HotSpot 3 – Kickstarting a Hackerspace

(See also the series overview for this Hotspot on civic crowdfunding.)

Andrew Schrock

Hacker and maker spaces (HMSs) are open-access workshops for creative and technical projects. Why are there over 500 worldwide? Simply put, people still need space to do stuff. There’s a lot that these collective organizations can accomplish in person that distributed networks cannot. They are full of tools, ideas, and most importantly, conversations. These are “third spaces” similar to coffee shops that have long been thought to be important informal sites of discussion and collaboration. HMSs also serve as a location for peripheral participation, or learning through observation and hands-on work. Libraries and universities, anxious to give their physical footprint value in an age of online journals and MOOCs, have even attempted to copy hackerspaces.

Hacker and maker spaces are an example of how crowdfunding can capture the imagination of a distributed community of interest and focus it on a single idea that can have an immediate impact in a local neighborhood. While it’s difficult to quantify how many HMSs focus on civic goals, you know one when you walk into it. Nullspace in Los Angeles has a sign when you walk in that says “step up” and their slogan is, cheekily, “the only hackerspace that is not saving the world.” It’s a meritocracy to its core. Others, such as Protospace in Calgary, have overtly civic goals and are well-connected in both their neighborhoods and a larger international community of HMS members. They network with local organizations and come together as a group to solve tasks that benefit their larger community. One recent event was Repair Cafe, where the group came together “to provide the citizens of Calgary with the tools and expertise to repair all kinds of household items.” Hackers, as it turns out, hate waste.

HMSs can be seen as part of a broad movement towards a democratization of hacker culture, broadening the historical focus on software hackers. In his Hacker Culture book, Doug Thomas described how a mixture of “leets” and “noobs” among 1990s hackers led to a denigration of newcomers. These “script kiddies” would run code that more experienced members created, creating a rather unhealthy relationship between those with knowledge and those without. Previous generations of hackers relished the negative attention that they received from the media, adding it to their constantly shifting and subversive identities. By comparison, HMS members invite anyone to come visit, and relish the opportunity to change a visitor’s mind. HMSs tend to be run democratically and employ a consensus model for voting on issues of importance to the space. Although HMSs still grapple with issues of equal participation, representation by women and individuals of color is increasing. Even the less civically-minded of these spaces embrace an ethic of open access to the public.

In many ways, HMSs grapple with the same difficulties as all small organizations. They tend to operate hand to mouth, making an influx of cash at the start particularly helpful, and emerge from grassroots networks of amateurs and professionals who may not have much experience with communicating and coordinating around a shared set of goals, They encounter bumps in the road, particularly around paying rent and taxes. The most common HMS model is monthly donations from members, typically $25-30, and run on a shoestring budget. When something unexpected happens, which if you’ve ever helped run an organization you know is surprisingly often, it can end up being a serious problem. NYC Resistor lost their insurance when their insurer decided they were a liability because of the stigma associated with the word “hacker.” Similarly, the Distributed Hacker/Maker Network had issues obtaining theirs, ultimately defining themselves as ambiguously as a “hobby club.” This certainly shows the power of a simple term which many still conflate with criminal intentions.

Mothership Hackermoms

Mothership Hackermoms

The diversity of interpretations of HMSs created through Kickstarter serve as evidence of how organizational chapters allow for a certain flexibility. At the end of the day, the term “hacker” in 2013 is easily adopted rather than earned, and is flexible rather than rigid. A campaign for the hackerspace Gemsi was run by Iraqi-American Bilal Ghalib, billed as one of the few HMSs in the middle-east. Ghalib’s space is now called Fikra (arabic for “idea”) and is in operation in Iraq. This is a particularly welcome development, because hackerspaces are still a predominantly western concept, particularly coming out of German locations such as the Chaos Computer Club, which has been in operation in various forms since the 1980s; it’s easy to draw a direct line between the Chaos Communication Congress via Jake Applebaum and Bre Pettis to the founding of US-based HMSs such as Noisebridge and Resistor NYC. Mothership Hacker Moms is the first hackerspace by and for women, running counter to stereotypes of hackers as isolated, single males. Their effort emerged from a need for a kid and women-friendly environment for artists and geeks in Oakland, CA. As one particularly powerful example of the benefits of connectedness, the promo video notes the very real isolation mothers feel from the social ties and community spaces that they once found sustaining. This group basically forked, or created a version of, the source code of hackerspaces, re-imagining them as family spaces. Finally, Los Angeles Makerspace is my hometown HMS that I don’t spend enough time in, co-founded by Tara Tiger Brown, who you may have seen a few weeks ago on the White House Google Hangout on the Maker Movement. They run an impressive array of classes, particularly Ariel “Levi” Simons’ DIY science classes, and similar to Mothership Hacker Moms, imagine themselves as a “family friendly innovation hub.”

<< back to the series overview for this Hotspot on civic crowdfunding