyond but overlapping with the famous hacker ethos exemplified by the HOPE 2020 conference and community, found us through our workshops at the event.
That’s why, when we were further invited to be interviewed by Erin and Mel of the Nerdy Duo for HOPE 2020’s Internet radio broadcast, Radio Statler, we accepted quickly. What follows is our (somewhat rushed) transcript of the far-reaching interview, along with an audio recording, of our hour-plus segment on Radio Statler during HOPE 2020 in which we discuss the mission and vision of Tech Learning Collective, our philosophical approach to computer technology, hacking, anarcho-autonomism, and more.
TLC interviewee: Thanks so much for having us on. Which one of you is Beaches? Do you mind my asking that?
Mel (interviewer 1): Beaches isn’t here right now. Beaches has to work.
TLC: Oh, well, Beaches has been very helpful in helping us organize logistics for this. So just shout-out to whoever that is.
Erin (interviewer 2): Oh, he’s the greatest.
Mel: Beaches is the greatest. I’m very fond of Beaches. So I think my first question for you guys is, Oh, my gosh, how have I not spent a million hours with you?
TLC Interviewee: Um, that’s, uh, probably because for a long time, we were only doing in person things in New York City. So if you were not in New York City, you were probably not as aware of us. We began in, well, a little actually before 2016. But we sort of officially became more open to the public or inviting folks who we didn’t already have some sort of preconceived connection with to workshops and things that we were holding in person classes, at around 2016-ish, just after the Trump election for some obvious reasons. And, so, the result is that for the past, only for the past about eight months or so have we really been sort of pushing a lot of online things. And that of course, is a result of a pandemic. So it’s possible that you didn’t know about it simply because maybe I don’t know if you’re in New York City or not, but if you aren’t, that would be a good reason why not, and also—
Mel: Up the river. We’re up the river, across the river from Sing-Sing.
TLC: I see. Yeah, so we never quite ventured that far North personally, obviously, New York City is a huge, huge town and it has a ton of spaces. And so we’ve basically been very inner city focused for a very long time.
Mel: Um, I’m so excited to like meet you guys.
Erin: Tell us about you your mission…
Mel: …what you’re up to lately.
TLC: Sure. So, um, I mean, the sales pitch, if you will, is simply that we take a security-first approach to all this tech education that we think is vital for, bluntly, any kind of revolutionary or insurrectionary politic. We have a very different approach than a lot of other schools primarily because we don’t focus on things like jobs, we don’t focus on things like interviews or coding skill, particularly. There’s a huge as you know, of course, you know, boot camp style initiative happening ever since, you know, the mid, early, really 2010s. And there’s just been this focus on, like, learning to code.
And that for a while, this is a—I don’t know how much of this history you’re actually interested in, so I’m sort of all over the place. But, this really started from the notion that Tech Learning Collective began as a mutual self education group.
So back in 2015 and early 2016 it wasn’t for the public. It was for us, it was for people who felt alienated from code boot camps, felt alienated from the tech scene, who didn’t really have an interest in technology for the perspective of getting jobs or changing a career or this kind of thing. And so what that meant was that a huge amount of education that was focused around that approach just wasn’t really relevant. Like we didn’t really care about the things that were being taught not because those things aren’t important or useful, or in some way, for example, can be used in in non-job contexts, but because the instruction around it was entirely too narrow-mindedly focused on here’s how you get a job, here’s how we’re going to help you get a job, here’s how you’re going to then make money in this career. Here’s the best way is to, for example, get your certifications and your licenses and all this sort of stuff, right. And so we didn’t we didn’t care about that.
We cared about helping our communities and our friends, put up websites about their activist efforts, we cared about getting food distribution networks set up we cared about helping people like Food Not Bombs or CopWatch and this sort of stuff. And those skills, while overlapping, take a very different approach, or you need a very different approach to sort of take someone who hasn’t had any background in technology, and make it possible for them to do things like those community efforts with technology, than one in which you’re constantly telling them to like work for Amazon, you know, or get a job at Google, or learn how to do, you know, sort of huge global scale infrastructures. Like, that isn’t relevant to a neighborhood of 100,000 people even, right, you don’t need, if you don’t have a million active users, you know, per hour, you don’t need half the things that you’re being taught in these sort of, you know, schools.
The other part is that we don’t have the money! A lot of that software’s proprietary, if you’re going to network engineering, you’re probably going to get a Cisco iOS certification of some form or another right, CCNP, or something like this, and that’s going to cost you some money, you’re going to need to get the software for that, you’re gonna need the licenses for that, you’re going to need the hardware for that. And, but you don’t need for example, a Cisco iOS device if you’re setting up a mesh network amongst a five block radius, right? OSPF and BGP are not licensed software, right? You can use a VyOS router, you can use this open source stuff that exists, you can use a pfSense box for your edge. And all this stuff you don’t need that kind of material for. So the other aspect of it was just financial cost and accessibility.
Erin: The tools are kind of agnostic.
TLC: Say that again? Sorry.
Erin: The tools are kind of agnostic.
TLC: The tools don’t care what philosophy you have, right? They don’t care what political position you have. And so it’s much easier to sort of technical-ize radicals than it is to radicalize techies, if those two things are considered mutually exclusive groups. And they aren’t, of course, I mean, look at us, but they certainly are approached that way in a lot of other educational or activist efforts.
And the other, the last sort of part of this was that while there were many other groups doing a lot of education around this sort of stuff, digital security, anti-surveillance, this sort of stuff. Um, there’s not really a lot of groups that are explicitly trying to create a, we call it a “train the trainer’s” model, where they are, where people are coming to these groups asking about, you know, how do I keep myself safe at protests? How do I not get picked up by cops in a regime, right, or, like, in Portland today? Or, you know, and there are a lot of good, sort of 101[-level] answers to that. There’s a lot of, well, check your phone settings and make sure that you do a factory reset if you think that your devices been compromised, this sort of stuff, but then there’s not a like, then what, how do I then build from that? What do I do next? Where’s my 201? Where’s my like, like, if I want to build some infrastructure, as opposed to just react to things that are happening to me, where do I learn to do that?
And so again, the only answer was, well get a job. And that doesn’t work for the kinds of things that we’re trying to do because often what happens when you get a job is that you now spend—like The Onion article right? You follow your dreams in your 30 minutes for lunch. And 30 minutes on your lunch break doesn’t really have enough resources really, in terms of time and attention to actually build an infrastructure for any sort of meaningful movement. So, so there had to be some place to go after you, you know, found yourself in a, for example, anti-surveillance workshop, and then wanted some more information about how this technology worked. And what you could do with it, how to defend against it, how to build something out of the foundational layers, and that ended up becoming Tech Learning Collective, through sort of a series of unfortunate external events and sort of figuring trying to figure out how a group of anti-capitalist Anarchists could sort of coexist with an educational model that required, for example, resources, like space and time. And, the last four years has been sort of the, the work of making that possible. So that’s, that sort of where we come from. I hope that answered your question, in maybe a little bit of a roundabout way.
Erin: Very thorough.
TLC: Very cool. Good.
So, you know, for more information about that, obviously, I should point you at TechLearningCollective.com/about, I’m not going to read the website to you, obviously you can, you know, look at the website and read it yourself but that story is repeated there on our about page. And it has some details about, you know, precisely where in 2016 we started and what groups we started working with and this sort of stuff. So there’s more information about that there.
