OHM 2013

This week, I attended several sessions at Europe’s largest outdoor hacker’s event, aptly titled Observe – Hack – Make (“OHM“) 2013. Watch the video if you want to get a feel for what OHM 2013 is about:

Even though I don’t consider myself a ‘hacker’, I am interested in technology and its socio-political implications. It is the very context within I, and my clients, work.

Technology is often a reflection of a society’s ‘way of thinking’, of its aspirations, dreams, social norms, and lunacies. Technology can give us unprecedented power and with power comes responsibility.


Just because some institutions have the power to eavesdrop on every citizen on the planet, doesn’t mean that they should. But who gives a damn? Do we ignore it, blindly obey, pretend we didn’t know? Do we walk out and walk on? Or do we walk out, raise the alarm, and confront a flawed system?

There was much discussion on these matters at OHM 2013, so I didn’t have to think long when deciding whether or not to book a ticket.

Here are some of my notes of the 3 sessions at OHM 2013 that impressed me most.

Ray McGovern on integrity in intelligence.

Mr. McGovern is a retired senior CIA officer turned political activist. In his speech at OHM 2013, he drew parallels between the dehumanisation of the US state apparatus and its representatives during the Vietnam War and how the US is conducting itself at present, particularly in the area of large-scale public surveillance.

His argument hinged on the assertion that the US nowadays is using intelligence to actively inhibit free speech, manufacture consent, and lie in order to push its agenda and justify wars.

Mr. McGovern isn’t just anybody. Throughout his career, he served under seven U.S. presidents, presenting the morning intelligence briefings at the White House for many of them (source). He publicly confronted Donald Rumsfeld on the Iraqi war. He confronted Hillary Clinton in a silent protest of America’s foreign policy and, on CNN, defended Julian Assange’s actions.

In his talk at OHM 2013, Mr. McGovern paid tribute to those individuals who stand up and confront the system, such as Edward Snowden. He spoke about his own regrets about not having turned to political activism sooner. He movingly told the story of Albrecht Haushofer:

Ignore. That’s what the vast majority of Germans did in the 1930s as Hitler curtailed civil liberties and launched aggressive wars.

I was born in August 1939, a week before Hitler sent German tanks into Poland to start World War II.

I have studied that crucial time in some detail. And during the five years I served in Germany I had occasion to ask all manner of people how it could possibly be that, highly educated and cultured as they were, the Germans for the most part could simply ignore. Why was it that the institutional churches, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran, could not find their voice? Why was it that so few spoke out?

A few did…and they provide good example for us today. Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke out, plotted against Hitler, and was executed. Also executed was a more obscure but equally courageous professor from the University of Berlin, Albrecht Haushofer.

Like Bonhoeffer, Haushofer was arrested for speaking out. The SS prison guards were required to extract a confession from prisoners before they were hanged or shot, but Haushofer refused. When they removed his body, though, a paper fell out of his pocket. It was his admission of guilt written in the form of a sonnet:




…schuldig bin ich

I am guilty,

Anders als Ihr denkt.

But not in the way you think.

Ich musste früher meine Pflicht erkennen;

I should have earlier recognized my duty;

Ich musste schärfer Unheil Unheil nennen;

I should have more sharply called evil evil;

Mein Urteil habe ich zu lang gelenkt…

I reined in my judgment too long.

Ich habe gewarnt,

I did warn,

Aber nicht genug, und klar;

But not enough, and not clearly enough;

Und heute weiß ich, was ich schuldig war.

And today I know what I was guilty of.


More on http://raymcgovern.com/

Jesselyn Radack and Thomas Drake on becoming the enemy of the state

This was an impressive session by two American whistleblowers. Thomas Drake is a former senior executive at the NSA (biography – worth a read) and Jesselyn Radack a former ethics advisor at the US Department of Justice (biography  – worth a read).

From the OHM 2013 programme:

With the post 9/11 rise of the leviathan national security state, the rule of law in the United States under the Constitution is increasingly ruled by secrecy, surveillance and executive fiat.

Under the guise and veil of “national security” and “protecting” America through enabling act legislation and state “privilege,” the United States government embarked on an unparalleled expansion of secret government power after 9/11, operating largely in the dark, while using extra-judicial executive authority for justifying its policies, including secret spying on its own citizens in violation of the Constitution.

Speakers Radack and Drake will highlight their searing experiences with the Department of Justice and the National Security Agency, when they were marked as criminal targets of the US government due to their whistleblower disclosures involving rendition/torture, national security, multi-billion fraud, pervasive institutional corruption, violations of the 1st and 4th Amendments, civil and human rights, illegal surveillance on a vast scale and other unlawful secret government conduct and wrongdoing.

Ms Radack told her brave story and the emotion in the room was palpable. Mr. Drake argued very strongly that the US have embarked on a destructive journey which has resulted in a “vast, systemic, industrial-scale, Leviathan surveillance system” (source). Mr. Drake wrote a piece in The Guardian in June 2013 (source) in which he says:

General Michael Hayden, who was head of the NSA when I worked there, and then director of the CIA, said, “We need to own the net.” And that is what they’re implementing here. They have this extraordinary system: in effect, a 24/7 panopticon on a vast scale that it is gazing at you with an all-seeing eye. [...] It’s now criminal to expose the crimes of the state.

Vinay Gupta on designing for a 7+ billion person world.

Mr. Gupta is an activist, engineer, philosopher, author, and eloquent speaker – to name a few things. I thoroughly enjoyed his thought-provoking presentation at OHM 2013 on how to provide housing for the world’s poorest. He talked about Hexayurt.

