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DEFCON 17: Hacking Deep Ecology in Sin City

Current Intelligence

Tim Stevens reports back from the DEFCON 17 conference in Las Vegas: are hackers thinking meat isn't just meat anymore?


  • DEFCON 17

    Current Intelligence

    Tim Stevens reports back from the DEFCON 17 conference in Las Vegas: are hackers thinking meat isn't just meat anymore?


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Hacking Deep Ecology

Deep ecology, our illustrious editor reminded me the other day, is concerned with treating humans as members of a global and holistic biotic community. Proponents of deep ecology are usually considered part of the ‘green movement’, and support decentralisation of political and economic control, the creation of ecoregions, and generally fostering an ethical sense of human responsibility to the natural world. Not much in common, at face value, with Las Vegas, you might think.

I’ve just returned from DEFCON 17, one of the world’s largest and most prestigious hacker conventions, held at the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Sin City, Nevada. Every year, DEFCON represents one of the most fecund concentrations of talent and creativity anywhere in the world. I’d never been before but had been well aware of it for years.  I still didn’t know what to expect though. I’d anticipated an air of anti-authoritarianism, geeky one-upmanship, and a lot of code I wouldn’t understand – all topped off with Coke and pizza. I got all these things, but a whole lot more besides. Instead of LEDs, cyberwar and SQL injections, the abiding sense I got was one of biology.

Deep ecologists hold that nature does not exist as a resource to be freely exploited by mankind. Hackers think differently on the exploitation tip but really aren’t so different in their ends. It has long been established that innovation occurs out ‘on the edge’, where the hackers dwell, but hacking has moved far beyond the information technology sphere. For example, in recent years, we’ve seen the ‘open source hardware’ movement develop, with magazines like MAKE, and flag-bearers such as Cory Doctorow extolling the ‘reuse, reduce, recycle’ mantra as applied to everyday objects. This ‘green’ ethos is everywhere in hackerland now, and is being applied to almost anything you can think of. Speculative though some of Geoff Manaugh’s stuff might be, terraforming is also part of this shift in thinking. Hacking the environment is where it’s at.

In a notable address at DEFCON, Richard Thieme talked eloquently and powerfully about ‘biohacking’. In his words, “porting computer space to bio space”. He described the ‘kitification’ of bioengineering, self-genotyping, biobricks and open wetware, bacterial photography, and the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. As I sat there, all I could think of was a phrase, “hacking deep ecology”: changing the biological environment – of which we are a powerful part – in order to recalibrate both our identities and our world. And not in tailor-made laboratories either, but in our homes and workspaces. The stuff of science fiction? Some of it perhaps, but the barriers to entry are falling.

There are security implications, naturally. Talking to TX Hammes a couple of weeks ago, he expressed grave concern at some of the available technologies and their implications. Targeted bio-assassinations, bioterrorism, rogue chimaera, and the like. He’s got a point, and regulatory regimes may never be able to keep up with this dynamic environment.

We’ve already seen clashes between the greens and genetic engineers. For years, my personal view has been that a blanket rejection of genetic modulation is both short-sighted and anti-scientific. The question is how to maintain the sustainable balance intrinsic to deep ecology whilst remaining mindful of the risks of tampering with nature. As the hack becomes the everyday tool, and hacking a way of life, that means we’re all hackers now. And we may be in very deep indeed.

Reader Comments (1)

Right on time, Paul Raven asks the question, Who Owns Your Electronics?, at Futurismic.

Aug 6, 2009 at 19:25 | Unregistered CommenterTim Stevens

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