It starts the Wednesday before Easter. Thousands of computer-crazed adolescents descend on the Vikingship Olympic Arena in Hamar, Norway. For five days, they turn this upside-down ship, home to the 1994 Winter Games, into a high-decibel celebration of nerd vindication and digital hedonism. Nearly 5,000 computer monitors glow in the darkened hall like electronic fireflies. The kids get free Internet access, a network that doesn't crash, and all manner of software. What a vendor won't sell, a neighbor will share.
Welcome to the Gathering, the world's largest (and loudest) computer party. To unschooled observers from the old school of business, the Gathering appears to be little more than a video arcade on steroids, complete with pounding bass, pulsating digital effects, and too much stale air. Beneath the surface, though, it offers a look at the future of work and innovation.
It is the ultimate open-source extravaganza, in which young techies are urged to create great things with one another by borrowing ideas and working side by side. There is no hierarchy, few rules, and no clear objective, really — other than to bring together thousands of smart, young people, give them powerful technology and the world's largest temporary computer network, and then see what they come up with. The point here is to dazzle with demos — and to marvel at what the group as a whole has done.
"We cannot be passive consumers of technology," says Vegard Skjefstad, one of the event's three cofounders and its chief organizer. "We have to participate in it and create it. The Gathering shows people the way." Skjefstad, 30, is a self-styled "digital psychologist" whose formal education stopped after high school. But he believes that the Gathering, and its unique brand of real-time learning, is a model for how schools around the world can accelerate the process of teaching about technology. (So committed is Skjefstad to the principles of the Gathering that he married his fiancée, Laila Dalen, on day four of this year's event. The wedding ceremony was the one period of time when the deafening din stopped.)
Freewheeling as it sounds, the Gathering is actually steeped in cybertradition. Its organizers are members of the Scene, a die-hard group of techies — programmers, designers, and music makers — who once organized small-scale computer parties in their homes to improve one another's technical prowess. These parties started to get bigger and eventually turned into the Gathering, which is now in its eighth year. Meanwhile, many of the original members of the Scene now run or work in some of the most sought-after IT firms in Scandinavia. They know that newcomers to the Gathering are Scandinavia's IT workforce of the future.
But during the event, it's the sense of play that counts. Participants drink gallons of Coca-Cola to keep them going all night, and it's not unusual for contests to begin at 4 AM. By 9 AM, most people are asleep facedown on their keyboards or curled up in sleeping bags. This year's participants are an intriguing mix — from grizzled old-timers who still program on Commodore Amigas to Linux-for-Dummies newbies. The average age is 19.
In this hall, there are as many passions and motivations as there are people. Hunched over one terminal is Tom Idland, 22, whose log-in name, thrID, tips off his passion for 3-D animation and design. "I taught myself the technology because I wanted to create something with my computer instead of just using it," he says. A few rows away is Hai Nguyen Dinh, 20, who is part of a demo group known as Spaceballs. His badge of honor is that he uses one of the oldest technologies available to program cutting-edge music demos.
Meanwhile, Skjefstad revels in a different kind of challenge. He is hoping to create a Gathering on every continent — and to connect those events in a global simulcast. "I want to leave a legacy that allows everyone to feel like they're able to drive the technology revolution," Skjefstad says. Not to mention attend one heck of a party.
Contact Vegard Skjefstad by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or learn more about the Gathering on the Web (www.gathering.org).
Sidebar: Great Party! Want a Job?
With the worldwide shortage of people with computer skills, even the most free-spirited party eventually becomes a job fair. And so it has gone with the Gathering.
Last year, Bjorn Andreas Wentzel worked on the volunteer crew that kept the Gathering's computer network up and running. That job put him in contact with engineers from Cisco Systems Norway, which helped build the system. The Cisco folks found Wentzel's networking skills so strong (both in the computing and the interpersonal sense) that they decided to hire him. At age 18, he is one of the youngest systems engineers working for Cisco anywhere in the world. At this year's Gathering, he helped configure the event's network on behalf of Cisco.
Expect similar stories to come from future Gatherings. Companies have begun flooding the event with recruiting fliers and offers of finder's fees for participants who recruit friends to become employees. Organizers of the Gathering, along with computing clubs like Norwegian Nerds, don't mind all of the attention — but they're hoping for a bit more creativity on the part of companies.
For instance, Norwegian Nerds is starting an Adopt-a-Nerd program, in which companies will train computer enthusiasts for a year in order to prepare them for tech jobs. "Don't give people a pamphlet, give them a challenge," suggests Nerds organizer Leif Strom, 35. "Money isn't a challenge. Give them a CD-ROM, more RAM, or flexibility in their schedule."