Wednesday, January 22, 2020

New Year, New DEF CON

During the DEF CON 26 DC101 Panel, someone (probably highwiz) asked one of the n00bs they brought on-stage, "What makes you a hacker?" In the past, it has been used by bad actors as an aggressive question.  Thoughtful types and artists have used it as a prompt.  But here it was dripping with curiosity.  "Why do you go to DEF CON?"

I'm more than a year out from a move that took me far from my hometown of Las Vegas to an adventure into the Pacific Northwest.  Budgets, family and time being what they are, I too had to ask myself, "What makes you a hacker?  Why should you go to DEF CON, again?"  Obviously, moving two states makes it harder to go.  Plane tickets are cheap enough in cattle-class, and I'm lucky to have family and friends in town upon which I can rely for lodging.  But family illness and obligation are also considerations, and this feeling in the pit of my stomach topped it all off: the idea that I no longer belonged.

Ironically, this security-focused community is affected by deep insecurities.  Concerns of legitimacy, competence, and belonging haunt us collectively, as do public examples of snake oil, burnout, and depression.  Discussions of Impostor's Syndrome are almost cliche in their frequency.  As is the mouth-agape disbelief following one of our rock stars admitting they second-guess themselves.  This loose band of social misfits and punks emerged from in our cocoon of BBSes and IRC to be famously dysfunctional. We have had to exorcise #MeToo demons, and our unhealthy relationship with alcohol keeps many away for fear of their own safety.  As a late-comer to DEF CON, I have not been personally affected by loss of friends in the community, but there's a reason Amber Baldet gave a talk on Suicide Interventions at DC21.  Hackers in my cohort are maturing as well.  Some of us are on their third career since the demoscene, and it has veered wildly away from any Information Security role.  There has to be something that keeps us coming back to the desert in August.  It sure ain't the unmistakable fragrance of Sunday morning talks.

It is a bit of a balancing act to maintain a conference that keeps drawing more and more people.  As of this writing, DC28 is scheduled to use almost 400,000 sq. ft. of conference space in a brand new facility.  Almost 30 villages with both broad and niche topics have formed, and each is a mini-con in and of itself.  Along with this widening scope, there were public and repeated attempts by The Dark Tangent to reestablish DEF CON as a Hacker event and set it apart from the Information Security industry where so many of its attendees find employment.  In the past, DT has publicly disinvited the Feds, and the run-up to DC27 saw another public clarification that while individual villages arrange their own sponsorship, DEF CON maintains no corporate sponsors.  You can see the push and pull of "What makes you a hacker?" at the highest levels.

And so we approach a new year and a new DEF CON.  Since DC19, I've grown with the conference.  I started managing Toxic BBQ with the help of friends and this will be our fifth consecutive kick-off barbecue.  People just show up to create an inviting space from scratch for anyone that can find it.  I won a Black Badge with my son at DC 26 by solving crypto puzzles and have tried to contribute in equal measure since then. And yet there's this nagging feeling...

Ultimately, I've decided the gate-keeping question is not an important one to answer.  What I give to and get from DEF CON keeps me going.  I'm comes down to a desire to think things I have never thought before.  I may not be able to show off like some, but I can gawk with the best of them at the Hacker Carnival.  DC28's theme, Discovery!, is right out of my high school years when the internet promised the sum-total of human knowledge at our fingertips and all that we could do once those barriers dropped.  Maybe we can celebrate by shedding our insecurities.  Just for the weekend.