Hackers and Makers
Jim at Intel started a conversation through an Ignite session about hackers vs. makers, which has also been discussed on the hackerspaces mailing list. I prefer to think of the relationship between the two as an “and” not as a “versus,” because in most ways they are compatible rather than competitive. Both often refer to the same “big tent” of finding enjoyment and peer learning in hands-on tinkering, following on the observations of Turkle and Papert (1990) that there are multiple informal ways to use a computer, “more reminiscent of a painter than a logician” (p. 128). Both encourage encountering of technology in “third places” outside of traditional realms of work and home. Spaces are more accurately described along a sliding scale as more or less hacker/maker rather than fully either. The use of “hacker” in hackerspaces is also somewhat of a misnomer; members understand that these spaces are not just for software hackers in the sense it is typically understood (see Hackers as a Tainted Term, below). Even Make Magazine has some very hacker projects in it (the recently defunct ReadyMade, with its focus on artistic projects for the home & fun, is more maker and generally DIY). Jeremy at The Custom Geek describes the common motivation as,

When a maker/hacker buys something, it’s an entirely different attitude that a “regular” consumer. For the most part, a “regular” consumer wants to get the best deal on whatever they are buying, and they want it to “just work”. Yeah sure, us makers/hackers want the device to “just work” also, but we also want to know how and why it works. If we have full documentation, schematics, tutorials, and access to forums, we can fully understand what we own. And then once we understand it, we can fix, modify, hack it to our needs.

An example of how hackers and makers want to better understand the inner workings of electronics might be their shared enjoyment of fixing broken electronics. A member at Crashspace described a meticulous repair to his wife’s objet d’art robot, which had a malfunctioning light that illuminated a small red beating heart. It failed, leaving the toy devoid of blinky-blink. Instead of settling for a halfway solution, he used a makerbot to create an exact replacement for the plastic “heart” and designed an Arduino controller for the LED. He was proud of his fix, which improved his wife’s favorite decoration, and posted a lavishly illustrated documentary of the process online. The appeal was a pride of craftmanship, adding to public knowledge while improving the device in the process. It wasn’t the cheapest fix, but it was the best one. The motivations for this repair can’t be broken down to either an entirely hacker or maker ethic; this is a “good hack” because it’s making the best use of the available resources to solve a problem, however it’s a project that is rooted in aesthetics – more of a maker trait. This is a good example of how the waters are quite muddied. As with spaces themselves, it’s not likely that we’ll be able to parse out what is entirely maker or hacker.

So on one hand, hackers and makers have much in common in the way they view projects, and these differences aren’t easily teased out. On the other hand, I’m also proposing that the hacker/maker flavor of a hackerspace is important for three reasons: 1) it generally describes the types of projects that are welcomed there, 2) it helps hackerspace members make distinctions between spaces, and 3) the use of terms like “hacker” can be seen as tainted due to hysterical media reports of malicious hackers and the hackers that take a certain glee in wagging the dog.

1. Types of projects: Technical vs. aesthetic. Generally, makers generally are more open to learning for its own sake by working on kits and more aesthetically-based projects (artistic or musical). Hackers emphasize technical prowess and reverse engineering, while makers seem to enjoy the experience of construction, whether it be from a kit or otherwise. More hardcore hackers from the 2600 school consider the emphasis of makers on art and music to be rather “lite” and unserious. Lockpicking is not a maker skill, but a hacker one, back to the days of the MIT Lockpicking Guide and other texts were distributed on BBSs. The histories of hackers are more mapped out than that of makers, and a more complete history of makers will have to wait until I have time to rummage about. It strikes me as a very rich intersection of multiple histories. My friend Kevin Driscoll reminded me of kit and DIY culture in the 1970s, which reads like a predecessor to maker favorites ReadyMade and Make magazines, or even businesses like AdaFruit Industries. The maker movement could be argued to encompass DIY websites such as Etsy and Instructables. This is public media, websites and social media that are more easily accessible to the non-technically-inclined than IRC rooms and mailing lists. Then there are physical venues, such as Machine Project in LA, that don’t formally identify as hackerspaces but are community spaces that are open to performances and making activities of all kinds; the next two events on their site as I type this are “Burritos and beats” [BYOBurrito] and “Exploration of Millnery: Sculptural straw hats class.” The question is: how much of this DIY culture is considered Maker culture? Are FabLabs a kind of hackerspace? What is the role of DIY culture in general? The boundaries are fuzzy, and likely depends on who you ask.

2. Inter-space distinctions. A central tenet of any sociological perspective on communities is that you don’t have inclusion without exclusion. There is no defining a group without also defining who is not in the group. Even if a group is open to new members, there is a process they must go through to be vetted and accepted. History is rife with these informal and formal rituals. In fraternities, anyone can come to a frat party, but not everyone goes through the process to become a frat brother. Hackerspaces reject formal forms of regulation and maintain open-door policies, but also create distinctions among themselves as a way of explaining what makes their group different. In this way, members may feel comfortable in one hackerspace or another, but not through formal rejection (say, asking a new arrival to leave and not come back).

