Aerial view of Electromagnetic Field 2012.

At the end of August, 500 hackers from all over the country descended on Pineham Park on the outskirts of Milton Keynes. They set up camp and in 3 days had built a creative community that hosted an eclectic set of talks and workshops, spanning topics as diverse as quadcopters, particle physics and blacksmithing to knitting, beer brewing and Lolcats. This was Electromagnetic Field, the UK’s first hacker festival. Fascinated by the hacker community I booked a ticket and headed down to Milton Keynes for EMF camp 2012.

EMF camp

The Tilda badge: an Arduino-compatible conference badge.

When I stepped off the train at Milton Keynes, I wondered how I would identify fellow EMF attendees. My question was about to be answered. As I checked directions to the camp on my phone, I was dimly aware of someone approaching me. “Are you here for EMF camp?” I looked up and saw a guy in his twenties with long hair, badly fitting clothes and an awkward smile. “Sure, our bus stop is up here,” I answered. This is what a hacker looked like, but I couldn’t help but wonder, what gave me away?

Eventually I tracked down Jonty Wareing, co-founder of EMF. In his words: “EMF is a gathering of hackers, makers, scientists, engineers, crafters and artists who come together for three days to share and learn from one another.”

Jonty also told me about EMF’s conception: “I co-founded Electromagnetic Field along with Russ Garrett after a long period of time wishing that the UK had hacker/maker camps similar to those based in Germany (CCC, the Chaos Communications Camp) and the Netherlands (HAR, Hacking at Random). The biggest hurdle was finding a venue in the first place. We had larger camping requirements than most campsites could accommodate, then of course we had a fixed requirement on being able to obtain an internet connection fast enough to satisfy 500 hackers.”

EMF is a festival you participate in rather than attend

Indeed, the first thing I noticed upon arrival was the incredibly fast open-access wifi network available at the camp. As I put up my tent in the dark, I noticed that many of the tents around me were illuminated. Modified portaloos filled with electrical equipment served as the camp’s power hubs, with cables running out of them to surrounding tents used to power laptops and charge phones. One particularly enthusiastic camper had set up a plasma TV and a soundsystem in his tent. This was not going to be like other festivals.

First stop of the evening would of course be the bar, but on my way a man approached me, pressing a circuit board into my palm and saying “welcome” before walking off. Nestling underneath a flyover of the M1 and separated by arches from the artificial river that ran alongside it, the bar was stocked with a range of beers from the Milton microbrewery, as well as casks of decent cider. It was spectacularly lit with different coloured strip lights and the walls adorned with graffiti. In a corner, someone was calibrating a touchscreen interface projected onto a screen.

Midnight broadcast

Groups of hackers were sitting on hay bales drinking and I made friends with a group who I learned were scheduled to play a midnight radio show from a tent in the field. They led me to a large army tent filled with an impressive setup of broadcasting equipment. The show consisted of a mix of strange stories, in-jokes and obscure music, some of it produced by the DJs themselves. They drank beer and broadcast late into the night, and I was made to feel very welcome. This sense of inclusion and sharing was a cornerstone of EMF, as Jonty explained to me later: “Everyone was welcome – even the policeman who walked around the site one evening and then came back for welding lessons the next day.”

A homemade quadcopter.

As I walked through the site, I noticed a loud buzzing sound and a small crowd of people looking upwards. The source of the sound was a homemade quadcopter being piloted from the ground by its creator. A smartphone had been secured to it with gaffer-tape to make a rudimentary spy drone, filming us from the air.The London Hackspace was of course represented, and brought in tow a small electric chariot controlled using an arduino and a Wii remote. Inside the London Hackspace tent, hackers were busy soldering hundreds of circuit boards. Jonty, who is also a founding member of London Hackspace, explained that these were interactive badges: “The Tilda badges are Arduino-compatible conference badges outfitted with two types of wireless communication, lights, and a battery large enough to keep it running for the whole event. They were designed to play out a large-scale game between attendees that introduced them to people with different interests, and then eventually could be repurposed for whatever the attendee likes.

We had a fixed requirement on being able to obtain an internet connection fast enough to satisfy 500 hackers

The camp was littered with oddities of all description, with tables set up for games of the ancient Chinese board game Go taking place right next to internet-meme inspired knitting sessions. There were many innovative structures filling the camp from inflatable geodesic domes to open-source disaster relief structures called ‘Hexayurts’, which even had light bulbs made from plastic bottles filled with water which channelled the light from outside. As children played in the structures, it was evident that the geeks responsible for this creative wonderland had come of age. Indeed, Jonty recalls “A small child sitting on his fathers shoulders shouting ‘Where’s the science? Is the Science this way?!’”

The Demoscene

The first talk I attended was about the Demoscene. ‘Demos’ are computer programmes that produce stunning animated visuals set to a soundtrack – a phenomenon springing from the 8-bit ‘intros’ that software crackers would put on cracked Commodore and Atari video games in the 80s. Matthew Westcott took us on a tour of the Demo Scene’s history, and the elegant code needed to squeeze exquisite visuals onto 64kb of disc space, one of the early parameters of the demo scene.

Next up was the high altitude ballooning talk, during which Adam Greig revealed how amateur balloonists were launching smartphones into space, and how a network of enthusiasts help each other track their balloons using transmitters and GPS. We launched our own balloon and tracked it drifting over London on a laptop screen, joking that it might be shot down by the missile batteries set up on east London estates for the Olympics.

A modified portaloo.

Amongst all the fun and intrigue there were also talks on serious topics, including Hannah Dee on the lack of women in computing, and the social factors perpetuating it. The audience were forbidden from filming during the scathing lecture on big pharmaceutical companies manipulating research results for profit, delivered by a vitriolic Doctor Ben Goldacre. From the start it was obvious that EMF was a festival like no other. I managed to see just a fraction of the available talks but many of them have subsequently been put online to view for free.

It is this spirit of sharing and collaboration which defined my experience at Electromagnetic Field. “EMF is a festival you participate in rather than attend. You are expected to take part in things rather than sit back and watch other people perform for you.” explained Jonty. It is the ethics of inclusion and collaboration that define the attendees, the hackers and the makers that come from all over the UK to take part. There will be no EMF 2013 as the organisers take a break to focus on other projects. “EMF will be returning in 2014. However if you just can’t wait the EMF team are hosting a village at OHM 2013 in the Netherlands,” said Jonty.

As I made my way to the exit, I bumped into one of the group who took me along to see the radio show on the first night. He remembered my name, said it was unfortunate that I had to go, and gave me a warm handshake. As I walked off, the one official rule of Hackspaces everywhere echoed in my mind: “Be excellent to each other.”


Picture credits: EMF-1,2 by Russ Garrett

EMF-3,4,5 by Nottingham Hackspace


For more information go to Electromagnetic Field


 

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