The picnic table

At the Wizard of OS conference in Berlin, where I spent the weekend, I learned many things. Some things were about the wealth of networks, some others were about the Read-Write culture. These things came with fancy Powerpoint slides and speeches delivered from a stage by people with a lot of good ideas — and a lot of influence. Some things, presented on a smaller stage, challenged me with new ways of thinking about networks — of people, machines, code, images, and radio waves. The work of Simon Yuill stands out here, as does the creative “play” of my friends at Hive Networks. Others, like the talks by Onno Purbo, Macolm McDowell, and Bob Horovitz, braided together concepts old and new, creating the kind of thread that links actions like building a WiFi antenna out of a wok with careful advocacy for open radio spectrum at the international policy level.

But mostly I learned things at the picnic table. Between the big shiny venue where Lessig, Benkler and the other big names peeked out from under the lights, and the smaller hall where folks discussed everything from new copyright laws for digitally traded music to the “future of open-source software”, yellow umbrellas sheltered picnic tables, provided power for way too many laptops, and hosted experiments, late-night meetings, conversations, and chance meetings. At the picnic table we said, “Hey, do you two know each other? You should talk! And ten minutes later the two were four, and eight, and there was a meeting, and a list of things to do, and a volunteer project manager.

The picnic table is the antithesis of the boardroom, of the presentation room in the university department. No one makes you sit there, and you can leave when you want. You can ask dumb questions, or watch videos on your laptop, or produce the most fabulous DJ mix ever, or fall asleep listening to people debate whether network routing protocols should insist on centralization or whether they should promote a radical decentralization of a network . . . “and then”, someone says as I dozed, “we could do away with Internet Protocol all together”

The picnic table is the centre of radicalism, of the potential for innovation. It is, in short, the third place, reinterpreted in the age of open-source.


This picnic table, this culture of action, of experimentation, of using artistic practice and creative hacking as “proof-of-concept” that the networks we use to communicate don’t only have to be how they are, and might be able to be combined together to make the world (at least in some terms) a more just and beautiful place, is still such a privileged space. It’s taken me two years of listening at picnic table and barstools and in engineering lecture halls and in basements and living rooms, two years of listening and watching, writing notes and trying to understand what this box, this cable, this hardware, this dizzying rush of code across a screen, this invisible network might mean. Now I can sit at the picnic table and understand. I can take the ideas parcelled out in all the formal settings and make them make sense. I can make the link between politics and art and code. But just barely.

How do we get more people at the picnic table? Does it have to take two years to get there? If the issues are as important as the speeches inside the lecture halls seem to indicate, then there’s more reason to be outside trying to make them live. If not, the conversations at the picnic table will turn around themselves. It’s okay if the technological utopia doesn’t work out as planned. History says that it never has. But if the potential to make ANY kind of social change requires a “degree in Pointless Computer Physics” to happen, the Revolution is through before it’s really started.