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Free Lunch

By Annalee Newitz

THE ESCALATORS at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City brought me up to the mezzanine so slowly that I could read the T-shirts of everyone passing me on the down escalator. "Social engineering expert," read one. Another had the words "Kill Bill" emblazoned over a mean-looking Linux penguin.

On the mezzanine, a cavernous space filled with abandoned computers, dozens of posters were taped to the walls. Many featured a Hitleresque face over the words "Big Brother Is Watching You!" Several angry geeks in pseudogoth outfits were milling around bitching about the wireless network.

"It's all Verizon's fault," one grumbled. What else could he say? At the Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) conference, sponsored by old-school hacker zine 2600, you've got to blame a corporation if the network is busted. I looked around glumly, hoping that somebody might have a really giant antenna to pick up free WiFi from outside the hotel, but all I could find were huge stacks of bogus phone bills. Somebody had been staging a protest—or possibly had simply gone mad—and I could see the bizarre results of their handiwork everywhere.

So I headed up to the 18th floor, where Viki Navratilova, a security manager at the University of Chicago, was teaching an enormous roomful of people how to build the ultimate Internet Relay Chat (IRC) bot for distributed denial of service attacks. She flashed a slide that had particularly dense code on it, alongside a sexy photo of Jon Stewart. With a cackle, she explained, "Oh yeah, if you've ever seen [hacker] Rainforest Puppy give a talk, he always has pictures of naked women, so this is my answer to that." I grinned. One day, chicks will rule the hacker scene. We're going to start with deadly bot herds and work our way up to gender engineering.

An hour later, I headed to the exhibit hall to put in some time representing my beloved nonprofit: the Electronic Frontier Foundation. There is truly nothing more weird and gratifying than spending hours on end trapped behind a table full of schwag and membership sign-up forms, trying to teach subversives about digital liberties. My strategy was simple. "Want some free propaganda?" I would people as they wandered by. I talked to students who had gotten busted by the MPAA, Canadians who wanted to gloat over their country's recent decision that file sharing is legal and a webmaster who runs a vegetarian porn site (www.vegporn.com) who was worried that she might be threatened with an infringement lawsuit by a company called Acacia that claims to own a patent on streaming media.

As I handed out pamphlets and explained U.S. problems with electronic voting to somebody from Europe, I could vaguely overhear questions coming from a packed audience for a panel about pirate radio in the next room. HOPE is a very unusual geek conference, bringing together media nerd subversives and dissident techies from all over the world. Where else would you find punk rocker Jello Biafra giving a talk on the same bill as Apple guru Steve Wozniak?

I watched unemployed students mingling with members of the underground media, and I was suddenly and oddly reminded of visiting the Google campus. It was one of those moments of free association where you find yourself thinking about something that is completely unlike your current situation—almost as if opposites attract on a neural level in the brain.

Like the HOPE conference, Google occupies a large space that is festively and chaotically decorated. When you walk through one of the vast work areas, you find yourself surrounded by balloons, toy cars and workstations arranged in sociable pods without walls. The campus is painted gaily in the primary colors that adorn the company logo. On every floor, there is a huge, bright kitchen stocked with free snacks. And I'm not talking a few bags of popcorn—there are barrels of candy bars, fruit, ice cream and various other treats.

And here's the kicker, boys and girls: every day at Google, there is free lunch. There, I would never see HOPE's starving bloggers, marginalized hackers and pirate-radio refugees. Everybody at Google is fed and well paid and can wear freshly pressed shirts if they wish.

But for all its aspirations to be "not evil" and to create a fun work environment, Google will never inspire the passion that this conference did. Surrounded by activists, inventors and evaders of wrongly made laws, I could imagine what it would be like to live in a world where lunch was truly free. It would be the kind of lunch that vegan pornographers could share with policy makers and people who reverse engineer game systems. This kind of free lunch wouldn't be a bribe to make people work longer hours or to keep them from questioning authority. Unfortunately, we're stuck in a world where Google has the free lunch. The rest of us have to live on hope.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who still regrets not eating one of those yummy chocolate brownies they were giving away in the Google lunchroom.

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From the July 14-20, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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