As well as workshops and events and classes and our calendar. Now we do almost one workshop every other day.
TLC: I think we have upwards of 15 to 16 workshops a month now that are on a scale of either free, by donation, or low cost. And by low cost I mean, there’s a sliding scale for even paid workshops are for as low as $25 for about two hours.
Mel: That’s amazing.
TLC: Yeah, and it’s all, you know, it’s kind of—we’re very proud that we have actually stayed active is one thing, but the other thing is that that we are growing at a rate that we didn’t expect to. So now we have workshops that not only range in sort of a sliding scale costs, but also are on topics based everywhere from like, you know, what is a computer? What is the CPU? What are the resources and admin is working with, right? And we really start at the level of, you’re really working with time and space, right, you’ve got a certain amount of space and a certain amount of time to process some information. And that’s really your constraint. So what are the resources in a computer that allow you to do that, right? You have a speed in your computer, that’s time, you have amount of space that you can store something that’s your hard disk, that’s your RAM, etc, right? The network storage, and so on and so forth.
So that’s where we start, and everything from there all the way through to, for example, working with Docker containers and exploiting web applications. Some of the workshops that we’re doing here obviously are very focused on the offensive security side of things is stuff that we cover. So I think we have over like 35 workshops, individual workshops now and four course tracks that we offer. The workshops and the courses are all based on each other. So it was the case that courses actually were sort of like the main focus of we did, like I mentioned in person classes and sort of the cohort that met with each other, you know, week after week. The pandemic has radically changed how we do this. And now, mostly it’s actually workshops that we’re focusing on. But the material in both the workshops and the courses are the same. So if you for example, signed up for a SYS10 course with us, then basically what you’d be getting is a logistically different presentation of the same topics that we teach and for example, our Taming Daemons workshop, which is one of our one on one courses, our Securing our Servers workshop, which is a deep dive into SSH, this sort of stuff so it’s sort of, they’re parallels of each other, they’re just sort of presented differently at this point.
Mel: We totally understand that big shift. We are—well, first of all, I got totally distracted by oh my gosh, no, I’m not Beaches. I have I have no right to call myself that, Beaches is amazing. And, we are we are artists first and art educators second so the switch from classes to like short bite sized workshops is totally the same shift we’ve had to do. Sometimes we teach overlapping stuff like since we do a lot of digital art like and video and post production stuff we’re tend to be the artists in a space who know anything about tech even though like we’re not always the greatest. I have people I can call for that. Thank goodness!
TLC: Yeah, you have—it’s important to have people who know how to do a thing if you don’t. This is part of thesocial aspect of learning. It’s part of the infrastructure, right? I mean, other people are an infrastructure as well. And I think part and parcel of what you’re saying is like, there’s you know, there’s, there’s a, it’s when you’re in a classroom, when you’re in a certain kind of educational environment, we think of that educational environment being simply a matter of a collection of materials that you then consume. But that’s not at all how education works, right?
TLC: It’s really about an interaction between who’s there and how they’re approaching the material, and you, and how you can plug into that. And so our workshops are like, we get this question a lot like, what how should I prepare for like my SYS101 course? Or how do I prepare for my like, you know, my first Clearing Away the Clouds workshop, something we’re doing later today, not at this conference, but just is happening later today, which is like a NET101 intro. And we always tell people don’t! The point is not to come prepared. The point is to not know when you arrive, and then leave having a clear idea of what to do next. And when you approach things that way, we can take advantage of the time that we have, as in a synchronous workshop, right? Like why pay for stuff that you can read on Wikipedia? That makes no sense as a school.
And so when we look at these other sort of educational pedagogies one of the things that didn’t make sense to us was that we didn’t have A) the money and B) the inclination to just, you know, get this specific school’s book that contain the same information as all these other online guides or all these other. You know, I mean, even the RFCs, right, they’re just kind of repeating information in their way. And that’s not bad, you can argue that that’s a value add for some people. But if you’re then spending, for example, two or three hours in a class with somebody, and they’re just showing you that material, then you’re not taking advantage of the fact that you have a human with their own decision making ability, their own ability to sort of, you know, improvise and respond to your questions in person, or I guess over video chat. However you do it. And that’s really going to be where most of the “Aha!” moments can come from, especially if you’re the kind of person who needs some structure in the first place. Right?
So people who are really like, the self taught, “I don’t need to, I don’t need anyone’s help. I want to do this entirely on my own. I don’t want to talk to anyone,” right, those are not our students. And that’s because they don’t need to go to any class to learn this stuff. It might help in terms of a small speed boost to get sort of like a guide, if I’ve never worked with, for example Kubernetes or DevOps material. And I don’t know anything about configuration management, you know, maybe our Faster Than Light workshop, which is all about Ansible, and RBAC using AWX Tower and the Red Hat, sort of open source offerings, is a good thing to go to, because you spend two hours in a class where that’s the topic, instead of spending maybe 18 to 20, reading a book and you get more or less the same material, and you can begin, then, you know, to do things on your own. But the community aspect of the learning is when we see the same students come back in again, and again, and again. These are the ones who tend to want to either learn in a social environment or who want the kind of structure that the black hole of YouTube just doesn’t offer, because the recommendation engine has its own interests and it’s certainly not yours. Right? So, so that that’s a really important part of it. Otherwise, go read a book.
Mel: Yeah, that that one-to-one interaction with students is the thing I’ve missed the most all COVID. Yeah, that little lean over the shoulder. And let me just show you this one little trick that’ll speed up what you’re doing. I missed that so much.
Erin: Just swoop your mouse, just hold this key here. There, you got it.
TLC: Right. Did you know about this command? Let me show you this particular vim shortcut or like, check out, you know, control-a when you’re in
screen, right, like this stuff.
Yeah. And that’s sort of the other big difference is that when you give someone for example, a checklist to follow like a lab guide, and that’s sort of all the material that they offer is that sort of interactivity, then you don’t get those opportunities. But if you can create a conversation around the topic that you’re teaching, and so one thing when I teach, for example, is that I tell people, if you’ve never ever done what we’re about to do before, I know there’s going to be a VM that you can follow along with, you know, download and run it and you know, you’ll have the same terminal that I have, but if you’ve never done this before, try to ignore that because you’re going to be seeing the same exact thing that I’m going to be seeing on my screen. So for the time being like for the first time, the first time you’re exposed to this, you’ll probably get more just watching me use the tools in the same way that you could, for example, watch a master craftsman or a craftsperson, right, create a wooden toy, right by watching them work, rather than trying to replicate their movements, sort of by hearing what they tell you to do, and not watching their hands. And so it’s the same exact process. If I, for example, I’m using my terminal in a way that you know, you haven’t seen before. Maybe you never use
screen, or haven’t seen a multiplexed terminal before, that alone is going to be like, “Whoa, what is this?” And you’re not necessarily going to get that by following a lab’s sort of checklist of hit this goal, then this goal, then this goal.
