2014 SXSW Interactive Session Spotlight: Killed by Code - Freedom in My Heart and Everywhere

Written by Megan Simpson | February 14, 2014

Karen Sandler talks about open source software and heart devices at SXSW 2014

Karen Sandler is a self-described software freedom loving cyborg lawyer. During her 2014 Interactive session at SXSW, she’ll discuss the importance of open source software as it pertains to vulnerable medical devices. Her solo presentation and topic of this Session Spotlight, “Killed by Code - Freedom in My Heart and Everywhere” is one not to be missed. To connect with her ahead of SXSW, follow her on Twitter at @o0karen0o.

SXSW: What can you tell us about your open source software discussion?
Sandler: When I discovered I had a life threatening heart condition, the last thing I expected was to have to worry about software. Now, with a heart device implanted in my body, I have come to understand not only how vulnerable medical devices are, but also how as a society we are making critical choices about all of our software. I will talk about some of the scary (and entertaining) hacks, which show how essential free and open source software is. I’ll also discuss my professional and personal view of the issues as a patient and as a cyborg lawyer.

SXSW: Have you spoken about this topic before?
Sandler: I started talking about this topic within the free and open source software community, where I was really overwhelmed by the reaction. Many hackers find it difficult to explain why they care so much about software freedom and open source and were so excited to be able to break it down in a clear scenario that is literally life and death. The comment I heard a lot was, "Finally my spouse/parent/child understands why I am a nut about this stuff." I found the same reaction when I started talking to reporters about the issue. I think a lot of people just don't think about how integral software is to our everyday lives and societal infrastructure. I hate talking about my own medical condition but I force myself to do it as it's the best way I've found to get people to understand that there's more going on with software than just convenience. Indeed, it was finding out about my condition that converted me from a fan of free and open source software to being a passionate advocate.

SXSW: What will attendees know about this topic at the end of your session?
Sandler: At the end of the session, attendees will know about the state of software on implanted medical devices and the FDA oversight of it. They will also know about free and open source software generally and why it is so important for life and society critical software. They'll also know about my weird heart condition!

SXSW: Why is speaking at SXSW Interactive a big deal?
Sandler: I think that the audience is so savvy and yet not necessarily familiar with the ideology of free and open source software and how it impacts issues like implantable medical devices. There's so much excitement and productive energy surrounding the conference that I can't wait to talk to people about free and open source software. I hope to bring this issue to a wider audience and get plenty of hallway discussion about ways this applies to other areas.

SXSW: What’s something about yourself that we wouldn’t know from your official bio?
Sandler: I used to DJ sometimes here in Brooklyn and am thrilled that I just set up a fully free DJ environment on my laptop. I try to use only free and open source software in everything I do. My camera and my heart device are exceptions in addition to things I must interact with outside of my control. It means that a lot of features on my phone are disabled and II have to pay cash at my local coffee shop instead of using credit on their iPad but I think it's worth it.

SXSW: Do you blog?
Sandler: My blog is gnome.org where I mostly write about GNOME and free software-related things (GNOME is a popular desktop environment for GNU/Linux).

SXSW: Similarly, what’s your favorite website and why?
Sandler: My favorite website right now is southslopenews.com because I am obsessed with my neighborhood and finding out about what's going on in my area. I also love the chowhound home cooking forum on chow.com because where else could you ask about what to do with leftover wing sauce?

Watch this website for more installments of the 2014 SXSW Interactive Session Spotlight. Click here for the complete list of programming for March in Austin. For tips on interesting sessions to attend, visit the new Recommendation page. Register now to attend “Killed by Code - Freedom in My Heart and Everywhere” and other incredible programming at SXSW Interactive 2014.