Sharing the Sharing (LCA2010)

I have attended linux.conf.au every year since 2007 (though I only attended a miniconference in 2008) and every year have felt some level of disconnection with the intensely technical nature of the conference and of many of the delegates. For the first time, though, I no longer feel uncomfortable about being a misfit at LCA. The conference has changed, and I have changed. Women are still a minority here, but it doesn’t feel like a painfully small minority as it did three years ago. The conference is intentionally family-friendly and there have been a few children around, which for me makes the whole conference feel less intense and intimidating. I have also come to accept that it seems to be my fate not to fit in perfectly in any community or culture, or rather, to be able to move between cultures easily.

Today’s and Tuesday’s keynotes both came from the perspective of observing the culture of free software, as a journalist (Glyn Moody) or as an anthropologist (Gabriella Coleman), and locating the culture and values of free software in the context of society at large. I was particularly encouraged by Moody’s keynote as it converged with some of the concerns of my talk. He talked about one of the great gifts that hacker society can share with the world, the culture of sharing, and how this could make a huge difference to a world facing political, financial and environmental crises. (Halfway through writing this post I went to a presentation on the Sahana disaster management system.) The challenge that I took from this was how we can share the culture of sharing with non-hacker cultures.

LCA is an anomolous experience for me. For one week, I enter an intense, almost obsessive environment devoted to free software and playing with technology. For the other 51 weeks of the year I am largely surrounded by historians and theologians, as someone whose personal priority is history and theology but who also does a lot of work with free software. I cannot seem to avoid living in two worlds at the same time. I don’t have to make the worlds meet, but they could know more about each other. Applying free software to research in the humanities – and talking about why I do this – is one example. Another place where these worlds can meet is in education. My fellow students and teachers are exposed to free software web applications on a daily or weekly basis: Drupal at the United Faculty of Theology and Moodle at Trinity College. There are enough staff at these institutions who have an IT background or are able to learn to use these systems, but more could be done to raise awareness about free software in these environments.