And this is particularly important for security concepts, because security, more than almost any other, is a field in which you don’t want to restrict someone’s thinking to just the steps that are on paper. Right? The security principle of—there’s, I don’t know if it’s a joke or what, but I’ve heard it over and over and over again, which is you as a pentester, right, the thing you want to do is read the requirements docs. And then every time that they, that the requirements docs say, or the RFCs say that something must be the case, check to make sure it is, cuz it’s probably, it might not be! Every time where it or something says “optional,” check both cases, see if it’s on or not, right? And that’s basically just, like, the RFC is your beginning pentest guide. But if you’re trained in school, to think only, “okay, well, if I do this, then I’m good, then this and I’m good, then this and I’m good,” then what you’re not doing is reading between the lines.
And so for that, you really have to have a Socratic discussion, you have to have a sort of more, you have to have the back and forth, right in the OSSTM model of pentesting, we’re talking about induction, right we induce the system to do a certain thing based on input that we send. Right. And so that doesn’t come from the checklist. That’s not on the paper. You have to do that part. So you have to generate it yourself. You have to generate what it is that you want the system to respond to. And you’re not going to get that in, I think, most classes where this is primarily stuff that is being taught to a test so that you can get a certification so that you can get a job and therefore, so that you can have a career switch and change, you know, and again, I’m not going to tell an individual “don’t do that, that’s bad.” But I am saying that that’s not going to lead then to societal change. That’s not—or at least I should say, that is, at best, insufficient for the kind of radical changes that a group like Tech Learning Collective was based to help inspire. So that’s why everything from there has to be a different approach.
Mel: Teaching people who have been through any portion of the education system to like read between the lines is so critical. Teaching them to like, try stuff, to not doubt themselves, like…
Mel: We teach like little kids and grandmas how to use Photoshop most of the time. So like, and even we’re like, consistently trying to do that to be like, “No, no, just try it. Just mess with it.” Like—
Erin: I’ll be really proud of you if you break it.
Mel: Yeah, if you break this file, go for it, I’ve got another copy, don’t worry.
TLC: That’s a huge part for technology, particularly for digital technology particularly, right, because a lot of people are so accustomed to an experience in which if they fuck up, something is there in forever broken. Like maybe they’ve lost some data in the file or something, right, or their browser crashed. And that’s sort of a real visceral experience in the digital realm. But the reason that happens is because they’re not they’re treating digital like analog, right, and they’ve never been taught about the actual like what hypermedia really means. Tech Learning Collective says that “we teach students the arts of hyper media Information Technology and radical political practice,” all-in-one. And the notion there right is that a digital calendar is not an analog calendar, right? A file, like there’s no desks in your computer. We call it the “Desktop Environment.” But, your computer might be on a desk but, it’s not! It’s not actually a desk. There’s no desk in the computer. It’s not like that Zoolander moment where like, “Oh, the files are in the computer!” You know, that’s not, that’s not real.
And yet we have all these graphical symbols, right? Like folder icons and paper icons with little curls on them to sort of give us this metaphor that we’re dealing with something analog. And these metaphors weren’t inevitable, right? This isn’t necessarily how today’s computers had to be. Right? Look at, for example, the 60’s presentation with Engelbart and the way that he’s using that so called mouse or pre-mouse, right? It’s almost like an instrument. And he describes it as an instrument, actually, right. The keyboard is an instrument. It’s more musical than that. And so, when people today look at their computer, right, they’re often seeing an environment that they already have these associations with, not just with physical objects, but with physical objects that are useful in a particular context, which is primarily the office job, because that’s where, right, the industrialization of Business Machines really came from. Look at for example, IBM, right?
Erin: Paperless office.
TLC: There you go.
And so that’s why we have write things like file icons on graphical GUIs, that you sort of are, in that, try to help you understand what this object can do or what properties of this object are. But that’s just a metaphor. Right? And so we should think of the entire desktop environment as really a metaphor, because that’s what it is. The terminal is a different metaphor, right? So that is a chatroom metaphor. It’s an assistant metaphor, right? Back in the day, before we had sort of computers, before we thought of computers as physical objects, “computers” was the job title of mostly women who were basically secretarial, right, labor, and they were computers. That’s what their job title was. I’m a computer for IBM. That’s what they said. That was their job role. And the reason, right, that we now have a command line, right, is because that command line became that job role. That’s not that people, you know, in the political spectrum. “Oh my gosh, automation. Things are terrible.” I’m like, yes automation, and things are terrible. But like automation doesn’t have to be terrible, right? The terrible thing about automation is that the person whose job you’re automating the system doesn’t give a shit about, right? We could care about that person and offer a huge range of other things for them to do, not least of which is just be in a community and be social with other people, which is its own value. Right?
One of the reasons that we’re against the whole notion of jobs—we’re not, I should say, against helping you find a job. Obviously, if you come to these workshops and learn these skills, it can help you get a job. But the point is that that’s not really our goal. And the reason for that is because we think it’s barbaric to have a society in which you have to work for somebody else, in order to have the basic dignity of shelter and food. That’s insane in 2020 with the technologies that we have available today, it’s absolutely ridiculous.
Erin: That how important your job is, you know, defines the level of healthcare you get.
TLC: Yeah, exactly, that even your job is tied to healthcare, which again, you know, big issue now in the pandemic, we’re the only industrialized nation in the world. Right? “Industrialized,” I should say in quotes, where that’s even sort of…everyone else thinks that’s insane! Right?
Mel: I’m—right. This is the thing we get on all the time. That, like, we as a country and like capitalism inherently doesn’t value the people and that’s so short sighted because you do so much long term good when you invest in your people, when you invest in your citizens, because then they’re going to come up with like, amazing stuff that the system would never produce on its own.
TLC: Jaron Lanier just the other day was talking about this in his keynote, right where he was saying that the Deming model of production basically said, Hey, you know, these are humans who are in factories, why don’t we ask these humans about what the best way to do their job is and they will probably come up with some examples of things that we can improve. And then that became the Toyota model, right, of for example, Kaizen. And that was now what we talk about as [the genesis of] Agile software development. So these concepts of like human dignity are really ingrained in Just the history of what we could have made possible with computers, but chose not to. And I suppose when I say we here, I mean, you know, the powers that be at any given moment.
And so it’s really important for people to understand, I think that, you know, the systems that we have today are not bad systems inso far as they don’t work, that they are not intentionally built this way. But it’s exactly the opposite, right? It’s not like we have a broken system. It’s that we have a system that explicitly chose to do these things in these ways, because it benefits people who were able to bend the will of others to that end.
Erin: It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
TLC: Of course, yeah, of course, it’s a feature, right? If you are, for example, taught to only think of your desktop environment in the context of your office job, you’re never going to think about what power you have at the tip of your fingertips to build something other than what your employer says is necessary for you to keep your job. And that’s really what we’re about. So that’s also why don’t we don’t focus on things like coding so much, but rather on sysops and system administration and DevOps and sort of all the infrastructural components, network engineering and security. That’s really the focus of Tech Learning Collective, specifically because it’s not a good place to start building a new world if you have to build it on the infrastructure of a one that is designed to hurt you. Right, you have to build a different infrastructure. And from a technology perspective, from a hacker perspective, right, that means things like self-hostability, re-decentralization, and all these sort of fancy buzzwords that we talked about at HOPE, and elsewhere for many years now, right.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen that that doesn’t, or that hasn’t historically been very successful, right. I think Aelon Porat put it in an earlier talk at HOPE 2020 pointed out very bluntly that like the advocacy community, for example, digital privacy rights advocates, haven’t been historically very successful, which is his very diplomatic way of saying failed miserably to get a lot of people to understand the criticality of data privacy and security. And so, again, that’s where we sort of have this schism, as Tech Learning Collective, with a lot of these other sort of tech initiative groups or these NGOs, a lot of these sort of, you know, sort of policy focused endeavors. We think policy is important but insufficient, and ultimately without resources placed in things like truly we would go so far to say insurrectionary infrastructures, we think it’s also doomed. And so that’s why we focus primarily on helping people who are already starting from the mindset of what can I do to radically change how my life is organized in the society and how society sort of creates the building blocks of mutual self regard for one another, right, with the tools that, you know, we have available and for us because we’re hackers, that means technology.
