2600’s amazing Hackers on Planet Earth con may go down due to enshittification (permalink)
It’s been 40 years since Emmanuel Goldstein launched the seminal, essential, world-changing 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. 2600 wasn’t the first phreak/hacker zine, but it was the most important, spawning a global subculture dedicated to the noble pursuit of technological self-determination:
2600 has published hundreds of issues in which digital spelunkers report eagerly on the things they’ve discovered by peering intently at the things no one was supposed to even glance at (I’m proud to be one of those writers!). They’ve fought legal battles, including one that almost went to the Supreme Court:
They created a global network of meetups where some of technology’s most durable friendships and important collaborations were born. These continue to this day:
And they’ve hosted a weekly radio show on NYC’s WBAI, Off the Hook:
When WBAI management lost their minds and locked the station’s most beloved hosts out of the studio, Off the Hook (naturally) led the rebellion, taking back the station for its audience, rescuing it from a managerial coup:
But best of all, 2600 gave us HOPE – both in the metaphorical sense of “hope for a better technological tomorrow” and in the literal sense, with its biannual Hackers On Planet Earth con:
For decades HOPE had an incredible venue, the Hotel Pennsylvania (memorialized in the phreak anthem “PEnnsylvania 6-5000”), a crumbling pile in midtown Manhattan that was biannually transformed into a rollicking, multi-day festival of forbidden technology, improbable feats, and incredible presentations. I was privileged to keynote HOPE in 2016:
But after the 2018 HOPE, the Hotel Pennsylvania was demolished to make way for the Penn15 (no, really) skyscraper, a vaporware mega-tower planned as a holding pen for luxury shopping and empty million-dollar condos sold to offshore war-criminals as safe-deposit boxes in the sky. The developer, Vornado (no, really) hasn’t actually done all that – after demo’ing the Hotel Pennsylvania, they noped out, leave a large, unusable scar across midtown.
But HOPE wasn’t lost. In 2022, the ever-resilient 2600 crew relocated to Queens, hosted by St John’s University – a venue that was less glamorous that the Hotel Pennsylvania, but the event was still fantastic. Attendance fell from 2,000 to 1,000, but that was something they could work with, and reviews from attendees were stellar.
Good thing, too. 2600 is, first and foremost, a magazine publisher, and these have been hard years for magazines. First there was the mass die-off of indie bookstores and newsracks (I used to sell 2600 when I was a bookseller, and in the years after, I always took the presence of 2600 on a store’s newsrack as an unimpeachable mark of quality).
Thankfully for 2600, their audience is (unsurprisingly) a tech-savvy one, so they were able to substitute digital subscriptions for physical ones:
Of course, many of those subscriptions came through Amazon’s Kindle, because nerds were early Amazon adopters, and because the Kindle magazine publishing platform offered DRM-free distribution to subscribers along with a fair payout to publishers.
But then Amazon enshittified its magazine system. Having locked publishers to its platform, it rugged them and killed the monthly subscription fees that allowed publishers to plan for a steady output. Publishers were given a choice: leave Amazon (and all the readers locked inside its walled garden) or put your magazine into the Kindle Unlimited system:
Kindle Unlimited is an all-you-can-eat program for Kindle, which pays publishers and writers based on a system that is both opaque and easily gamed, with the lion’s share of the money going to “publishers” who focus on figuring out how to cheat the algorithm. Revenues for 2600 – and all the other magazines that Amazon had sucked in and sucked dry – fell off a cliff.
Which brings me to the present moment. After 40 years, 2600 is still at it, having survived the bookstorepocalypse, the lunacy of public radio management, the literal demolition of their physical home by an evil real-estate developer, and Amazon’s crooked accounting.
This is 2600, circa 2024, and 2024 a HOPE year:
Once again, HOPE has been scheduled for its new digs in Queens, July 12-14. Last week, HOPE sent out an email blast to their subscribers telling them the news. They expected to sell 500 tickets in the first 24 hours. They didn’t even come close:
It turns out that Google and the other major mail providers don’t like emails with the word “hacker” in them. The cartel that decides which email gets delivered, and which messages go to spam, or get blocked altogether, mass-blocked the HOPE 2024 announcement. Email may be the last federated, open platform we have, but mass concentration has created a system where it’s nearly impossible to get your email delivered unless you’re willing to play by Gmail’s rules:
For Emmanuel Goldstein, founder of 2600 and tireless toiler for this community, the deafening silence following from that initial email volley was terrifying: “like some kind of a “Twilight Zone” episode where everyone has disappeared.”
The enshittification that keeps 2600‘s emails from being delivered to the people who asked to receive them is even worse on social media. Social media companies routinely defraud their users by letting them subscribe to feeds, then turning around to the people and organizations that run those feeds and saying, “You’ve got x thousand subscribers on this platform, but we won’t put your posts in their feeds unless you pay us to ‘boost’ your content”:
Enshittification has been coming at 2600 for decades. Like other forms of oddball media dedicated to challenging corporate power and government oppression, 2600 has always been a ten-years-ahead preview of the way the noose was gonna tighten on all of us. And now, they’re on the ropes. HOPE can’t sell tickets unless people know about HOPE, and neither email providers nor social media platforms have any interest in making that happen.
A handful of giant corporations now get to decide what we read, who we hear from, and whether and how we can get together in person to make friends, forge community, rabble-rouse and change the world. The idea that “it’s not censorship unless the government does it” has always been wrong (not all censorship violates the First Amendment, and censorship can be real without being unconstitutional):
What can you do about it? Well, for one thing, you can sign up for HOPE. It’s gonna be great. They’ve got sub-$100 hotel rooms! In New York City!
If you can’t make it to HOPE, you can sign up for a virtual membership:
You can submit a talk to HOPE:
You can subscribe to 2600, in print or electronically (I signed up for the lifetime print subscription and it was a bargain – I devour every issue the day it arrives):
2600 is living a decade in the future of every other community you care about, weird hobby you enjoy, con you live for, and publication you read from cover to cover. If we can all pull together to save it, it’ll be a beacon of hope (and HOPE).