Observations from Vegas
My first trip to Vegas was in 1997. I attended Blackhat in its first year, but was unable to attend DEFCON. My first DEFCON was in 1998. I've attended and presented at both cons a number of times. And while I haven't attended every year, I think I made it to a good chunk of them - never skipping more than a year in a row. I saw the rise of Hacker Summer Camp with Blackhat, BSides, and the advent of villages at DEFCON. Now that I've had a couple of weeks to digest this, I decided to put some of my thoughts down and share them.
A popular topic this year seemed to be that "things" or "the scene" has changed. This was discussed a bit in a number of threads post-Vegas on Twitter. And really, this probably sums it up best:
The point is, the industry is not what it was, as it has evolved. I am constantly entertained that there are a large number of people who now shun Hacker Summer Camp because "it is not like it used to be". These are the same people who push for the latest tech and strive to find the newest attack or defense techniques, but can't handle social changes brought on by our industry becoming popular.
But there is one area where the old school shunners may be right, and that is one of passion. Most of the old school hackers that were pushing the limits of technology around them were pushing the limits of EVERYTHING around them. Bar discussions during DEFCON with fellow hackers did not exclusively involve technology - we'd discuss writing, art, music, fashion, basically everything and pontificate endlessly about the pluses and minuses, the merits, the joys, the failures of all of it. We loved to explore and push and experiment - and sometimes it involved technology and hacking.
The last laptop I bought, the first thing I did before I even powered it up was take it apart. Sure, I wanted to add a second drive to the empty bay, but I also wanted to look at the insides and poke around. I get thrilled to death when I am in my workshop and I figure out how to use a woodworking tool in a way that it wasn't supposed to be used to achieve something interesting. Make a musical instrument sound like something it shouldn't. Creating art from nothing. All of these are basically the same thing. And the drive behind them is that passion that was so readily apparent at those early conferences, it was something we all shared.
Sure, we would misstep and say something probably not politically correct, but we were all using aliases and no one knew (nor really cared) who we were. We weren't Thomas A. Anderson, we were Neo, and that was more of our true nature. There are people to this day who I cannot remember their real names, I only know them by their aliases, and I trust many of them more than I trust most people.
But I am not going to paint this glorified picture of the past though, we had our issues, although we handled them differently. There was no official code of conduct - if someone behaved poorly they were simply schooled on site and sometimes beaten (yes I witnessed this more than once). I saw a guy grabbing a girl inappropriately and watched as he was punched in the face by another conference attendee who calmly said "be respectful" and went back to his beer. More than one person collapsed during their DEFCON talk because of too much to drink. I saw a homophobe making unkind remarks about the happenings at one of the pool parties at Alexis Park, and watched as a DEFCON goon threatened him with a beating for being an asshole. Official con events such as Hacker Jeopardy featured scantily clad women. In many ways, it was kind of a nightmare example of "don't do this" as seen through the modern lens of society.
The main thing that happened was that we were seeing how our words and our actions were actually making changes to the world - we could be good or bad, and the Internet and all of this technology we understood so well was this great plaything. We pushed this button, and the press wrote about it. We pushed that button, and a major corporation had to completely change how they did business. We pushed a lot of buttons. We made our own buttons. We seemed to have no fear, and if someone pressed the wrong button, we'd laugh and say "wow I'm lucky, that might have been me" instead of condemning the button pusher.
Currently, there is still passion. But it is much calmer. Another way to put it is this, we used to get a Liberal Arts degree and in spite of really liking the art class, the philosophy class, and the photojournalism hobby, we stumbled into computer security. Now we go and get the Computer Science degree and focus on security, and our single philosophy elective is solely focused on logical reasoning. No sculpture, no cooking class, nothing outside of a sterile STEM focus. Granted this may be more of a statement regarding education in general as opposed to "how lame DEFCON is now" but there seems to be a ring of truth to it.
But I accept it. My tastes in music are more modern than ancient, my preference in technology is for the newest thing instead of clinging to old stuff. I think I can handle a simple change like DEFCON growing up and becoming more mainstream.