And it turns out technology is actually a really fantastic vehicle for this because never before in the history of humanity has a single individual had as much asymmetric power as we do today, right? 50 really competent hackers can in fact do the same things as what used to take 100,000, 200,000, 300,000 human individuals to do. And that’s becoming more true the more we attach the IoT, right, Internet of Things, to power plants and to, you know, shopping carts and whatever Amazon else is doing. Right?
And so we have to think really, about what environment that mean, what does that mean for activism? Because the old ways no longer work. If we live in a world of a global passive adversary, like the NSA for example, we have to think through what strategies may have been useful in 2010 or 2000 that are no longer useful in 2020. And you know, Bruce Schneier talks about this, another speaker at HOPE, where he talks about the security gap as a concept where there’s like a sliding window of things you can do as a small nimble organization, right, that a larger, sort of, more entrenched entity, like a government or like a corporation, right, multinational corporations and governments are kind of the same thing really, today, there’s so much collaboration between the two of them that it’s a little bit ridiculous to sort of talk about one without the other. But if you can sort of stay in that security gap, then you can actually effect change in a way that is far outsized, based on how small your number is.
And that’s really all we need. We don’t need right 100% participation in sort of social change, like we do with maybe mask use, right? What we actually need is something like maybe 5% participation, there’s some statistic that I’ve never looked up to see if it’s true, because it makes me really happy and I don’t want to know that it’s not true that the Civil Rights movement was participated in by only 2% of the United States’s adult population. And if that’s true, then that shows you, right, that, that really, it’s not about getting the masses or changing hearts and minds. We don’t really care about that. Because that’s not actually what’s going to make larger change. What’s actually going to make larger change is committed groups of competent individuals who understand the reality in which they exist today, learn from the past, but don’t replicate the past in, you know, in order to create these more autonomous and more self governing and more, you know, you know, for those who, for those whom this word is not already tainted, a more anarchistic future because that’s actually what the internet was that we all like.
This whole decentralized Internet that we miss? That was effectively an anarchic construction. And if we can apply that, just in sort of an understanding of the of the political implications, the imbued politics of what that was, whether it was intentional or not, but the structure of it, to how we are trying to work today, we should match our social behaviors or social constructions to the technical infrastructure.
Right now, that’s not the case. You have to go to maybe France or Tennessee, right? If you want to talk to someone who’s literally next door over Facebook. Why? Because you have to transit your ISP, which then goes to an Internet backbone, which then ends up at a CDN, which then ends up at Facebook servers, and then comes all the way back so that you can talk to the person that’s in the room that’s next to you. That’s absurd from any kind of, from any position of—the only way that’s not absurd is how do I centralize or create toll roads for this particular traffic so that I can then create choke points and control that communication, right? It’s clearly more—it’s useful, if that’s your perspective, which is the perspective of Verizon, and the NSA and so on and so forth, and Facebook, right. It’s not the perspective of the actual person. So there’s this misalignment between the ways that the system is built infrastructurally and what people actually want to do with it, actually want it to do for them. And the only way to realign those, in our opinion, is not through laws because laws follow behavior, they don’t they don’t preceed behavior. Laws are the code of conduct that we all are sort of socially bound to, but doesn’t actually prevent us for from doing something that only punishes us if we don’t do something or reward us if we do do something. So laws follow behavior, they don’t preempt behavior. That sort of thing, just as a, if you take that as a given.
You actually need people to at least understand that when they turn on the faucet in their bathroom, that water doesn’t just magically appear there and and at the, at the drain. That there’s something before and something after they see the water in their sink. Right. And similarly—
Erin: The world doesn’t go away when you close your eyes.
TLC: Precisely. And so that’s just as true with technology and with the bits that’s transiting over your network link, as it is with water. And that means we need the equivalent plumbers and electricians. And so that’s how we approach things like teaching system administration and network engineering. And that’s not glamorous, right, like that’s a humble position to put us to put a technologist in. And if you look at, for example, the amount of money that jobs like, for example, you know, senior engineering managers or even for instance, developers, right, are making in comparison to what electricians and plumbers are making. You see a very clear difference in class. Right? There’s a huge amount more money if you are for example, running a, or coding, you know, the Twitter UI, right, then if you are making sure that the building in which that those programmers were working before Coronavirus, or even now at their homes, right, has electricity. If you’re the electrician for that person, you’re not making probably as much. If you’re the plumber for that person, you’re probably making even less.
We value water even less than electricity which is weird because we’re gonna have a water crisis, right, coming up in the next five to 15 years. And you know, we can live without electricity for many, many, many days, we can live without water for only maybe two or three. So the entire economic incentive schemes are also inverted, badly so. Right? And that, you know, will require not only an understanding of sort of this system as, as something that these choices were sort of, that these were actually chosen, choices people made, and that they weren’t mistakes, that these weren’t bad choices. This is the point of creating a status symbol that’s associated with the kind of jobs that technologists have.
I’m not trying to say that technologists don’t deserve the praise for doing the work that they do. What I am saying is that plumbers electricians deserve just as much praise. As technologists, we have to lift that up. And so when we approach teaching about system administration and network engineering as a trade, rather than as some sort of like high tech, laudable skill, for us, that’s a sign of huge respect, rather than diminishing the skill that it is, because it’s just as important in the information age to have the flow of communications be well monitored, secured, you know, reliable, available, you know, integrious, right, the CIA triad that we talk about: Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability principles from the infosec world, right? That is stuff that any Junior System Administrator should know. But typically, even if you’re in the tech field, you don’t really hear about those infosec concepts until you’re already bluntly brainwashed by an educational institution that’s trying to make sure that you are taking part and parcel of the perverted incentives that ends up with you having a CCNP or an OSCP certification that then gets you you know, $200,000 a year and that you are now divorced from the community that you might have even came from. Right? And that you’re no longer really incentivize to give back to.
So that’s an extractive model in the same way that we think about, for example, rare earth minerals being extracted from mines and sort of strip mining of land. And that being a horrific thing for the environment, there’s a similar thing happening with code boot camps and with the educational system around technical skill, because now those extractive models are being applied to people, and those “human resources” as we weirdly call them, right, are being treated in exactly that same way. Let’s take out everyone who wants to—let’s take out from communities, everyone who wants to learn about technology and put them in the the sort of like power generators of Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Right? In order to mine more data, we literally call it “data mining” from those exact same communities. And yeah, there are some exceptions, of course, where, you know, an extraordinary person will go through this thing and end up with, you know, with huge success and create an NGO, but now their left hand is fighting their right hand. So where’s the infrastructure that’s different than this, to actually make something else?
And that’s again, what because, you know, we know there are sort of here or there, there’s, there’s some good examples. And again, you know, NGOs are doing some amount of good work, but they’re still beholden to the same system.
