After a four-year hiatus and a cancelled event, it was time earlier this month for British and European hackers to return to their field in Herefordshire. A special field, Eastnor Castle Deer Park, venue for the Electromagnetic Field 2022 hacker camp. I packed up an oversized rucksack and my folding bike, and set off to enjoy a few days in the company of my fellow geeks.
As the first of the large European hacker camps since 2019 there was both an excitement and a slight trepidation in finally hanging out with several thousand people, even if mostly outdoors. The UK has a good COVID vaccine uptake and the camp organisers requested that attendees test themselves before travelling to Eastnor, but after two years of precautions and the pandemic still being with us there’s still some risk to take into account. Happily they were able to strike a decent balance between precautions and event progress, and we were able to proceed with a fairly normal hacker camp.
Plenty Of Talks, But They’re Not Online Yet
Sadly the extensive programme of talks has yet to make it onto YouTube or media.ccc.de at the time of writing, so the section I’d normally devote to them may have to wait for another time. Thus this write-up is more about the social aspect than the action.
Eastnor Castle Deer Park lies in a secluded Herefordshire valley, and the entry is vla a small estate road that treats you to an unfolding vista as you approach, of the marquees and other structures nestled among the trees. The usual queue for a wristband and you’re in, with the minor inconvenience of a trek trough the site to wherever your village lies. This year I was with my hackerspace in the Milton Keynes Makerspace village, next to one of the estate roads at the side of the valley and clustered round a tent with the commendable purpose of distributing free cups of very high quality tea. My tent up, I was ready to tour the site, and renew some friendships after so long apart.
Noisy Ducks, Electronic Junk, And Tonic Wine
The site is quite a long one running north-south and has a gentle east-to-west downhill slope. Most of the public structures were arranged along the bottom of the slope along its length, with the various camping zones and villages spread out along the slope and to the far end. Back in 2018, the quiet camping had been alongside a set of picturesque ponds which turned out to be inhabited by particularly noisy ducks — this year the quiet campers would be moved, and the noisiest part of the camp would take their place.
The weekend fell prey to some of the more annoying British weather, thus with a few bright spots it was mostly damp. If you heard the Hackaday Podcast interviews I made on the field you’ll have gained a flavour of the event as I ran around with my laptop and microphone.
The effect of the pandemic was visible in a slightly more subdued air around the villages, it appeared that the action was less spread around the field than it had been in previous years. I visited the copper telephone network, the radio amateurs, and the Hacky Racers, but the vibe in the villages was definitely more social than technical. I shared an early-morning coffee with South London Makerspace as they continued their tradition of providing free breakfast, learned the difference between the Scottish and Irish versions of Buckfast tonic wine with the Scottish Consulate, and hung out with my friends from across the UK hackerspace scene. There was no spam from Fizzpop! in Birmingham this year, but their fire pit made for a great place to warm up on a damp night in early June.
A particular highlight for me was a hardware swap table, nestled under a gazebo in the centre of the camp. The idea was simple, bring your surplus hardware and leave it there for others to pick over and take away. Take something away and leave a donation to the British Red Cross. The result was a compelling opportunity to root through a pile of awesome junk, and yes, to take some of it home with me. I acquired a pile of early Raspberry Pi boards, a Psion handheld computer, an original Beagleboard, a Sega Game Gear, and a few more choice items, and I wasn’t the only one to have such luck. I hope this makes a return at future camps.
More Polished Than Post-Apocalyptic
If you read our 2018 report you’d have seen me waxing lyrical about Null Sector, a post-apocalyptic night-spot-meets-tech-bazaar-on-the-outer-planets made from a load of freight containers and a lot imaginative prop making that was probably one of the coolest places on earth. Null Sector returned in 2022 with a larger more ambitious space, in which gone was the post-apocalyptic dank, and in came an almost clinical industrial laboratory look. There was plenty of old industrial switchgear on the walls and clever use of those flat-screen monochrome CRTs that have been all over AliExpress for a while, alongside a selection of appropriately avant-garde immersive artworks and games. It was beautifully done and made probably one of the most polished of pop-up nightclubs ever to grace a festival field, but for me the polish went some way to obliterate what made it so cool the first time around. Sadly I was no longer a cyborg holo-scribe from Hack-a-stardate stuck on a partially terraformed asteroid waiting for the next space tug to take me off-world, instead I was a middle-aged geek standing in a flash nightclub in a field. At least it seemed to be spot on for EMF’s party animals though, which is I guess the whole point.
Where Do Hacker Camps Go Next?
So that was EMF, more subdued than previous ones but a well-deserved respite in a Herefordshire field after a few years away. Not the same as previous EMFs — was it the pandemic or was I witnessing a move away from the more raw edge of the past? It was left to a friend to deliver a verdict that I think sums it up best: they made the observation that it seemed as though there were more people there to be attendees than participants. At various times the event has been described in the press as the UK’s version of Burning Man, and while I don’t think that is the case I do think that hacker camps can all find themselves at a crossroads. Do they want to be a gathering of hackers, or a spectacle?