Harnessing the Hacker's HeckleBot
By Justin Hall, Mon Feb 16 21:30:00 GMT 2004

Fostering community on the mobile internet might require a dance with distraction.

Imagine a conference where half the audience was heckling and questioning the speaker near constantly. And not just unfounded heckling, but well-researched contrarian jibes and zinger queries. Imagine holding your attention on the speaker while their presentation was being expertly critiqued by the people around you. Now imagine that all that was happening silently, you could hear the feedback but the speaker and most of the audience couldn't. Imagine that backchannel conversation was open to anyone with an internet connection. Then imagine trying to concentrate on anything.

Each spring in California, O'Reilly's Emerging Technology Conference offers a whirlwind brainbending exposure to the future of uses of computers. Many of us sit surrounded by mobile phones and desktop PCs all day long; ETech presenters offer visions for the potential of these devices.

Some of the most important presentations at ETech were stilted lectures with bland PowerPoint on future foresightful mergings of software and hardware. These well-heeled proceedings ostensibly attract the other half of "ETech" - the expert audience of hackers, geeks and wonks. Between the officials up on stage and the nerds silently heckling them in chat rooms, there was big bandwidth and an even larger gap. The wireless connections between laptops and created a hundred small groups and small applications for knowledge sharing and chatter; most of which competed for attention better than most of the speakers. The Emerging Technologies Conference was a distracting glimpse into the rowdy world of wireless wisdom sharing in the future.


Faint paint fumes and solid wireless signals flooded the hallways and conference rooms at the Westin Hotel, in downtown San Diego. All participants shared the same T1 line - a million packets in line for a few thousand slots. At times it lagged out or slowed to a crawl; these times it people seemed to pay more attention to the presentations.

Otherwise, people could be seen checking their email, surfing the web, or hanging out on IRC. Internet Relay Chat is an old internet protocol for sharing chat spaces. For the Emerging Technology Conference, there was #etech, an IRC chat room shared over wifi by dozens of laptops in each conference room, and dozens more laptops in the world beyond. Someone came up to me in the hallways between the conference proceedings and beamed me a Palm IRC client for my Treo 600, so I could join #etech from the toilet.

#etech was a rowdy reflection of the content on stage, people often mocking or doubting the official presenter. It took an unusual presentation or smart delivery to quell most of the "peanut gallery," as famed Tokyo businessman blogger Joichi Ito called it.

The active dismissive chatter of the chat rooms primarily stayed in the background. But there were a few moments when the traffic on the wireless networks burst into visible words within the room.
HeckleBot says Howard is God
The HeckleBot salutes one of the panellists during an ETech session. Photo courtesy of Flickr.
During some of the talks, enterprising hackers set up an LED display in the seats - the "HeckleBot." Anyone in the IRC channel could send a message to the scrolling blinking lights on the other side of the room. "Joi is not wearing pants!" came up during one panel. According to digital insurrectionist and indyvoter.org co-founder Marc Powell "One of the main points of IRC is to IRC in a way that makes other people on the channel totally lose it - laughing out loud or busting up or whatever. Having a hecklebot digital sign bridges the digital divide." With attention split between laptops with email and chat, a potentially ringing phone, panelists talking, and a scrolling LED running comedy commentary on the proceedings, it was hard to know who was laughing at what between six different stimuli streams.

At best you might focus on the loudest, most disruptive stream. The stream that moved the fastest. Or, if you were really in the zone, you could concentrate on the meta-stream, unfocus your attention enough to take in the five info-firehoses waving in front of your face.

The hackers were usually carrying on the most lively conversation over the wireless network. Their conversation sat on top of the conference. The IRC channel carried the words of young and restless conference goers (aside from silent lurkers). During Ito's Emergent Democracy Worldwide panel, the IRC channel was projected up on the screen behind the presenters. The commentary of the audience was shown in real time, as a response to the talkers up on stage. Not just the highlighted jests of the HeckleBot, but the entire flow of the backchannel conversation. Moments like this hinted at the start of an integrated conference, the primary real and virtual conversations coalesced around one shared stage. Allowing the text voices from the internet to appear in the physical space was a good start to drawing young and old attention to the same point.

Hack the Mobile

How do you get eager, active hackers to innovate within the system? How can you shape the system to welcome bursts of uneven discourse? Howard Rheingold, author and writer for TheFeature.com, gave a brief technology history lesson during the "Untethering the Social Network" panel. The most popular uses of communications technologies have been hacks, adaptations. The phone was invented for one-way communication. The internet was invented to transfer piles of scientific data. Enabling people to communicate with each other has often always a hack, an unauthorized extension of the system.

So it should be with mobile devices, the panelists agreed. The complicated relationships between handset makers, mobile carriers and their customers, fractured by region and whipped by the pace of innovation, have kept mobile technology largely closed, proprietary. But mobile devices must be hackable to incubate the next generation of innovative human communications. The frenzy of innovative wireless communications applications on the popular Macintosh laptops in the ETech audience illustrated the potential for hackers let loose on a loose network.

In a keynote speech at ETech, Pertti Korhonen, Nokia CTO, asked a question in that direction: "How user-hackable can we make [mobile] devices while maintaining robustness and reliability?" This according to notes Rheingold transcribed to the web live over the wireless network.

Korhonen affirmed the essential chatty character of the wireless web: "We have learned lessons from the fixed Internet world about future functionality of mobile devices: people want to share with their friends. From a person to person technology, the mobile telephone is moving toward enabling group media. We have developed 'mobile distribution and sharing' software enabling users to search and share content on each other's devices. You can share and publish and invite peers." (quoted from Rheingold's online notes).

Merging Sharing

Some of that media sharing between people was happening over the wireless networks available at the Emerging Technology Conference. It wasn't all chat and heckling text at Etech - social game developers Ludicorp announced their Flickr photosharing chatroom software during the event. Flickr enables chat with drag and drop picture distribution through a web browser. hasselhoff puppiesI had to keep from laughing as the Ludicorp presentation was punctuated by pictures of David Hasslehoff posing with puppies popping up in my Flickr client.

ETech must be what it feels like to be a citizen of the future - when you have expansive always-on network reach. If you integrate that kind of technology with a conference, or a school, you have an always-on university. Students have the choice to sit at the front of the class paying attention, or the back where it's easier to goof off. What if the notes passed between students in the back of the class could be part of the feedback loop for a presenter? Or even better, what if that conversations could be taking place in parallel - stenocaptioning and comments online running parallel with real-time presentations. If we give the passionate smart restless kids a chance to hack and chat in conversation with the social scientists and wiser minds, we could see some deeply informed discussion with these new tools.

Justin Hall travels and writes in a world of internet amplified distraction. He holds it all together at Links.net.