Barefoot Into Cyberspace is the ultimate guided tour of the hopes and ideals that are increasingly shaping world events. It's an account of revolutionary hacker culture and the influences that help to give it form and substance. Written in very the year that WikiLeaks lifted subversive Internet politics from the underworld into mainstream media; the book includes some of the earliest recorded material with Julian Assange.
The book poses the question "Will the internet give us more freedom?" Or will it make us all slaves to powerful political, commercial and media interests feeding and growing online?
I may as well not have bothered. When I arrive, the event is already sold out. Stuck outside in the cold and slush, I’m hundreds of miles from home, wondering what on earth to do next. It’s the day after Boxing Day, December 2009.
I’m not the only one to be disappointed. In front of me in the long queue by the entrance stands a young man from Bulgaria, who has travelled here alone and at great expense. He’s speaking to one of the short, bearded volunteers marshalling the event, who has a badge pinned onto his chest saying “Here be Engels”. It’s only later I’ll find out that he is not moonlighting as one of the founders of Communism, rather Engel is German for angel. Around him, crude signs flap in the breeze, sellotaped to the outer wall of the Berliner Congress Centre. Ink black marker etched onto A4 paper that is slowly disintegrating in the Berlin slush announces: “26c3 is sold out”.
What’s happening on the other side of the walls is the 26th annual congress of legendary German hacker collective the Chaos Computer Club. The organisation describes itself as “a galactic community of life forms, independent of age, sex, race or societal orientation, which strives across borders for freedom of information”. The c3 of 26c3 translates as “c x 3” or “CCC”, the acronym of both the event itself (the Chaos Communication Congress) and the organisation responsible for it. What’s most frustrating is that CCC doesn’t sell tickets in advance. The only thing any one of us could have done differently is fly out here earlier, and spend our Boxing Day queuing in a freezing cold Alexanderplatz instead of raising a glass with our families in the warmth back home.
Watching over us, across the snowy moonscape of eastern Berlin, is the Alexanderplatz television tower. A flying saucer spiked on a giant needle, it is the perfect vision of Soviet futurism. Twenty yards from the door at which it looks like my journey will end prematurely, a flock of municipal exhibition stands have come to rest on Alexanderplatz, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Black and white photos of GDR rebels – crouched over printing presses pumping out samizdat, or else in small groups, smoking – look nonchalantly into the lens of posterity. Who took these photos? Which of their fellow freedom fighters knew we would want to look back on this congregation of young minds which changed the course of history? The photos are captioned in French, English and German, interspersed with grainy pictures of officials from the regime, the tortuous surveillance equipment of the Stasi, or the bright, art-punk graphics of the underground magazines that spread the rebels’ message of freedom. The end of history stares flatly back at me through the glass as I breathe the steam rising from the cup of coffee I’ve bought from one of the Christmas market stands that fill the rest of the square.
I’ve come to 26c3 looking for new radicals, ones not yet preserved behind glass. The first Chaos Congress took place five years before the wall fell, when the ground I’m standing on still belonged to Frederick Engels. It was 1984, the venue was Hamburg, and if history was winding down, no-one had told the hackers yet. Wau Holland co-founded the Club three years earlier in 1981, in the offices of cooperative newspaper Die Tageszeitung. Legend has it that their inaugural meeting was held around a table salvaged from Kommune 1, a sixties experimental community linked to the violent darlings of the glamour-left, the “Baader-Meinhof” Red Army Faction. It was in Kommune 1 that the motto “the personal is political” (Das Private ist politisch!) was born.
Of course, that’s pedigree, not politics, but the Chaos Computer Club showed their radical colours early on, too. In the year of the first Chaos congress, the club made worldwide headlines when members hacked the German Post Office’s precursor to the internet, the expensive, private Bildschirmtext computer network. After bypassing the network’s inadequate security measures, Chaos club members transferred DM134,000 from a major high street bank into the club’s own account, returning the money the next day at a public press event at the bank’s headquarters. Similar exploits followed, exposing the insecurity of systems in highly public ways and ostensibly for the public good, although fringe members of the group were also associated with more serious cases of cyber-espionage involving sorties into the networks of Los Alamos and NASA on behalf of the KGB. The Congress moved to Berlin in 1998, and has been held here annually ever since, nestling into the four days between Christmas and New Year, I suspect, because it keeps out the part-timers (like me), and makes it as cheap as possible to attend for those dedicated enough to fly out on Christmas Day.