Monday, September 12, 2011

Ohio Linux Fest: Fun Like Sharing Your Penny Farthing

I find the steam punk phenomenon intriguing. I don't own a penny farthing bicycle, a monocle or one of those unspeakably cool brass laptops. I do feel some affinity with the whole thing. It seems like a natural outgrowth of recent generations' tendency to mine the past for styles. Steam punk goes farther than some other style-related subcultures. Steam punk seeks to change the way participants relate to technology by using it, celebrating it and sharing knowledge.

If you want to criticize steam punk you can start by accusing it of romanticizing historical eras that were brutal and hellish for all but the most privileged, and you'd be right. On the other hand, nobody is trying to bring back Victorian society as a whole. What steam punks are reaching for is the way a privileged Victorian could experience technology and sharing that. For these privileged Victorians, in a way largely lost to us, technology could be unmitigated fun.

As we press farther in to the 21st century technology is connected to a number of our pervasive fears. We are afraid to pay too much for it. We are afraid it will be used against us. We need it to make money for our bosses. We need to get it while it is still cool and get rid of it before it isn't. We are afraid it will fail us in any number of ways.

Flying over the handlebars of a penny farthing was certainly a real fear, but so is being hit by a car on a modern bicycle. There is no equivalent of the economic, social, privacy, political, health and safety fears we now have connected to our use of technology. If anything, the guys in the picture above probably find the relative danger of cycling invigorating.

I just got home from the Ohio Linux Fest 2011. I don't remember seeing anybody dressed overtly steam punk at the fest but I think some of the spirit was present. The Linux community is open and friendly and excited about technology. Nobody waved their laptop or phone in my face wanting me to be impressed. Rather, we passed our phones around the table to be sure we got each other's e-mail addresses right.

I have always been interested in how technology is applied and why it is adopted or abandoned. I found these types of concerns, human concerns, to be very front and center at OLF. It seems to me that in the minds of most of the speakers I heard and people I spoke with these are what makes Linux great, the things people can do with it. What makes Linux special are the things people can do with it because it is libre and open. That is the point, after all. You can do things with free software you can't do with proprietary software.

I went to a database themed session. Databases aren't known, even among geeks, to be fun or exciting. This session, specifically, was about a really slick method for getting data OUT of databases using nothing but web URLs. That's just cool! The technology is called HTSQL. If, in fact, databases can be fun, this is how it works...I'm pretty sure.

Of course, there are things to worry about. The security mindset can take the edge off your fun, but there is also something comforting about knowing at least half the people within 100 ft of you have it, or, more broadly, at least get it. And, oddly, I felt quite comfortable the whole time I was at OLF. I enjoyed my trips to Apple's WWDC conference, the years that I went, but I never felt entirely comfortable, or even marginally at home. I thought I would. I thought being surrounded by thousands of other Mac users, developers and admins would be great. It was OK. I learned a lot. I didn't make a single friend. Most nights I went out alone. I can't help wondering if it isn't the commercial success, money and status but the acceptance of secrecy and corporate arrogance that made WWDC less friendly than a Linux community event. Some Linux people need to be right all the time, just like any group. But Apple...Apple knows it is right all the time and I wonder if that doesn't infect all of us who have associated with Apple over the years.

Besides, arrogance isn't fun. It seemed everybody at OLF was there to have a good time. They wanted to talk. They wanted to talk about how to do stuff, from home brewing to web development, 3D printing to onion routing.

I spent most of my time with three other guys. The only things we all had in common were knowing a little about Linux and taking a lot of pleasure in good beer. That's how it seemed at first, anyway. Over time we found a lot of other things we had in common, from favorite music, books and breweries to interest in various social issues. Only time will tell how long we keep in touch, but we sure had a good time together at OLF.

Fan communities can be vibrant and meaningful but they can also be hollow little cults of personality. What makes any community meaningful is what it does. Another difference between WWDC and a Linux community event is that at WWDC most of us were there to see what we could get from Apple--what Apple would, beneficently, condescend to give us. Looked at this way one hardly wonders why there was something unfriendly and lifeless about it.

OLF was all about participation. I saw speakers in the audience at other sessions over, and over and over. We were all there together, to do things or at least talk about doing things. We were there to give and share. I hate that word because it can have such a sappy feel to it, but it is exactly what I mean. Share. Cooperate. Collaborate.

Yep. Share--that's what I mean.

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