by Sumana Harihareswara
In May I attended the programming conference !!Con for the third time. !!Con is “two days of ten-minute talks (with lots of breaks, of course!) to celebrate the joyous, exciting, and surprising moments in programming,” and it’s been held in New York City every year since 2014. I always enjoy the technical content and the structure of !!Con, and its inclusive attitude. This year I particularly appreciated the ways in which it’s a refreshing change of pace, particularly in the speakers’ topics and approaches. As a long-time attendee, I started to take a more systematic look at what !!Con is doing that so many other technical events don’t.
The most obvious is that !!Con offers hospitality and inclusion using best practices in general event planning and management. !!Con has and publicizes a code of conduct, it provides live CART captioning, participants write their pronouns on their name badges, lanyard choice lets participants opt out of being photographed, snacks and food suit attendees’ dietary needs, !!Con actively seeks talk submissions from underrepresented groups, the program committee anonymizes talk proposals before judging them, the organizing team includes gender and ethnic diversity, and so on. But more and more events in technology, scifi fandom, and activism are using these techniques; while !!Con is distinctive in being so thoroughly dedicated to these kinds of practices, it’s not unique.
Instead, I want to show you some specific subtexts, norms, and approaches that tie together !!Con’s talks.
Nothing that is human is alien to me
There is no one kind of programming that all the speakers discuss. When someone asks what kind of programming !!Con is about, they might be following assumptions laid down by hundreds of other tech conferences that focus on particular frameworks, languages, methodologies, business needs, vendors, or demographics. !!Con deliberately breaks down these divisions. The radical assumption !!Con makes instead is that every attendee has the capability of being curious about everything, at least for ten minutes.
I often bring friends to the Neofuturists’ theatrical show “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind”, in which actors perform thirty short plays in 60 minutes. One point I use to persuade them to come: if you’re bored, just wait two minutes and you might like the next play better. Similarly, !!Con is a single-track conference, and in a single-track, single-topic conference with in-depth talks, an implicit message to the audience is, “You ought to be interested in and learn from each of these.” The ten-minute limit and topic variety at !!Con instead implies: “If you give everything a chance, some of it will delight you.” Instead of making a place for programmers of one particular sort to learn more depth in their existing skills, !!Con offers all programmers and programming-adjacent folks the opportunity to discover a new fascination. (For those of us who get antsy during long lids-down lectures, the ten-minute talks and the frequent and generous breaks also make the all-lecture format less wearying.)
!!Con values not just programming and computer science, but what we bring to and take from our programming experiences — the “visceral” experience of computing and programming, as multiple participants phrased it, and as organizer Lindsey Kuper describes in detail in a recent interview. Ramsey Nasser’s keynote “The Unfortunate Value of Failure” (“We need to embrace [failure] as part of the craft of programming”) particularly struck a chord here. Nasser spoke at length about the experience of being a human while writing code or reflecting on our code — our emotions and our morale are first-class citizens in this discourse. Sina Bahram’s “How I Code and Use a Computer at 1,000 WPM!!” shared a blind programmer’s experience, and Jennifer Fernick’s “All Together Now! Programming the Quantum Computer” delved into what she finds mindblowingly numinous and wondrous in her research.
Instead of treating engineering as purely an application of mathematics and physics, !!Con takes a holistic and humanist approach, in which we value literature, art, history, geography, and psychology as much as we do computer science. !!Con 2016 talks included “Ink on fingers! The history of printing (with code!) before computer screens” by Mariko Kosaka, “Upstream/Downstream: Discovering and Displaying Watershed Topology!” by Mark Phillips, “Plants are Recursive!!: Using L-Systems to Generate Realistic Weeds” by Sher Minn Chong, and other talks that explored rich connections with varied fields. These talks were not labelled or categorized as fundamentally different from “pure programming” talks; check the schedule to see how the organizers interleaved varied topics together.
Recurse Center influence
By asking speakers to focus on “the joy, excitement, and surprise of programming,” !!Con becomes a community that celebrates the plurality of subjective experience. In this it’s a lot like the Recurse Center, the programming education community that !!Con’s organizers met through. The Recurse Center Retreat is a six-week or three-month self-directed “writer’s retreat for programmers”, where people of varied skills and interests get together to work on their own projects and learn from each other. (I participated in RC Retreat in 2013 and again in 2014.) RC recognizes that displays of dominance discourage learning. For years, Recursers have worked to “remove the ego and fear of embarrassment that so frequently get in the way of education”, and to replace constant self-consciousness with a spirit of play. During my batches, my peers and I balanced workhorse webdev/mobile/etc. projects with obscure languages, magnificently silly jokey toys, and pure beauty. We made fun in our work instead of making fun of each other.
The capitalist demands of the job market entrench a mainstream programming culture in which hiring managers and recruiters label us as good enough or not, as more valuable or less, based on nebulous ideas of “cultural fit” and how fast we can write or debug code in the trendy stack of the moment.
But no one “wins” RC. There is no leaderboard and there is no ranking of people or projects. Whenever possible, RC culture assumes abundance rather than scarcity; attempts to rank projects or people would pollute the ecology. It’s a pluralistic environment where we let go of dominance-style objective ranking (a good idea, because objective ranking of our projects is impossible anyway), and instead celebrate a diverse subjectivity. This celebration carries over to the ethos of !!Con, where speakers strive to avoid calling one language, framework, operating system, or methodology superior to another. In a sense, Recurse Center is a version of !!Con but with workshops, pairing, interaction, and longer stretches for work/play and interaction.
