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Defining Hacker and the Future of Music at Boston Music Hack Day

Angelina Jolie in Hackers

I went looking for this. What I found was so much more.

by Kyle Psaty
After I realized the first-ever Boston Music Hack Day event at Microsoft N.E.R.D., billed as a chance for programmers to “build the future of music,” was not going to be very spectator-friendly – it was for expressly for hackers – I made a point of re-watching the 1995 film Hackers to brush up, so to speak, on what hackers do.

I was 13 when that movie came out, and I was exposed to AOL Chat around the same time. When I was online in those days, I went by the handle “DaHakur.” So, as someone who grew up in a generation that idolized hackers and was captivated by the mysticism surrounding these ultra modern geniuses, I felt it was only right to check out the film again and revisit my teenage self.

In truth, I was disappointed. The film went to great lengths to propagate the mystery surrounding hacking. Angelina Jolie, Matthew Lillard and the rest of the Hackers cast played a subversive group of Internet defenders, bent on preventing an evil hacker from stealing a bunch of money and framing them for it. But they were mysterious, working incognito.

Clip from the film Hackers

What does this shot from HACKERS have to do with hacking? I couldn't tell you.

Their weapons?

A collective genius-level understanding of mathematics and an arsenal of random hacker jargon deployed in undefined, vaguely depicted ways.

In the climax, Jolie and her crew assault the antagonist’s evil lair by “hacking the planet.” Ultimately, they distract the evil geek henchmen with “rabbit” viruses and “worms,” so that Lillard’s (eccentric, poorly quaffed) character can broadcast an all-channels webcast exposing the evil plan to the world. He even gets himself on the screen in Times Square.

The film is ridiculous.  After I chalked my former infatuation with hacking up to child’s play, I realized I had no idea what a hacker really was.

Microsoft N.E.R.D Logo

The BostInnovation staff was thoroughly impressed with the hacker-friendly location.

Dictionary.com defines the word simply as “a computer enthusiast.” I headed to N.E.R.D. this weekend for two reasons: To see if Dictionary.com was right, (I found their definition to be mostly appropriate) and to find out what the future of music in online realms is.

Of course, my adult self knows that coding in specific programming languages is paramount in the work a hacker does, so that’s what I expected from the event: a whole lot of coding. And that’s what I found.

In a total Homer Simpson “Doh!” moment, I arrived at Hack Day to see that it was more than just awesome programmers. In fact, the hackers I found were a collection of music tech freaks.

Disclaimer: I formed this new definition partly as a result of a class I took in high school: Music Tech. This class was basically a chance to take advantage of the Napster fanaticism that happened in the early 2000s. In the class, we spent most of our time downloading music files and splicing them together using Roland’s Cakewalk software, forming some pretty weak early mashups. (I distinctly remember meshing Bob Segar’s Turn the Page with the Metallica cover of the same name. FAIL.)

Whether you’re familiar with Cakewalk or not, surely you can understand the thrill my young cohorts and I found in spending whole class periods downloading music to school-owned computers, and rocking out to our newly acquired media.

Much in the same vein, the attendees at Music Hack Day were simply gathering to celebrate music’s role in the online communities, both professionally and out of curiosity. They were a collection of the highly skilled and the highly interested.

There were hardware construction workshops, where students constructed simple synthesizers, as well as weekend-long think tanks dedicated to improving software, where pure programmers lent their particular linguistic skills to subsets of freely available code-based resources. And then there were folks like me, just looking to poke our noses in what was being done.

In short, I realized I was a sort of hacker, if nothing more than a propagandist devoted to sharing news about events like this with the interested community.

The whole event was wonderfully learning-intensive. The companies involved went to great lengths to make as much as possible available to the (more creative, than mathematical, I’d argue) geniuses in attendance.

Napster, which is still around and was acquired by Best Buy last year, allowed hackers access to their private stock of information. The access was temporary, we were told, but Mark Reeder, the head of front end development for Napster, announced the company will be making open-source info available to third-party developers soon.

So what is the future of music?

By my understanding the future of music is open access to data. (Yes, via API,  for all my fellow web nerds.) The future will mean better descriptions of what’s inside the music we like, as well as further efforts to make music easier to find and experience.

EchoNest.com, a co-sponsor of the event, scours the web to provide an unbelievable range and depth of data about music online. They provided quick-connect pipelines to that data, so hackers could work up a myriad of informative and entertaining uses for it. In short, Echo Nest analyzes everything about the composition of music files, both in terms of calculated data, say, the number of beats per minute, and on the level of understanding what really appeals to us when we listen to a track. Echo Nest even watches what’s being talked about online so they can give a real-time rating for any artist’s buzz. (Lady Gaga was at about .86 this weekend.)

By my understanding the kind of data Echo Nest was providing access to is incredibly powerful. For example, in their demo to programmers, which I attended, they showed a way to recreate Pandora Radio using a mere 10 lines of code linked to their software-based analyzers for what makes music similar sounding.

Soundcloud.com, another co-sponsor, grants users access all kinds of data about what’s being uploaded to their cloud all over the world. The company seems entirely aimed at matching new music to those looking to find it. Like Echo Nest, they also provided some impressive pipelines to their data in a wide array of programming languages.

These companies were simply taking their painstakingly accrued data and saying, “Here, present this to people in a consumable way.”

What I saw this weekend was the computer world’s version of a 36-hour film festival, but instead of making video art, the artists were building computer art.

What’s more, this was the opposite of a lot of subversive cyber graffiti artists. Microsoft hosted creative minds working separately and together on all kinds of quick-create projects with very direct intentions. Some were merely entertaining. Some serve more of a purpose. In searching for “the future of music,” these hackers were really giving us observational hackers a look at what can be done with all the new information being made available. They were exploring how music works and why we like it.

The real hackers were like the hackers in the movie in a way, because all the fences keeping them out were gone, and because they were doing what they wanted with the data available. But they were so much more, because their work was fully exposed; t was out in the open. Event organizers didn’t just encourage it, the best projects were even recognized with awards at the end of the event. Without a doubt, a few of these projects will spawn new efforts to propel us regular old users and general “computer enthusiasts” into the future of music.

Here’s to a fantastic gathering of minds that will hopefully become a tradition in Cambridge. Please post your own thoughts in the comments section, and don’t forget to check back for more and a recap of the projects that won awards after the weekend wraps up.

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