So we see ourselves as kind of like the separatist group of, of hacker educators that came with this analysis and are trying to do something completely different. And that, for us, currently, in this phase of our, because of the history that I was talking about earlier, starts from this notion of, we need more sysadmins, and so we have to make them by educating them.
And it turns out, there’s actually a lot of people who are interested in that exact thing. They don’t often know it most people who come to TLC come because they want to “learn how to code.” And then once they see the power in a couple of workshops, of all the other things that are there, like once they see that, oh my god, I don’t even really know what a socket was, but I was doing network programming this whole time. Okay, well, let’s talk about, you know, the network layers. You know, let’s talk about the OS. Let’s talk about Unix domain sockets. Here’s another way, right? In fact, if you’re a security minded person, you know that if you are looking at a server that’s running on your machine, for example, an Nginx machine, right next server, you might want to use something like a Unix domain socket, because it could be, in some context, way more secure than using a TCP socket. But you have to know what that is. Right? And if you if you’ve never heard the term socket, because you’ve only maybe heard the term WebSocket, or you only ever heard the term, you know, web server, because you’re only ever coding, then you can never even code well for that context. So anyway, that’s our that’s our that’s our spiel. That was a bit of a rant, I hope that’s okay.
Mel: I’m so excited to know you exist now, because you’ve just touched on in like 20 minutes, like three days worth of conversations we’ve been having here.
TLC: Oh, awesome.
Mel: Like, utility issues and issues with protests and racism and just trying to get people to see that no, this system is designed to be this way. It’s designed to like, like, capitalism doesn’t work without an underclass the way we have it set up. Yeah, like, all of these huge, huge issues that like, deeply bother like almost everyone I’ve met under 40. And you just have them all here at the front of like your thing like, you guys are really exciting. I’m like really excited to know you exist. I can’t wait to spend like a week crawled up inside your website.
TLC: Please, that would be really cool. It’s exciting for me to hear about your excitement because normally this is not the kind of conversation that well, I should say this: it is becoming more frequently the kind of conversation that, you know, ends up with the sort of excitement of what let’s do something and how do we kind of do that next. But for a long time, I will say that like you know, this was not generally speaking the kind of conversation that was that—I’m hesitating a little bit to say welcome, but, for lack of a better word, I’ll say welcome in spaces that were primarily technical, right. And I think that it’s important to remember that even though that, that, you know, it, this comes back to that sort of cultural divide, right, like a lot of people had some, a lot of, you know, “technical” people insofar as again, there’s this distinction between technical and non technical, but, um, there’s a lot of folks who, you know, may not—they have this sort of intuitive sense of like, this is sort of wrong, or this is not how I want the Internet to be or something, you know, like something went awry somewhere. But what they don’t, I think, realize is that part of what, at least when at least part of what went awry, if not, most of it is that most of the people who are actually really lucky from the 90s in the in the early 2000s. Right, the an earlier generation of hackers. They didn’t do a lot of teaching in comparison to how much basically employing they did, right. And so there’s a huge culpability in that.
That’s not to paint every hacker community as something that is sort of evil, obviously, because there’s, you know, there’s epistemic forces, and systemic forces, and individual horses, and they all have their own, you know, sort of shares of this thing. But it is to say that if we, like Aelon Porat said earlier, right, like, we’ve done a bad job as a hacker community, primarily, and I think part of it, you know, even Moxie Marlinspike blogged about this in the early days of TextSecure, where he was like, I looked around and all of a sudden, these sort of people I was making fun of for coming to DEF CON from the military are now basically running the show what the hell happened? It’s like a blink of an eye. But really what happened was, and he points this out, right, is we didn’t pay attention, that was a huge mistake. And so we lost that security gap moment, right? Where the cyberpunk future we envision where we could actually have privacy, where nations were no longer important, look at “beauty of the baud”, and Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, and Hacker Manifesto, right, from Phrack days. We lost that. We basically just fumbled.
Erin: We showed them our hand and they took it away.
Mel: Literally dropped the ball.
TLC: Right! And now if you want to go into security, right, what’s the only legal way to do that? Right?
Mel: Yeah, you have to go through the training and get the certificate.
TLC: And what do we call that? What’s the name for…
TLC: Well, I mean, yes, but I was thinking what do they they call it? Right, that the word for hacking legally?
Mel: Is that pentesting now?
TLC: Yeah. And that, it is. That’s right. And that practice, they call it “ethical hacking.”
Mel: Mm hmm. Right. Right. Certified Ethical Hacking?
TLC: Yes. Think of the perversion of language. How 1984 is that? You can’t get more doublespeak than this. It’s literally the the epitome of hacker doublespeak to call that ethical hacking. Right?
Erin: It’s like when I figured out as a child that, no you don’t get to be an astronaut without joining the military.
TLC: Right. So they have this monopoly of violence that they’ve now extended into the cyber realm they explicitly talk about in those terms, and anything other than a direct confrontation with that, ideologically, I mean, is not enough to overcome it. Because you cannot have something that is anathema to the very existence of other ideas and claim that that is in any way inclusive or diverse. It’s just not possible, you have to actually put a stake in the ground at some point, in order for things that are opposed to that ideology, to have a chance. The only ideology—and the thing about that, is that any ideology other than one of diversity, right, is one against diversity, by definition, and so if you actually believe in that the thing about your so called inclusive ideology that you must maintain as a red line, your line in the sand, is you cannot allow anything that is anti-diverse in that. It must not be permitted.
Mel: So I have a question from the Discord. This person asking is a teaching adjunct who teaches creative tech and web tech at a large university. And they’re looking, they’re hoping you might know of any talks or video clips or good ways of discussing the corporate state of the web that you think can aid in illustrating the decentralized nature of its origins to Gen Z?
TLC: Oh, that’s a really good question. Um, I happen to really like a book called A Prehistory of The Cloud. It’s by an MIT author, Asian American, whose name I’m blanking on right now, but we can look it up. But it’s MIT Press, A Prehistory of The Cloud. It talks a lot about where the current notion of the Internet, as we know it today in terms of cloud services, and, you know, the sort of massive centralized companies that are running data centers, where it came from. And it’s a good read, it’s not the only thing that I think is relevant along those lines, but it’s probably one of the best primers and starters.
Another really good book, and I think this is sort of maybe a little askew to the question, but is an approach that we take Tech Learning Collective very often, which is to simply use different metaphors when we talk about the technologies that we have and a good book for this is one by Eric Davis known as Techgnosis, T-E-C-H-G-N-O-S-I-S. Techgnosis, as in the Gnostic traditions of technology. Because if you look back far enough in places like for example, Ethernet networking, when Bob Metcalfe created Ethernet, right, the name Ethernet was not a mistake. It was not just, you know, this is what we call it. Now, we don’t even think about where you know what an Ethernet is, but in the early 20th century and the 19th century, right, the notion of “the ether” was an idea that came from the Gnostic traditions that there were these, there was this thing, almost like The Force in Star Wars, right? Where it, where this thing called ether permeated everything and everyone, it was sort of part of what held the universe together. And so when Metcalfe was trying to come up with a universal networking technology, he used that word to describe his Ethernet technology because it was going to be a network of devices that held other networks together. And now of course, we have Ethernet as sort of the de facto layer two networking technology in any network you can think of, more or less. And that came from this sort of like, gnostic metaphor of the ether.