!!Con contrasts with other programming conferences the way Recurse Center or a research lab contrasts with other programming environments: it values what is interesting and nourishing, instead of always asking what will make money. !!Con is “unprofessional” but here that word is not a license to be unreliable or jerky or oppressive; it’s license to show fear and curiosity.
Depth, breadth, and clarity over status play
!!Con talks sometimes go in depth, providing a case study of a project. A good example is “A Shot in the Dark!”, in which Brendan Curran-Johnson demonstrated how he reverse-engineered a preset consumer camera mode. Some other talks are overviews, like Katie Bechtold’s “Code in Spaaaaaace!!!” which discusses the particular constraints of writing software for spacefaring devices. !!Con values both depth and breadth, but always with an analytic, systematic, rigorous curiosity, preferring historical understanding over dismissiveness — and a respect for our historical ancestors and the reasons why things are they are. Bechtold, for instance, progressively builds and displays a chart illustrating the chain of causality around spacefaring software.
Speakers demonstrate sympathy with past makers, rather than performing dismissiveness or dominance. The ten-minute limit encourages clarity (rather than the kind of precision that can veer into pedantry) but, in my opinion, !!Con speakers sidestep the temptation to oversimplify, or to use clarity as an excuse for performing authority. Sometimes in other technical spaces you see someone imply, “I am telling you all you really need to know about this topic — and asserting authority over you because I know this and you don’t”. That’s not the !!Con way.
Spectacle and play
Many tech conferences value amazing demos, and !!Con audiences appreciate them too. Mark Phillips’s “Upstream/Downstream: Discovering and Displaying Watershed Topology!” made us ooh and ahh a great deal. But I also noticed a particular type of spectacle more often at !!Con than at other tech conferences: spectacular demos that reminded me of absurdist sketch comedy or magic shows. Kamal Marhubi’s “Storing your data in kernel space: an excellent bad idea!” and Allison Parrish’s “Lossy text compression, for some reason?!” are fine examples here and the videos are worth your time.
Near the end of Marhubi’s talk, he checked to make sure he’d finished presenting all his slides — because once he got through his demo, he told us there will be no more slides. And, indeed, he intentionally crashed his computer by hacking various filesystem features. We loved this. !!Con appreciates compelling stage presentations and narratives that include danger (to the presenter, to their laptop, to their demo’s success), and statements that raise the stakes, and magician-like “reveals”. !!Con’s mission statement mentions surprise — appropriately, speakers go beyond telling narratives of times that they were surprised, by enacting and causing the experience of surprise for the audience.
We laughed and gasped at Marhubi’s irresponsible fun — he turned his whimsy into a project, destroying his own Linux kernel before our eyes by crossing the limits of the out-of-memory killer. Parrish also systematically explored another kind of whimsy: she audaciously applied waveform-style compression to text — including the meaning of text — and demonstrated the results of twiddling the lossiness dial.
The !!Con crowd welcomes ambitious demos — with the assumption that it is okay if they are not utterly polished, or don’t work out as intended. We would rather encourage vulnerability, enthusiasm and play than disrespect anyone; we take very seriously the sin of harshing someone else’s joy.
A counterculture of curiosity
I hope here I’ve sketched the contours of a particular pro-subjectivity, pro-joy, anti-hierarchical, anti-dismissiveness approach to in-person tech talks and conferences that I see in the !!Con aesthetic. To the extent that mainstream programming culture stifles vulnerability and maintains an elitist hierarchy, !!Con is countercultural. If mainstream programming constitutes a public, then !!Con is a counterpublic — a “discursive arena” where we “formulate oppositional interpretations of our identities, interests, and needs”. I developed my understanding of those identities, interests and needs through my own experience and from in-person and Twitter conversation with !!Con organizers, participants, speakers, and peers — thanks to everyone I spoke with.
I’ve found that participating at the Recurse Center, and spaces like it (such as !!Con), has made me a better programmer and a better person. I’m less afraid to try learning a new bit of technology, and to ask the questions I need to ask in order to learn. It’s a lot easier to follow the effective learning strategies for programmers that Allison Kaptur describes because I’ve spent time in this sandbox where failure and surprise are valued. And those learning strategies apply outside programming, too — to music appreciation, interpersonal relationships, personal fitness, and more. At a recent family reunion, my mom told me I am calmer, less likely to turn a disagreement into an argument. I think one reason I’ve changed is that the attitude of curiosity and valuing diverse subjective experiences at RC helped train me to respond to a disagreement with more “could you tell me more about what leads you to that conclusion? Maybe I’m wrong” and less “HULK SMASH”. (Mindfulness meditation helps too.)
If this article has intrigued you, I hope you’ll consider pitching in with !!Con in a future year, as a sponsor, speaker, organizer, or attendee — or consider putting on a similar conference in your area. The joyous, exciting, and surprising moments in our programming lives deserve more reflection than just two days a year!
Sumana Harihareswara is the founder of Changeset Consulting, a public speaker and stand-up comedian, a programmer and Recurse Center alumna, a Geek Feminism blogger and a science fiction fan. She lives in New York City and tweets as @brainwane.
Photo credit: !!Con pins by @bangbangcon on Twitter
Hear more from Sumana about this and other kinds of open source culture and activism on our podcast.