On Free Software Conferences

When I tell people that I do fieldwork among Free Software developers, I often try to relate it to more traditional anthropological ventures as a way to make it clearer to people what it is I do. Traditionally, anthropologists travelled to the part of the world that used to be colonized and lived among the conquered natives. Seeking to understand their social structures, their values and their rituals – basically their way of life.

So I compare Free Software projects to these native tribes that anthropologists usually study. For it is a community that is built around a common interest in computing and shared values around that interest. The difference is that it is a tribe that is defined not by its association to any specific place but rather by its use of a technology.

For most of the time, the interaction within Free Software projects are shaped by the technology they use – mailing lists, IRC channels, web forums, even VOIP phone calls, but once in a while they gather at conferences to create those real human face-to-face connections that add a vital, physical dimension to the social life of a project.

These ‘tribal gatherings’ have been described as ‘the quintessential hacker vacation’ and reminds me most of all of a (Boys’) Summer Camps. They are intense festivals celebrating all things hackish where the developers gather to wear themselves down with sleep deprivation, cumulative hangover, shared passion for technology and constant social interaction. The conferences offer excellent opportunity to revitalize and energize the developers’ interest and belief in the project.

Conflicts are resolved, plans are laid out, specifications are written, unexpected meetings happen and friends are made. A different degree of collaboration is made possible by the conference as the tribe convenes and for a week or two actually is a temporary village of its own.

This week such a village has been erected by the Ubuntu community at the Google Headquarters in Mountain View, California. More than 160 Ubuntu developers, community members and upstream developers have convened from around the world in order to review and plan the next release of Ubuntu, due in April 2007.

The Ubuntu community differs from many other Free Software projects in their close relationship to Canonical – the company that employs a number of the core Ubuntu developers, drives the tight time based release schedule, and organizes the very focused and professionally planned Ubuntu Developer Summits to which they sponsor a good number of the community members and upstream developers from projects such as KDE, LTSP and GNOME whose work is central to Ubuntu.

This means that a snapshot of the Free Software world as seen from an Ubuntu perspective gathers every six months to collaborate and get to know each other in person – something that often proves to be invaluable when it is augmented through the digital means of communication where a previous awareness of a person’s personality and physical presence can make the difference between understanding and conflict.

Since conferences are such an integral part of Free Software development, the location and organization of the conference is essential, and this got me thinking. With Google hosting this conference, the facilities are generally in very good order. Unfortunately, the hotel where most of the developers are staying are 15 minutes away by bus and the logistic problems of ferrying people back and forth are not insubstantial.

Other conferences in other locations have other problems(such as bad food, bad bandwidth and bad conference facilities) so my thought is: Why not make a hotel specialized for the needs of free software projects? Based on my observations, I’ve drafted up an idealised list of requirements:

– Located close to an easily accessible


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The kind of hotel you’re talking about is actually a university in any major city. They have all of these facilities, mostly due to their need to give lectures and the like.

Except for the luxury accommodations.

Ah, but if that is true then why do people keep complaining about all of the above elements at various conferences?

My point was that not only would a hotel need to have all of those facilities available, they would also need a … shall we say .. an understanding of the geek mindset. 🙂

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