And so when we teach at Tech Learning Collective, mostly what we do is we go back to the sort of early metaphors and early understandings of what was possible rather than what is in its concrete form now because that opens up the imagination of students to think about what they could do with the capabilities that we teach them in sort of the later half of workshops and courses. So when we talk about networking, for example, we talk about the notion of a relatively ubiquitous, magical, right, like Force-like, ability that we now have, right? When you’re browsing a website, you’re not, you know, we think of it as saying for example, you’re visiting a website, you’re going someplace, but really what it’s more like, if you look at the technologies, you’re conjuring you’re bringing, you’re pulling to you, you’re downloading
Erin: The mountains coming to Muhammad.
TLC: Right? If you want to use the Dune analogy, right, you’re like folding space so that you end up, right, or rather, it ends up in the place where you are. And so whatever metaphor you want to use, right, starting to use, a more poetic, a more, a more fantastical language, I mean, even the terms of programming today, right? In the 90s, we had this sort of big shift towards industrial language with Java and sort of factory patterns and this kind of stuff when we talk about programming, but if you look at the words that were used to describe elements of syntax and code, for example, the dollar sign in a bash variable, right? That’s known as a sigil. A programming sigil, right, is a specific glyph that is used to denote something magical about the word following that particular symbol. And the word sigil comes from magic. It comes from literal, like, you know, like witch and wizard magic. And so if you return the magic to computers, and I think that’s relatively easy to do, because a lot of people do think of them almost as magical devices, then you open up the imagination for students to think about what else could have been possible rather than just sort of accepting this received notion of what is now and therefore sort of what other people have already to, you know, use the word that’s now been used several times, right, indoctrinated people to think should be.
And so a good book for that as Techgnosis. A good, more technical book around these things, sort of historical context, is A Prehistory of The Cloud. There are others but those are two pretty good ones as well. Obviously, I would also highly recommend Jaron Lanier’s works, you know, the keynote speaker from earlier.
Mel: That’s, that is awesome. That is a great resource list.
Erin: I was always surprised that people didn’t call Wi-Fi sub ether.
TLC: Yeah, or any other new, or even radio, right, just in general, when when we think about—the other thing that we like to do with Tech Learning Collective that I think is also a missed opportunity in other places is sort of this more foundational look at the technologies that we have. So for instance, when we talk, we don’t have to go into physics too much, right, to understand how Wi-Fi works. But it’s interesting to think about radio as basically just electricity in the air, right? Because those same sort of, the when you look at for example, electric current you’re looking at, for example, a radio wave, you’re still seeing at the physics level, those same sort of like IQ, you know, spinning, you know sine waves that you’re talking about when you look at at the physics side of things.
Erin: The more we learn, the more we learn about it, the more we go, no electromagnetism, they are more tied together than we could possibly imagine.
TLC: Yeah, there aren’t that many kinds of energy or matter that, you know, humans know how to use in the world, right? There’s, you know, light, there’s sound vibration, which is physics, right. And there’s electromagnetism or energy, right? Or electrical energy of that kind. And that’s also radio. And so when people, for example, understand that that’s what wireless is. Wireless is radio. That’s it. Right? Then they can understand the electromagnetic spectrum. And they can have an understanding that’s more intuitive of, for example, a 2.4 gigahertz radio and maybe an 800 megahertz cell tower. Right? So that now that makes more sense, because it’s actually just the same physical matter.
And so again, when we start networking courses, we talk about physical links, right? That’s where we need to start. So that you know how things are connected. Why do we need physical links? Well, because right, we live in a physical world and computers still live in this physical world. So as magical as I just described it is, right, the other side of that coin and sort of at the same time, there’s sort of a, you know, there’s a challenge in this for teachers, because you have to sort of, on the one hand, give the analogy give the sort of magical or metaphorical side of things, but then also compromise it at the same time. And so, if we’re doing these, these two tasks, but it’s in much the same way that, for example, science and religion is often, you know, viewed as opposites when they’re not, right, we have this sort of weird cultural understanding of opposites. Like dog and cat. Those are not opposites at all. Right? they’re actually just two different species of animals. But similarly, like, science and religion might be seen as opposite. There might be some tension involved in that but they’re not opposites. And so likewise, if we look at for example, radio, and you know, understanding that any wireless technology is ultimately radio, now, right if you talk about for example, a cable right, so we have like an ethernet, with an RJ-45 jack cable, right, where you are, a Registered Jack 45 where you have a you know you have an eight line ethernet cable, connects from one computer to another. Right you turn off the Wi-Fi link, you can still talk to them their computer, but now you’re talking over physical cable. Well inside that physical cable, it’s just basically radio on copper. Right? Or whatever. Fiber? Well, not fiber, as that’s light. But on copper.
Mel: It’s a modern telegraph.
TLC: Yeah, exactly. It is a modern telegraph. And that it’s actually the same thing as the telegraph just for the new way. Right?
Erin: Really fast.
TLC: Yeah, it’s a very efficient telegraph. And so, so we need that physical link because whether we’re doing it wirelessly or physically, right, whether it be radio waves, or sort of radio on the cable, like cable, electricity, electrical link, there’s still actually a link. A physical link.
And so, in order to talk to, for example, Facebook, there must be a physically unbroken link whether that is entirely over a copper cabling, or if some bits of that link end up being over the air via radio. Right? There’s still a physical process happening from me to Facebook. And that’s just the same as if, for example, you’re 12 years old, and you are trying to talk to your friend across the street with a can and string. Drop the can, and you can no longer talk, right? Or, for example, with light and ships in the sea, right? If there is not a physical way for that light to reach you, you don’t have line of sight, right? When you’re doing Morse code on the sea, you’re not going to get the message. This is just as true in computers as it is everywhere else.
So really understanding those foundations is what makes it really easy for people to pick up and sort of apply that knowledge to other realms, which means that they don’t have to spend 20 years, you know, at a job to get good at a particular set of skills. And I think that’s the other thing that people sort of mistake. Another thing I like to say is that, you know, there’s a lot of this feeling of being overwhelmed when people come to TLC. There’s a lot of, you know, how am I ever going to learn this stuff? There’s so much and yeah, there’s a lot, but it’s not like there’s thousands of years of human history and like craftsperson-ship to learn you know, and become really good at, right?
It’s not like you have to learn about if you were learning herbalism or cooking or you know literature, you’ve got thousands and thousands of years of human history to catch up on as someone who was born in 2000, right, or 2005, whatever. Now, if you’re, from today, if you are looking to be good at technology, which is to say digital technologies, right computer technologies, you’ve got maybe 70, 80 years, you know, meaningfully of history to catch up on and you can totally do that in a committed two to three year stint, right? That’s not nothing. It’s still work, but it’s not a rest of your life endeavor. It’s far from it. And so this notion of like, only the, you know, super committed, you know, people who’ve been doing this for their whole lifetime since the age of 12. You know, back in the 80’s could get good at it. That’s absurd. That’s ridiculous. The only reason it takes so long, typically for so many people is because they don’t have the resources because most of their resources are spent right trying to get their employer’s problems solved, not their own problem solved. They don’t have the guidance. Because again, right, I mean, I used to work in the IT industry, I quit after—I hated it for several reasons. But the point is that, like, I remember employers constantly promising things like professional development courses and time off for learning, and I never got that shit.
