This was my eighth Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) Conference; I've presented talks at four conferences, and have assisted the A/V and Lighting teams in various ways over many years (writeups of past conferences and talks here). These remarkable, volunteer-run conferences, held every two years, feature knowledge, sharing, beauty, joy, community, and--always--a dose of chaos. The conferences are always inspiring, and--this year's alt-right trolls aside--I think this was the best HOPE yet, although you wouldn't know that if you only read about the conference on Twitter.
I was there all three days of the conference, went to probably a dozen talks in all three rooms, walked around the exhibits area, talked to many former and current students running the A/V, and other friends who are involved in running the conference. And I wouldn't have even known the level of controversy if I wasn't also active on twitter. What happened? Some alt-right trolls came in and disrupted the conference and intimidated a few attendees. None of that is good, of course, and the volunteer HOPE staff could have dealt with the situation better. But I agree with the core idea of the conference organizers in that the answer to hate speech is more speech--not banning the wearing of certain hats (or people wearing them) as some people are demanding on twitter.
Here's a pretty good summary of the situation, a support of HOPE and way forward by @JairusKhan on twitter (the whole thread starts here). Two important key phrases for me from Mr. Khan's thread was that after the incident "...HOPE should be considered under attack by [alt-right] agent provocateurs.", and ending with "But the reason why this all happened isn't because Nazis think #hopeconf is a safe space. It's because HOPE is where the people fighting Nazis are sharpening their swords.":
I'm pretty much in agreement with Mr. Khan, and I don't have a lot to add, but I hope people will understand that this deplorable situation--intentionally caused by few people determined to disrupt-was a pretty small negative part of a conference that was otherwise overwhelmingly positive.
Of course one of the highlights of the conference for me was an inspiring talk from Chelsea Manning (photo above). She clearly, like many of us, was more comfortable as a geek in the shadows than as a public figure. But she is now embracing her current role and bravely standing up to the many who hate and attack her. I was very inspired listening to her.
I also enjoyed pretty much every talk I attended, all of which will be online soon (click on any photo to enlarge):
In the closing ceremonies (which I watched online yesterday since I was helping strike the other rooms while it was happening live), HOPE ringleader Emmanuel Goldstein, no stranger to controversy, seemed exhausted by the situation and afterwards even seemed to be questioning whether to even continue onwards. I've long respected the way Emmanuel handles controversy; I think back to the way he and the HOPE core team handled a remarkable appearance in The Next HOPE in 2010 by Adrian Lamo, who had a major role in Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning going to prison (my writeup and photos of that appearance here). Lamo was widely hated by many at the conference, but in the Q&A part of the talk, Emmanuel, as moderator, demanded respect for Lamo while still allowing challenging questions to be asked. This was remarkable and inspiring and to me represents the way forward. Those who are currently attacking HOPE on twitter should keep this spirit in mind. Don't let the trolls divide us, let's rally around our community and overwhelm the hate with love and understanding. If trolls want to attend the conference and act respectfully, let them--they might even learn something. In this environment, we all need HOPE more than ever.