Creativity, collaboration, and pro-social activities in Hackerspaces

For pro-social efforts to be successful, we need creative environments to develop innovative solutions to pressing problems. Steven Johnson’s statement that “a good idea is a network” is supported by a wealth of research on the social nature of creativity, particularly that of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The ideal of the solo genius, toiling away in obscurity only to emerge with a brilliant invention that is immediately received and popularized, is mostly a myth. Ideas are more likely to grow when they are encouraged to collide with other ideas. The question of how to “think better” becomes about the culture and practices of certain spaces and communities.

Hackerspaces are local hotspots of creativity and technical expertise connected through the Internet to over a thousand similar collectives worldwide. Members and strangers alike share tools and ideas on technical and artistic projects as diverse as sewing, metalwork, software engineering, and biochemistry. They “mess around” via tinkering, which Richard Sennett in The Craftsman defines as “a mode of knowledge production that involves the hand, the use of tools, and mentoring relationships among people in close physical proximity” (p. 177). These spaces are generally open for anybody with a genuine curiosity for working on projects they are passionate about. The community of hackerspaces can be described as a loose collective of supportive, similarly-minded individuals that eschew top-down structure, employ peer learning, and love a challenge. As Resistor founder Nick Bilton put it in a Wired article “It’s almost a fight club for nerds.”

In a practical sense, members of Hackerspaces are taking part in collaborative consumption: the sharing of resources and ideas for mutual benefit. This ethic of sharing can be seen more broadly in the increasing reliance on service-based models, whether physically-proximate, like Zipcar, or virtual, like “cloud computing” or open-source software. Members I’ve spoken with often describe their visceral rejection of consumer goods they cannot modify or fix. These feelings harken back to the days of Heathkits, and a feeling that Americans have fallen into a general malaise about taking pride in manufacturing. To them, picking up a soldering iron is itself a kind of political statement. It’s a rejection of what Zittrain’s imagined as one possible future for the Internet: a death of innovation via companies that produce goods that are opaque and disposable.

The idea for a physical space for collaborative learning through hands-on activities is hardly new, and can be traced to ideas as familiar as shop class in high school. In The Craftsman, Richard Sennett makes two compelling arguments. First, he uses working with the hands to make the point that skills “begin as bodily practices” (p. 10). Second, that technical understanding first develops through the powers of imagination. Anne Balsamo, in Designing Culture, describes how ideas for possibilities of technology begin in the imagination. To look for the roots of hackerspaces and their potential for learning through doing means considering how people think about the potential of these spaces through historical lenses.

Recent examinations of the constitution of community and the dynamics of group life in online communities have touched on both pragmatic and cultural dimensions. Christian Pentzold examined the mailing lists of Wikipedia to see how they imagine constructing community, finding a strong ethical dimension. Mathieu O’Neil’s under-appreciated Cyber Chiefs details the various way that leaders and practices arise in tribalistic communities such as dailykos and (and in knowledge-sharing communities as egalitarian as Wikipedia, leaders emerge). Wherever people congregate, meaningful practices and group dynamics emerge. It’s these types of studies that inspire me to ask: how are Hackerspaces – as blended online/offline collectives for knowledge-sharing and creativity – models for informal learning, and how are they putting energies towards pro-social causes?

Hackerspaces don’t have a single history, but many possible histories, depending on who you ask. “Old-school” hackers from the MIT model railroad club contributed the idea that you are only as good as your last creative fix, or “hack.” The shadow of 2600 looms large, and there is still heavy overlap with their monthly meetings. Another historical lineage looks away from technical realms and into the fantastic, where people create machines and conduct performances that echoed the anarchist, anti-establishment tendencies of Dadism. Survival research laboratories, Burning Man, and the Cacophony Society are all modern equivalents that offered alternative spaces for playing with futuristic possibilities and creativity.

The strongest recent inspiration for hackerspaces came from Germany. Jens Ohlig and Lars Weiler, co-founders of the Chaos Computer Club, presented “design patterns” for hackerspaces at their 2007 summer camp. It heavily influenced Nick Farr and other founders of American hackerspaces, and was successively circulated as a PDF. Ohlig and Weiler identified infrastructure as of primary importance to fostering creativity: “Facilities come first. Once you have that, people will come up with the most amazing projects [sic] you didn’t think about in the first place.” Populate the space with equipment, add a comfortable lounge space, charge monthly fees (anywhere from $15 – $200), and try to attract people who understand the hacker ethics of tinkering, respect knowledge, and enjoy friendly competition. To this day, most Hackerspaces pick Tuesday nights as a weekly meeting time, because it’s recommended in the PDF: “Since all days are equally bad, just pick Tuesday.”

One case study for how Hackerspaces have engaged with DIY technology around pro-social activities is the activity surrounding measuring radiation levels in Japan. The March 11 Japan earthquake and tsunami resulted in widespread damage, particularly to the Fukushima reactor, whose cooling system failed and began to leak radiation. The government was cagey about releasing information about radiation levels. They were also criticized for not conducting localized enough readings on air and soil samples, and for using instruments that weren’t sensitive enough to alpha and beta radiation. In response, the Tokyo Hackerspace came up with the idea of putting together DIY geiger counters. Initially they employed surplus cold war-era parts, but later refined them to use commonly-available Arduino microcontrollers. They have now held multiple workshops and hosted guides on how to construct your own geiger counter. The Hackerspace partnered with Safecast, which raised over $36,000 through Kickstarter in May. The open data network created by Safenet for measuring radiation was populated with readings taken on DIY geiger counters created by Hackerspaces, resulting in data sets of crowdsourced radiation readings that can be seen in visualizations here.

One final note about the future of Hackerspaces: they need to be places of blended online/offline learning, and should take advantage of current opportunities for engaging with the public through existing venues. A recent blog post posed the question, “are hackerspaces the libraries of the future?” What I took this to mean is that, although the question of access is still a vital one, libraries are becoming less about the need to have a repository of knowledge. They are, however, uniquely situated; they exist outside of the traditional educational system, unite different ages of individuals, and exist throughout the world. Librarians are also natural curators. We should take a lesson from hackerspaces and think of ways to tinker with existing infrastructure and roles that might mesh with the new dynamics and roles in blended online/offline communities.


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