Erin: Oh, yeah.
TLC: I mean, it’s, it’s an endemic issue in the industry. So there’s that. And so they don’t have that. And then also, on top of all that, they don’t have good resources when they go looking for something because it’s either the black hole of YouTube or blog searches that have become worse and worse and worse over time, or answers that don’t actually tell you about the underlying technologies that you’re trying to look up. They tell you how to solve the problem. They tell you how to, you know, like, you know, copy and paste this code from Stack Overflow is the programmers example, or here the two commands that you need is the sysadmins example. Right? But they don’t actually tell you why it works.
Erin: I can’t tell you how many threads I’ve read for hours and hours and hours that say “solved” and at the bottom, it’s by a new Mac. That’s the answer.
TLC: Yeah. And so that too, right, that comes from the sort of like, let me give you the worksheet to follow, the checklist to do the thing, like, let me give you the playbook without necessarily explaining to you or showing you, letting you go under the hood of that same playbook. That’s up to you. And, look, most people don’t have the time to do that, because most people are doing this in the context of a job where they’ve already got these other pressures, which, again, is why we don’t focus on people who are trying to get careers or jobs from this, not again, not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t, but that, you know, that’s not our focus. And because it’s not our focus, it means that we have a lot of space and a lot of resources to do the sorts of education that actually gets you a foundational knowledge base from which you can then, you know, do whatever you want, really, because that’s the whole point.
For us, it’s about autonomy building, not about sort of, it’s not even about personal empowerment, right? That’s great. We want that but personal empowerment leads to “Well, I’m gonna get a $200,000 a year job and then you know, work for Palantir.” That’s not really the goal here. The real goal is if you know these skills, and you’re in an environment where you’re apprenticing right? Or learning with other people who know these skills with some way of sort of sharing ideologies around this. And this is can be anything from like, super hardcore, radical anarchist political stuff, all the way to, isn’t it cool that programming languages use magical terms like sigil? And let’s talk about that! And let’s make a pagan group around computer use, for example, that’s also another way to sort of build autonomy. But it’s not just about you.
Mel: I’d love to spend more time with you.
TLC: I know it’s probably, we’re probably running out of time. But thank you so much for letting me talk about this and for asking the questions you did and for inviting us to do this.
Mel: I do have one more question if you have another few minutes.
TLC: Oh, sure.
Mel: Any thoughts on how the discuss the shift from the web being a disembodied anonymous space to one made of profiles tied directly to your real life identity, and all the ways that has impacted queer and radical subculture on the net?
TLC: Whoo, that is a that is a whole other hour, right?
Mel: Right, so much silencing, like, just like the Facebook real name requirement.
TLC: Yeah. So I think—
Radio Statler producer: We don’t have anything coming up the next hour.
Mel: Like, yeah, we have time. I don’t know if you do.
TLC: I actually have, I’m booked to teach a workshop actually in about half an hour, so I have to go soon. But I can stay for a little bit longer. So maybe we’ll go until another maybe 10-15? And then I really have to rush.
Mel: Yeah, cool. You’d be delighted to have you.
TLC: Well, hey, thanks for the extended invitation then, um, but so the answer this person’s question, or maybe not to answer, but maybe to think about a little bit, I think it’s important to recognize the sort of cause and effect that we’re seeing. Right, like what that person describing is a, is an effect of something that came before. Right. And you mentioned the Facebook Real Name requirements, right? That is a, you know, a choice Facebook made and they knew what they were doing when they when they made it. I don’t necessarily think that they made it maliciously, I’m not trying to inscribe intent there, although, you know, we can certainly have a debate about whether or not it was malicious. And I might fall on that side. But that doesn’t really matter.
The point is they had reasons, right? And they weighed those reasons. And they made a specific choice. And so the question we have to ask ourselves is, why is it that the Internet sort of at large, and we know it today, and the people who are sort of responsible for making decisions on the Internet has consistently seem to make choices that hurt queer and marginalized and racialized populations? And so on right? Because there is a clear pattern that that has been true. So what’s going on with that? Like, what why is that sort of the decisions? Why do things keep falling on that side?
And I think one of the most important, I think, philosophical notions to think about, or lenses from which we can think about that is that we perceive ourselves, right, to have this existence in society that is democratic, lowercase D democratic so, Okay, so what is democracy? Right? Well, one person, one vote sort of thing, right? And the fact of the matter is that we don’t actually live in a country in America anyway. Right? The United States, it’s not really a democracy, it’s really a Republic. Right? You don’t actually vote for the president, you vote for an elector who then votes for the President. Right. So you vote for representative. And so there’s this huge effort amongst primarily liberal policies to get more representation, right. Whether it be media, whether it be in politics, through electors, or Congress, people, Congress Critters and so on, right. And the problem there is that you have indirection, right? You are not actually in control with anything, you are only indirectly able to influence something. So that’s Problem number one, we don’t really live in a democracy. We live in a sort of Republic system of government.
Number two is let’s say we did live in democracy, right. So now we know that just imagine that there weren’t in any sort of indirect intermediaries that we actually had full and like immediate control over the the levers of power through our votes. Well now right, we have a way one person one vote scenario where you know, the power is in the hands of any majority. But we know that that’s also not the best way to structure a society if you are not a majority, right? If you are the minority, then you clearly don’t have, you know, that’s not the best necessarily situation for, you know. Now, you can maybe hope for, you know, the kindness of other people and the generosity of the majority so that they don’t crush you at the ballot box, but ultimately, from a technologist point of view, we understand that that’s a promise not not really a implemented right aspect of the system.
And we can have reasonable debates about whether or not that’s good or bad or whether or not, you know that that’s sufficient. But if you look at it from the perspective of tech, right that a hacker would look at it, we have to think about, is this susceptible to a failure mode that an attacker would take advantage of? And the obvious answer is, it is, right? There is no system on Earth, in which humans interact with where its input will be given by people who all have the same intent. Right? And so, now we have to think about, okay, if democracy itself, right, as in one person, one vote, majority rule, will everyone describe it is not going to serve us in this way? How do we build systems which can?
And I think that that first shift, right, we are so far away. Most people think, right in America that we live in a democracy that you know, you elect the president, and this is so far away from how it actually works, that there’s this sort of pre-work that has to happen to just educate people about what reality they’re actually living in.
And this is something that hackers should be very good at, because the whole notion right of hacking should be to show people what’s possible, rather than what’s polite. Right? Here, I can do this! Maybe you didn’t want me to do it. That’s possible. Look, I used this thing in a different way, or I subverted this rule. Right, again, Bruce Schneier says that hacking is about subverting rules. So using the current context, or the current rule set, right, in a way that the system, the system’s designers didn’t expect. That is a hack, right?
Also, by the way, there’s a great piece I think it was published on Aeon.com at some point recently, or a couple years ago, it was called “How Yuppies Hacked the Hacker Ethos.” And it’s a great piece about this sort of, this, dillusion of the term “hacking,” which has now sort of become like, you know, you’re a hacker, if you, for example, work at the Google offices and you know, you work on protobuf or something, maybe. Not to single that out, in particular, like, that’s cool, right. protobuf is great, or whatever it is, right, that you want to work on. You used to work on Google Wave. You hacked together a new product. Fantastic, great. That’s not what it originally meant. And that’s not to say that it can’t mean that I know language evolves and all that stuff. But the point is, is that it we sort of lost this more you know, beauty of the baud style ethos from the 90s of what hacking could have been for us. Not even to say that the 90s was was great that was already after the period in the 80s when women were told that, you know, for example, that they shouldn’t deal with math and computers, because only that’s, that’s boy stuff. So that’s already exactly not a good place to start.
