The mood is happy – "too happy in [its] happiness"? – yet also dark. A bright canvas full of shadows and suspicions. Professional actors have been employed to mingle with the crowd, their task to attempt to enlist visitors to state-sponsored surveillance programmes; the aim is to gauge loyalty – those that fail the test are invited to look within themselves, with scant regard, perhaps, to the psychological effects. These are polarizing times.
Actual government infiltrators also move among the assembly of over 9,000 – given the radical, in some cases fugitive, status of several of the event's key speakers, it would be naive to assume otherwise. One of the orators is already imprisoned, able to address the crowd only through the means of technology; others live as exiles, their movements logged, their apartments surveilled. At packed press conferences, agents for major newspapers are filing copy on the contents of these speeches. Some of the world's best-known companies are being forced to issue formal responses to technical documents revealed at the assembly.
But this is not England in 1819 – though the historian E. P. Thompson's comment that the year was "within an ace of a revolution" might seem to some here apposite enough. Not Romantic England, then, but an international technology, ethics and politics conference in Germany: the Chaos Computer Club's 30th Congress (30c3), held in Hamburg 27-30 December 2013.
From its beginnings in 1984 as a meeting place for hackers and geeks, the Congress has grown into perhaps the most significant venue worldwide for discussing the relation of technology to political structures. The keynote this year was delivered by journalist Glen Greenwald – via Skype, since Greenwald has been advised not to travel to Europe. Julian Assange (also speaking via Skype) "appeared" on stage with two other key figures from the "Summer of Snowden", lawyer Sarah Harrison and security researcher Jacob Appelbaum.
Appelbaum's own talk on the scale of NSA and GCHQ access to, and manipulation of, everyday electronic devices such as mobile phones, computers and routers has garnered more than 300,000 views on YouTube in just 2 days; astonishing, given the talk's level of technical detail. While hackers used to be on the periphery, the world has folded round them so they now find themselves at the centre, as Quinn Norton and Ella Saita pointed out in their presentation, "No neutral ground in a burning world". Another way of putting it is to say that our technologies not only facilitate, but articulate and determine an important part of what our society has become.
Politically urgent talks such as these, to which should be added Trevor Paglen's astonishing "Six landscapes", in the Congress programme sit alongside presentations on building "hillbilly" satellite dishes and reverse-engineering Tamagotchis – no less enthusiastically received. The Congress's tradition of encouraging people to look at things in ways most of us don't, can't or won't is what makes attending the Chaos Computer Club's annual meeting such an unpredictable, astonishing, resonant experience.
But it's the politics of surveillance and privacy – post-privacy, some significant voices at the Congress insist – that has dominated discussion at 30c3. Similarly, international coverage in Die Zeit, Der Spiegel, Guardian, Forbes, Boing Boing, and other news outlets has also focused on the use and misuse of technology to capture, store and retroactively mine civilian electronic communications. In previous years the Congress has been given a motto (29c3's was "Not My Department"). This time it was decided there would be no slogan since the community had been left "speechless" by the extent of post-Snowden surveillance revelations.
Our own talk (YouTube video above) was entitled "Policing the Romantic Crowd". We looked at 1819's cutting-edge technology – the velocipede – which arrived in Britain in Spring that year. This German invention offered early adopters exciting mechanical, two-wheeled personal transportation as a viable and cheaper alternative to a horse. But observers ranging from the poet John Keats to popular journals like the Tickler and Gentleman's Magazine worried about military and policing applications in respect of crowd control, particularly in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre in the Summer of 1819 (on 16 August, a paramilitary force of troops mounted on real horses brutally dispersed a crowd of political activists in Manchester).
Between the first draft of our talk and the final version, all three elements of our title came together spectacularly in London. Students protesting against police presence on UK university campuses carried book-shields, including one depicting Romantic author Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). The weekend before the Congress, Hamburg was itself also the scene of large protests, this time against the planned development of the radical Rote Flora theatre, and asylum-seeker politics. We were able to draw both events into our discussion.
As well as a dual historical-contemporary focus, we sought to bring together different knowledge domains. We looked at Romantic theories of how information propagated within and across crowds, comparing these to modern computer vision techniques, such as the Social Force Model. We also considered sub-domains of surveillance including event tracking and crowd detection, and talked about predictive policing and "plausible spacetime trajectories". Romantic authors and painters, we suggested, already modelled the psychological impacts of constructing "plausible" pasts for individuals, using Haydon's painting (first image above) of a crowd scene in which Keats's face can be detected.
From the Industrial Revolution and before, technology such as 1819's modish velocipede – which like modern drones were recognized as having "good" and "bad" applications – has focused, or proxied, wider ethical debates about the shape of a future society. We see this technoethical processing in the now unknown Tickler, just as we find it in Mary Shelley's famous novel Frankenstein (1817). In the light of the new information that has emerged during 30c3, it is valuable to remind ourselves where many of our assumptions about technological application, surveillance, privacy and public space have come from. (See ZDF's Hyperworld blog for an excellent summary of our talk in this respect.)
All the talks at 30c3 can be watched on CCC's YouTube channel. Link to photo stream. Our interview (in German) with Die Sondersendung on Romanticism, technology and ethics can be heard here.
After talking about Romantic crowds at the Congress, we joined "the push" (Romantic slang for a crowd) of people watching the New Year's fireworks along Hamburg's heaving harbour.