Twenty years ago, the world of consumer technology was a very different place. In the early 1990's, cell phones were still expensive devices slowly making their way out of Gordon Gekko's high-rise office and into the hands of well-heeled customers like, for example, Zach Morris. Phones with PDA functions existed, but the smartphone as we know it today remained a sci-fi dream. The internet was still a text-based affair of interest mainly to academics (there were no dot-coms), though the nascent World Wide Web had begun gathering momentum among early adopters. Connections were analog, with transmission speeds clocked at kilobytes per second. There were bulletin boards and IRC, CompuServe and AOL, FTP and Gopher, floppy discs and command lines. There was no residential broadband, no Google, no iPads, no everywhere Wi-Fi, and no ethereal “cloud.”

It was in this world of two decades past that Jeff Moss, AKA The Dark Tangent, organized the first Def Con, a boisterous, beer-fueled gathering of hackers beneath the relentlessly sunny Las Vegas sky. In 1993, he operated A Dark Tangent System, a popular BBS connected to a dozen networks of hacker and phone phreak culture. When the organizer of one such network decided to shut it down, he asked Moss to throw a farewell party; Moss chose Vegas, figuring if it all blew up he’d at least be able to enjoy a poolside drink. Invitations in IRC channels #hack and #freak, posted on bulletin boards, and sent by fax to the Secret Service resulted in about 100 cash-paying attendees. Today attendance often tops 10,000, and Def Con is one of the longest-running hacker conventions in the country. “When I started this madness long ago I never conceived of doing it for 20 years — yet here we are,” Moss wrote in this year’s convention program.