But the point is, is that that’s, you know, you want to go back through these these thoughts, whether it is historically, you know, through a chronology to find some place where you can fork, right? Like, if you look at the GitHub history, and you see like, well, I don’t really like what happened after this commit. Fine, fork from the previous commit, and then start again, right? We don’t have to always append to the things that came before us in the technical realm. We shouldn’t have to then—we should be able to jettison the things that we don’t like culturally as well. And so for us, it’s like, Okay, well, for me, personally, I should say, right. I love this notion of Metcalfe’s Ethernet, this sort of magical permeating network, this sort of Solarpunk vision of technology working with people. Jaron Lanier, again, talked a lot about how there was this debate about whether AI—Artificial Intelligence—was going to replace humans, or whether AI—Augmented Intelligence—right, or Aggregate Intelligence, was going to sort of provide a mechanism for humans to work more closely with other humans in increasingly collaborative ways. And that was a debate that was happening in the 70’s. So I like those ideas.
And if we do, that we can do the same, you know, for these for these concepts, we can do the same thing with these other sort of more abstract notions of things like democracy, right? Do we really want a one vote one, one, you know, one person, one vote system directly, right? In a world where any Sybil attack can be 100,000 people? Probably not a good choice as an infrastructure to build a society or a voting society, because you have bad actors that can then take advantage of that as a vulnerability. So, you know, I’m not gonna, say this is the answer. But I am going to say that I think that if you approach it in that sense, then you look at the choices people like Facebook make, and you can clearly see the motivations behind it. And you can even understand and empathize with those motivations, even as they harm you.
Right, us as queer people, right, us as poor people, Facebook is harming us. There’s no question about that. But I understand exactly where they’re coming from. And I have to understand where they’re coming from in order to come up with any means that has a chance in hell of combating it. Because if I don’t know my enemy, right, there’s no way I’m going to be able to strategize in a meaningful way. And so the more that you ask those questions, I think further away, you find yourself from solutions, like policy solutions, like, solutions like law, like hope, and solutions, like, for example, you know, relying on the kindness of a majority. And the further away you get from believing that these sort of naive notions of political systems such as you know, lowercase-d democracy, where you have a majority rule, are that ambitious or even worth aspiring to.
And then and only then can you come up with, you know, can you start asking yourself questions like, “How should we really organize ourselves?” “What is what is an effective way?” And then once you ask yourself those questions, you have to experiment, and fail. A lot. Like a lot! Right?
Mel: That’s how you learn best, right? Through failure.
TLC: Yeah. And the other thing on that is that with TLC, right, the first thing one of the first things that we do when we when we create lab environments for folks is that we say we’re not even going to talk about doing something in the lab environment, we’re going to talk about creating the lab environment. And the reason for that is because when you fuck up—not if—but when you fuck up, it’s going to be okay because you did it in a safe area. And so that, that is you know, you have to be able to create environments for yourself where you can make mistakes where you can fail, and where it can be okay to do so. And I should say also, where it’s okay to do that non-publicly. Where it’s okay to fail private.
Mel: That’s, that’s such a big piece of the classroom Erin and I try to build, too. We just, we try to give our students a place to fail, so they can learn more, so they can learn better so they can gain confidence and be willing to change try and try again.
TLC: Yeah, that I think is one of the things that was the most damaging to what we would call, you know, capital TH The Hacker community, capital THC, The Hacker Community, in the 90s, where we had, you know, a lot of people being ridiculed for not knowing stuff. And I think there was this huge movement. Movement is maybe the wrong term, but there was a lot of motivation amongst people who were very technically skilled, but were not very emotionally mature, to raise themselves up by putting other people down. And that’s exactly the wrong approach for an empowering education. Of course, that wasn’t their intent, right? These weren’t self described teachers. So again, I empathize, and I understand, but it wasn’t perhaps a strategically good move. Because the result was those you know, military folks who everyone laughed at at the early DEF CONS, right? and you can hear. What’s the CloudFlare CEO’s name? Matthew something or other? Maybe it wasn’t him. Maybe I’m misnaming somebody, but I remember hearing a story where they were describing, you know, one of these CEOs, infosec CEOs, was describing going to DEF CON and, you know, he and his buddies were sort of laughing at the, at the army people who, like failed all the CTFs, they just didn’t know how to do anything. You know, like, haha, it’s gonna, you know, they don’t even know what they’re doing. And then literally, within five years, they were the top team or one of the top teams. And, you know, that’s got to be, you know, that that was an invasion. It was a cultural invasion. And it worked.
You know, when we put out when Tech Learning Collective hosted our first conference last December, within days of publishing it, we were approached by a military recruiter, and, you know, way earlier than we were approached by any queer group, you know. It took our side weeks to find us, but it took, you know, ostensible enemy’s side days. And so I think, we’ve ceded a lot of ground in that case. And I think that we have to think bigger than things.
The, like all the supposedly ambitious statements that people are making, even these large national nonprofit groups where they’re like, you know, saying, Oh, you should, you know, you know, we have to ban facial recognition. Yes. Agree let’s ban facial recognition. But that’s, that’s such an unambitious goal. And it’s not that like, it’s a bad thing to do. There’s no reason for us to get in the way of that kind of effort. All we’re saying is that if you look strategically at where we’re going and how slow we’re making progress against this and how quickly our enemies’s capabilities and capacities are increasing, we have to pick a different prioritization of where our resources are going in order to have any hope of doing anything meaningful. And this sort of over reliance on policy, this over reliance on lowercase-d democracy, this over reliance on sort of the promises that our enemies are making to us is a doomed strategy.
So, I don’t know if that answers the question, but I hope that gives us some sense of how to think maybe a little bit bigger about why it is that these choices continuously sort of hurt, you know, trans people, and queer people, and Black people, and Brown people.
Mel: It was it was really a wonderful education in and of itself, like, and I have a lot to think about. I think our listeners have a lot to think about. And I think we have a really good reading list. And I really appreciate you spending the extra time with us.
TLC: Yeah, thank you so much, again, for inviting me. I do have to get going because I’m teaching a networking class. So you know, if folks want to learn more: TechLearningCollective.com. We have an email address, PGP key, we also have a Signal number. We publish our Safety Number, our Signal Safety Number as well. So if you want to verify that before you send a Signal message to us, you could do so. We’ve got a couple of workshops coming up at HOPE. But also, again, if you go to TechLearningCollective.com and just click on the Events Calendar page, you’ll see either a list or a month view of all the events that we have coming up. Some are free, some are by donation, some are at cost, a sliding scale cost. We tend to limit class sizes to something that’s under 20 folks, because that helps discussion. We try to be, sort of, interactive with students, but we do a lot of them. So feel free to come to any of them, and please tell your friends, and if this kind of stuff speaks to you, either politically or philosophically or technically, you know, we’re here to make it possible to take those next steps after you begin, you know, finding an interest in this or after you begin maybe attending like your first digital security workshop or a CryptoParty or that, like, you know, “What next?” We hope that that answer is us.