While reading Experience and Education I was drawn to thinking through the culture of hacker and maker spaces (HMSs) through the eyes of John Dewey. As a pragmatic philosopher on education and democracy, he turns out to be the perfect lens for considering the culture of these spaces. Dewey would first read in HMSs a kind of continuation of the tug-of-war between “traditional” and “progressive” education. Their members enact a kind of anti-organization that is built around social learning, maximizing individualism while encouraging collaboration. Dewey saw sociality as essential to education, but noted that “community life does not organize itself in an enduring way purely spontaneously” (Dewey, 1997, p. 56). As much as Dewey questioned the institutionalized order of his day, he also had qualms with the progressives. Complete freedom “tends to be destructive of the shared cooperative activities which are the normal source of order” (Dewey, 1997, p. 63). That is, some amount of confinement is necessary. Hackerspace members – geeks, artists, and hackers – tend to be highly individualistic, even introverted and anti-social. A shared workspace provides a way to bring together a heterogeneous community and structure interactions that lead to learning through participation.
Hackerspaces are a place to socialize, linger, and play with technology. HMSs serve as a counterpoint to literature that conceives of hackers as atomized groups that communicate exclusively through online technologies such as IRC and Github. Gabriella Coleman (2010) noted a dearth of research that considered “the existence and growing importance of face-to-face interactions among these geeks, hackers and developers” (p. 48). HMSs thus accomplish a delicate balancing act similar to other democratically-aligned collectives, particularly coming out of 1960s counterculture. They embrace notions of equal access and democratic conventions. However, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the importance of leaders in HMSs. Members reject external (Weberian) authority but embrace what Dewey might call “factors of control that are inherent within experience” (Dewey, 1997, p. 21). It might be more productive to consider how members embrace what James Gee calls “porous leadership” where individuals take the helm at various times but don’t assume a formal leadership role. In other words, individual skill sets are invaluable for HMSs’ success, even if strong personalities can be a detriment. One of my HMS interviewees put it this way:
Right, we’re full of tools! our members are all tools. it’s funny because it does really have a dual meaning. People who are authoritative on subjects tend to be extremely opinionated. Which can make them come across as the colloquial tool… [like] the guy from scrubs. “I’m a tool, I’m a tool tool tool?” Yeah, people are annoying, and people are extremely hard to deal with, but you know what? They’re also assets.
Talk about socio-materiality. Speaking of which, hackers are the ultimate pragmatists. In the context of learning, Dewey defines pragmatism’s “essential feature is to maintain the continuity of knowing with an activity which purposely modifies the environment” (Dewey, 1915, p. 369). Hackerspace members’ crafting of physical space for learning follows on their creative use of technologies to accomplish their goals. Tim Jordan described how hackers “enact the sociality of technology” (Jordan, 2008, p. 15) in that they both believe in technological determinism and simultaneously refute it by closely linking is to individual agency. Consider the “design patterns” that were first presented at the Chaos Computer Club in 2007. These suggestions are designed to craft experiences and interactions that occur in hackerspace. They range from altering group processes, events, tools in the space. If something isn’t working, shuck it and try something else. Hackerspace members are constantly testing ideas and encouraging others to do the same. This is the meaning of do-ocracy: a radical pragmatism designed to unite the group through shared actions. It should be noted that do-ocracy is not normless, but it requires participants to sense and act on norms of the space. There is a certain reflexivity in hackerspaces. Moving down this road we might draw on Paul Leonardi’s concept of “imbrication” (Leonardi, 2011), where he uses ethnographic inquiry to examine how routines with technology in organizations change. But this is a different question. What I’m more interested in is the culture of hackerspaces and how they serve as an example of “hacker culture” moving towards being increasingly democratized. Which is a topic bigger than the curent blog post.
Coleman, E. G. (2012). Coding freedom : the ethics and aesthetics of hacking. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Coleman, G. (2010). The Hacker Conference: A Ritual Condensation and Celebration of a Lifeworld. Anthropological Quarterly, 83(1), 47–72. doi:10.1353/anq.0.0112
Dewey, J. (1915). Democracy and education: an introduction to the philosophy of education,. Dehli: Aakar Books.
Dewey, J. (1997). Experience and education. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Jordan, T. (2008). Hacking : digital media and technological determinism. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press.
Leonardi, P. (2011). When Flexible Routines meet Flexible Technologies: Affordance, Constraint, and the Imbrication of Human and Material Agencies. MIS Quarterly, 35(1), 147–167.