Objective differences in hacker/maker flavor can be emphasized or altered by members. In my experience, self-defined hackers are more likely to come from the DefCon/2600 school of thought, while makers have a more diffuse set of alignments, relating to DIY culture. Hackers may exaggerate objective differences in the ways makers devote their time to artistic activities, or call a “makerbot” (a 3-d printer that can create nearly any shape using extruded plastic) a waste of time. Other spaces may be oblivious to these differences, or draw entirely different ones; there is no guarantee that a more maker-oriented space views a hacker-oriented one using the same vocabulary, for example. This is one way that inter-space distinctions can be drawn. Another way to draw distinctions is through interactive style, a term I am using to discuss the tone of communication (rowdy or restrained) that is welcomed at a particular location.

Although hackerspaces are all open to visitors, they vary greatly in the way members talk among one another. My use of interactive style follows from Eliasoph and Lichterman’s (2003) investigation of the group style (consisting of group boundaries, group bonds, and speech norms) of a bar, The Buffalo Club. They made a convincing argument for how the rowdy and risqué behavior (offensive joking, racist remarks) of a bar signaled an alignment with egalitarian principals. By playing along with offensive jokes, a member of the group signaled that all group members were possible targets for razzing, and thereby demonstrate that he or she is no better than anyone else. Club members were anti-establishment in the way they would, “draw group boundaries against institutions… they assumed they ought to respect each other as human beings pure and simple, and they wanted to give each other ample room to be themselves” (p. 768). They described the group style of the Buffalo Club as active disengagement, because members didn’t know basic information about other members outside of the establishment and “kept group bonds thin, on purpose” (p. 768). To be a participant meant refraining from expressing “serious” opinions, including those that would be typically considered democratic discourse. It wouldn’t be appropriate to talk about one’s voting habits or family in detail, for instance. It was not that kind of deliberative space. In much the same way, a rowdier hackerspace may be more anti-establishment and its speech norms more shocking to potential members than a restrained one, even if the learning in both is beneficial in both types of spaces. Rowdiness may be expressed more explicitly on mailing lists, as it may be easier for individuals who are socially shy (or not often present in a given hackerspace) to type emails to razz others. This is a kind of online speech norm that draws distinct group boundaries that affect who feels welcome in an offline space.

3. Hacker as a tainted term. Calling a particular location a “hackerspace” or “makerspace” – and thus an alignment with hackers or makers – may relate more to the type of people its founders are trying to attract. The “hacker” term is symbolically loaded in the current day, when stories of credit card fraud, identity theft, and voicemail hacking dominate the news cycle. A more closely related term to the illegal aspect of hacking (breaking password encryption, sniffing, etc.) is cracking, but it’s not clear this is in common usage – the average person still associates the word “hack” with risk and threat. Matthew Badeau describes the motivation for his group, HI Capacity, to change its name from a hackerspace to a makerspace: “we’ve had a difficult time trying to get non-techies on board with our idea. Since early June, every time we would mention ‘hackerspace,’ we would get a strange look until we explained ourselves. It gave off the impression that we were harboring black-hat hackers. Then, even within the same conversation, if we used the word ‘makerspace,’ their mood changed.”

It bears mention that public perceptions of what “hacker” means are mostly inaccurate. There is an understanding among hackerspace members that the term refers to the 1960s-era MIT idea of hacker as “someone who applies ingenuity to create a clever result” (thanks to Chris Horton for the timely link). As a recent article on upstart hackerspace Tangleball in New Zealand put it, “the term hackerspace isn’t so much a rigid definition as it is an ethos; one that encompasses DIY, information-sharing, open community, disruptive technology and a dash of anti-authoritarian attitude.” You still have a creative user that knows how to end up with something greater than the sum of its parts, and does so on his or her own terms, but without the accent on legality. Steven Levy defined the hacker ethic as:

1. Access to computers and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
2. All information should be free.
3. Mistrust Authority Promote Decentralization.
4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
5. You can create art and beauty on a computer.
6. Computers can change your life for the better.

Hackers and makers could probably agree on 1-4. On five, hackers would probably agree that technical feats are beautiful, but waffle at the connection with aesthetics. On six, some hackerspaces are not interested in pro-social causes. For example, the slogan of the NullSpace is that they are “the only hackerspace that is not saving the world.” This relates to another flavor, that of self-directed vs. pro-social, which describes the overall goals of the space. Some are happy to merely be sustainable and help their members, while others more outwardly embrace efforts to help educate, inform, or otherwise use technology to assist others in need.

Four flavors of hackerspaces have been discussed: non-profit/for-profit (previous post), hacker/maker, self-directed/pro-social, and rowdy/restrained interactive style. I also suggest here that they interact in complex ways over time. For instance, what defines spaces that are more interested in pro-social causes, such as HI Capacity helping create a DIY, geomapped geiger counter? Are for-profit hackerspaces more sustainable, or is it a case of more money = more problems because they try to grow too quickly and end up alienating the casual members? Can hackerspaces work in ways other than with a ground-up dynamic? What is the role of the founders in all this? Are hackerspaces rowdier and makerspaces more restrained in interactive style? The most important question of hackerspaces is what makes some productive/creative/generative and others not.

The next post will delve more deeply into the question of how hackerspaces approach education and pro-social causes.