IT ALL seemed a bit improbable. We had packed our laptops and network hardware, our tents, sleeping bags and camping stove to travel to hip97 in a field near Amsterdam, for a week under canvas and on the Internet. For weeks in advance I had been contacting people across the world who would be making their own journey with their own equipment and for their own reasons.
For anyone with a slow dial-up connection, the lure of fast and free 24-hour access to the Internet from the comfort of their own tent was enough, but meeting the experts activists, technophiles and technophobes, enthusiasts, philosophers and programmers, the sys-admins and the hackers was the real impetus. We arrived a few days before the event to help build the huge events tents, the infrastructure for networking 1,500 computers across a 2km-long campsite, and stock the bar with beer and Jolt cola (all the sugar and twice the caffeine).
These first days were very physical, with throwing cables over trees, zooming around on quad bikes loaded with expensive equipment and, with the temperature rising to 39oC, jumping in the canal as often as possible. The network was primarily UTP, a system where network cables plug into "hubs", like spokes on an electronic wheel. From a single link, hubs can be daisy-chained to provide more links. As people arrived, they plugged themselves in, borrowing and lending spare network cards and cabling. Triumphant cheers echoed across the fields as new connections went live. The DIY network grew to the point where 1,500 computers were connected at the campsite, around three times the expected number. With everyone networked, the sun blazing down and the tents built, it was time to get on with the main events.
The focus for the weekend was split between a full-size circus tent and an enormous marquee. In the marquee, the bar and information point operated around the clock, while hundreds of people swapped tips, wired up ancient equipment alongside the latest gizmos, and wandered around and chatted. The atmosphere was electric, with web sites popping up all over, online audio and video streaming from a dozen sources and improvised programs hacked together with advice shouted across the room. The same group that had arrived with several trailers full of old terminals, and sold them for less than £10 each, set up a computer called HACKME and invited all comers to break into its security, providing a focus for a rotating group bent on mayhem and mischief.
Elsewhere, in the circus tent and the smaller workshop tent, lectures and demonstrations on various topics were scheduled. These included the opening ceremony with video link to the parallel Beyond HOPE event in New York, practical presentations on smart card security, ActiveX compared to Java applets, and lectures on the future of the most over-stretched Internet programs and protocols. The cypherpunks group gave several packed presentations on Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) stressing the need for political action on impending US legislation, which is likely to curtail this most secure of data security schemes. Elsewhere, payphones were hacked to provide free calls, the Internet culturalists, NETTIME, organised nude dips in the canal, and someone erected a gravestone with the name of Bill Gates engraved on it. Large ex-army tents were erected by various groups, with an astronomy lab set up in one, while the Web Girls promoted their feminist views in another.
By Sunday, the event had evolved into a physical mirror of the Internet itself, with international groups working together on programming projects, providing services and promoting various causes all over the site.
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