This post talks of Hackerspaces, a topic that I’ll be posting a primer on later this week, so tune in then!

In a recent post, Phillip Torrone posits that Google+ Hangouts will become the new Hackerspaces. I tend to say no, at least how I define Hackerspaces. Phillip is speaking more broadly of how collaboratives of makers are connecting online, which makes sense because he’s posting on the website for Make magazine, the leading publication for makers, with a subscription rate of over 125,000. This is quite a bit different than considering if physically-proximate Hackerspaces will be supplanted. While Google+ might be a tool they use, I find it difficult to believe that the interactions and learning that take place in these spaces will adopt this technology en masse.

First a bit of background on my beliefs as to why humans have a terrible track record with predicting the effects of technologies. The late Ithiel de Sola Pool’s book Forecasting the Telephone collects reports of people’s beliefs about what the telephone would do, such as spread disease and keep people isolated. In many ways, it’s a collection of extremes – utopian hopes and dystopian fears. We are going through the same cycle regarding the Internet. On one hand it brings people together, on the other, the media are quick to point out how it spreads computer viruses, renders our identities public, and encourages “Internet addiction.” These are the poles from which arguments are formulated, and subtleties receive far less attention.

In Sow’s Ears from Silk Purses, Langdon Winner describes “technological utopianism,” where humans have a kind of planned obsolescence with technology. Technology doesn’t result in a leveling of power, but rather technological claims become part of our reality through media, advertisements, and a shared vocabulary. The power of technology is essentially a blindness to unintended consequences. We can’t see alternatives to technology, because it has become so ingrained in our reality. To Winner, technology has strong effects of its own, much as McLuhan famously spoke of in the sixties. I view this as merged with the way Barthes views myth; we mythologize our past and it becomes “common sense.” To “think otherwise” – outside of utopian/distopian extremes – becomes difficult.

The aesthetic of a “hangout” fits with Mimi Ito’s work about how youth view “hanging out” as a primary way of being. Phillip is exactly correct that makers/hackers tend to spend a lot of time multitasking – chatting with friends while working on projects. The problem here is that he observes the influx of makers to Google+, but the maker aesthetic (inclusive of art, learning for its own sake, use of kits, and “how-to” guides) does not exclusively define Hackerspaces. There is significant diversity in the way people who go to these physical locales view their purpose there, and compare their group to others. I think it’s true that “Google+ isn’t spam and games” like Facebook is, because Google has always been more about a stripped-down interface they can monetize in unobtrusive ways. You don’t have to worry about a friend playing too much Farmville and clogging up your feed on Google+. However, some of the hackerspace members who fall more on the “hacker” end of the spectrum (this is part of a longer post to be posted later this week) eschew social media entirely, preferring very old-school technologies like IRC and static websites.

The  problem with outlining a set of features that could be used in a prescribed way is that this doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be adopted as intended. Internet technologies could help or hinder individual collaboration. They may be ignored by hackers. On the more macro side, companies are very astute about using technologies to further their own goals. Adding another wrinkle is that the hacker ethic is all about unintended uses – tinkering with a piece of software or hardware to discover its inner workings, and how to use it in creative ways that its creators haven’t thought of. It is due to this backdrop of pervasive technological utopianism and unintended uses that making predictions of how technologies will be adopted is so incredibly difficult.

Hackerspaces are also primarily about the importance of physical proximity. The defining document in Hackerspaces is from the Chaos Computer Club, whom you may remember as being affiliated with Daniel Domscheit-Berg, number two at Wikileaks for several years. Ohlig and Weiler wrote an influential and widely-circulated PDF in late 2007, following the visit of several Americans to visit spaces in Germany, where they identify infrastructure as of primary importance to fostering creativity: “Make everything infrastructure-driven… facilities come first. Once you have that, people will come up with the most amazing projects you [sic] didn’t think about in the first place.” (If you want to view the influence of the Germans, consider how most hacker spaces plan their weekly meeting on a Tuesday; Ohlig and Weiler suggested, “Since all days are equally bad, just pick the [sic] Tuesday. End of discussion”)

Membership in a given Hackerspace is defined by showing up and being part of the community, not how much money you contribute or how often you chat with other members online. Even though members are very astute technologically, they seem to follow an agile development model of using technology that is “barely sufficient” – that is, just enough to accomplish the job, and no more. Many Hackerspaces consciously reject social media, as they come from more of an old-school background, where IRC is the main mode of synchronous communication. About as social as they get online is a wiki. Hackerspaces are defined by “projects” that must have a physical locale to be worked on, which requires resources such as machinery – PCB making machinery, drill presses – and the knowledge to use them – it’s easier to teach someone by standing behind them as they use it than it is to try to do so over a webcam.

There is a distinction here between “hacker” Hackerspaces and ones that follow more of a “maker” aesthetic, which I’ll outline in more detail in a post this week, so tune in!

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