He spoke passionately about going beyond a superficial fair-trade chocolate culture and, instead, embrace fair-trade computers as well, and fair-trade telecommunications, and, as a matter of fact, fair-trade everything. This requires, by definition, abandoning the numerous ‘master-servant’ power structures that are built on the assumption that there at least ten planet earths, rather than just one.

THIS is a 9’42” recording from Mr. Gupta, at 6 a.m., (literally) ‘the morning after’ the talk I wrote about above. It adds a wonderful layer of meaning to the presentation I had attended 18 hours earlier.

Mr. Gupta is definitely somebody to follow and support his projects.

Read more on http://hexayurt.com/ and http://vinay.howtolivewiki.com/blog/about and https://twitter.com/leashless


Before you decide to (continue to) put your whole life on line, watch this:

“Digital dementia”, released tomorrow.

Already on my reading list is The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains.

Tomorrow, though, another important popular science book is released in the Netherlands: Digital Dementia.

The book has a strong focus on the effects of screens (TV, computers, gaming consoles, etc.) on our children.

It looks like an exciting, and very important, book.

I’ll definitely read it as I’ve suspected for a while that it isn’t “normal” to learn in front of a computer.

How important are social media?

I’ve always felt ambivalent about “social media”.

I mean, how important is it really? And are our actions and behaviours aligned with our answer to the question?

I also wonder whether all the effort going into this can’t be put to better use.

Matt Henderson’s post expressed many of my reservations.

Here’s a long quote:

“Soon I was following several newsgroups, and before long I experienced the first feelings that we’re probably all familiar with these days — that a huge amount of possibly useful information was being continually exchanged, and that missing even a day of it could leave one hopelessly behind. There was a larger social audience than accessible in my real-life world. There were those who were considered authorities, and getting their attention felt like an elevating accomplishment.
Little by little, my productivity began to suffer. Somehow I found myself having difficulty focusing and getting as deeply involved in my projects. The furtherest suspicion on my mind was that it might have something to do with the energy I was expending in following the newsgroups.


“I read my RSS feed over breakfast, and then catch up on Twitter over coffee. Twitter stays active all day long, continually grabbing my attention.

“I start to notice that even while concentrating, pauses in thought — for example, hitting a conflict while defining some project specifications — seems to trigger a desire to switch into Twitter, almost like it’s a relief to active thinking and problem-solving.

“And at the end of the day, I have a feeling of uneasiness, of dissatisfaction, a little anxious. Rather than engage in reflection, though, I check my feeds. And Facebook. And Twitter, again.

“I also begin to wonder whether the reasons I communicate, in the online context, have changed. Do I really have something to say, or am I just tryingto have something to say? Why am I reaching to jump into that conversation? Is because they’re influentials, and I want to be seen a part of theirconversation? Why did I reply to that person’s comment to me, but not the other’s? Is it because I know people are looking? Am I becoming influenced by the superficial pull of status? Are we really socially interacting, or are we more like living window mannequins, maintaining a carefully crafted expression, position and always seeking notice of those passing by?”

In Praise of Email

Email addiction is wide-spread in corporate environments. Scientific studies suggest that clinical addiction is somewhere around the 12-15% mark of employees.

Some people declare email a pest and go on to say that workplace communication & collaboration should go entirely social instead.

However, email has some advantages over social technologies, which so far haven’t been matched.

For instance:

  • It’s the norm.
    The email inbox is (still) the corporate standard as well as individual preference for most employees. If the vast majority of your colleagues use email for collaboration, knowledge-sharing, decision-making (including seeking approvals), and so on – why would you deliberately distance yourself from that?
  • Permanency.
    Email provides information permanency and quick retrieval. You have (searchable) folders where you archive your project communication, customer files, etc.
  • Integration.
    Email systems integrate with other office tools. For example, in Outlook you can easily update your to-do lists and create calendar entries.
  • Tracking & auditing.
    Email lets you track the status of sent messages (e.g. receive “read notifications”) and have an audit trail in case something goes wrong. Remember the Enron Corpus? (A large database of over 600,000 emails generated by 158 senior employees.) Just be happy this communication wasn’t a bunch of Facebook “likes” and quick status updates.
  • Learning by writing.
    Email invites you to be more reflective and articulate your thoughts more fully. There aren’t any space restrictions and text formatting functionality is available; try highlighting a word in bold on the likes of Twitter or Facebook.
  • Sharing documents.
    Email lets you share documents efficiently with a carefully selected target audience. This is much harder to achieve with social technology.
  • Attention.
    Lastly, social technology provides no less of an incentive to multitask than conventional email. If anything, it scatters one’s attention across multiple communication & collaboration tools, each of which are compellingly designed with the sole aim of “grabbing eyeballs”. It doesn’t help solve the issues of compulsive, uncontrolled email usage.

Ergo, in my view, email is here to stay in the foreseeable future – at least until social technologies catch up. (By that time my guess is that they’d look like email.)

We better learn how to use email effectively, rather than burn it at the stake.

More choice, more confusion?

We live in a world that says: “Choice is great. But more choice is even better.”

I first started to question this paradigm when I observed a kid who was overwhelmed with toys.

The poor lad tried to take in his surroundings for a moment. Spent a few seconds with one toy, then a few seconds with the next, and so on. He didn’t seem to enjoy himself. He never got around to actually playing.

Eventually he completely froze and cried.

The way adults would deal with sensory overload, it seems to me, is not fundamentally different.

We get confused. We get diverted from what’s really important. Ultimately, we crack.

US President Obama said the following in a Vanity Fair interview last year:

You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision­-making energy. You need to routinise yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.

Sure he has a point.

Even though we usually are not aware of it, choice may do us more harm than good. Better tread carefully.