|Alice in Hackerland by Tess Schrodiner|
Winning artwork for DEFCON 22
Redefining The Experience
I began my seventh DEFCON looking for a way to give back.
There's only one other con I hold in as high esteem, and that's my hometown science fiction convention, RadCon (this year was my 18th RadCon). Over the years, I've been to dozens of other cons, some regularly (like PAX Prime and Norwescon), but if I miss them, no big deal. DEFCON is a pillar of my year, drilled 100ft into the earth and rising up to the clouds, and it would take one hell of a real-life tragedy to keep me from it.
And like RadCon, I can no longer just attend. I've been a panelist at RadCon for the last two years, and I'm driven to figure out how to participate in DEFCON. Not only because of how much I've gotten from it, and how much I continue to get from it, but for the selfish fact that there are diminishing returns in terms of what I can learn as a non-participant audience.
The few talks I attended were unremarkable. Since I no longer work in IT, I avoid highly technical talks, which are no longer useful to my career. I know enough security theory to write fiction; readers don't want to hear the tech details anyway. If a story is set in a far-future, 2014 tech won't matter, and if I need something current, like safe-cracking for Through a Shattered Tumbler, I can look it up online.
As a curious person, I often enjoy hearing about new exploits, but even those have started to blend together. The message is always the same: All things are pwned or pwnable. This is a very worthy message, but for me, it's ancient news. It's not as likely to give me a dopamine "ah-ha!" or "holy shit!" feeling anymore. After "holy shit did you know you can stop someone's pacemaker?" and "holy shit all of Boston's transit is owned!" and "holy shit the Russian cybermob, the nets are all gonna DIE!" ... You can only get excited about the sky falling for so long before even that becomes normal. The sky is falling, and it's already fallen, and Situation Normal All Fucked Up (SNAFU).
|This screenshot circulated on Twitter|
of a hacking tool itself being the vector for mass pwnage.
Amusing, but totally unsurprising.
I don't mean to make DEFCON sound unexciting. I had an amazing time this year, as always. But as a neophile, I crave new experiences. Moreover, I'm writing for neophiles who also crave new experiences, and you don't want to read a recap that's a recap of last year's recap. So this isn't a regular post describing the talks or hallway shenanigans.
Mostly, this year was about seeking my place, teaching others, and enjoying the synthesis that comes from mingling knowledge. i.e. making friends and having conversations. This is the true value of any con, because we can learn the rest online. We can watch all the talks on YouTube. What we can't do is talk and wave our hands about and toast to a point that everyone agrees on.
This year, mingling came easy thanks to my autism diagnosis and anxiety medication. This was my second DEFCON since my DX. Last year, my SSRI prescription was brand new and I was still adjusting. I noticed the improvement then, and all the more this year. The power of technology has made social anxiety a distant memory, and I have better coping mechanisms and a higher sense self-acceptance since I know that there is a medical basis for my quirks.
However, the meds don't fix everything. The distracting and painful sensation of anxiety is quelled, but it doesn't fix my awkwardness, the times I'm not sure what to do or what is appropriate. I'm still combatting 38 years of overcompensating, learned behaviors I used to avoid anxiety. The extra serotonin doesn't cure my autism or sensory processing disorders. Sometimes the background noise is too loud and I can't tell what people are saying. Sometimes I'm not sure how to engage in conversation with people I want to talk to, or leave conversations with people I'm no longer interested in.
Sometimes I lock up and don't know what to say, so I stay silent when I should be talking. Or the opposite, a more recent coping mechanism where open my mouth anyway, and let words pour out without any filters. Which works until it doesn't, and I say the wrong thing.
The meds really help in all these cases, because when I do make mistakes or face uncertainty, I'm not assaulted with waves of anxiety that pull me under onto the hamster wheel of self-assault. I'm much more resilient and can keep rolling.
|Why Spot the Fed|
when you can bring the Feds to you?
This has all improved my experience at DEFCON a hundredfold. It's a much more social event than it has been in years past.
* - Attempted pun
When I arrived at the Rio on Wednesday, I felt pretty wobbly and low, and I wondered what right I had to be at DEFCON at all. I'd submitted a talk to CFP, which summarized my several years of research on unethical persuasion and group mind control (which all culminated in my book Recovering Agency: Lifting the Veil of Mormon Mind Control). The talk got rejected, partly because it was non-computery and partly because the religious criticism it contained was potentially too controversial. I would be attending as a non-participant once again. And in absence of a tech career, with less hands-on computing in my hobby life, with my interests shifting more to psychology, neuroscience, and writing, I really wondered why I belonged at DEFCON at all. Impostor Syndrome had set in pretty hard.