This summer I’ve been visiting hackerspaces in the Los Angeles to better understand why they have sprung up in the last few years, and how people in these spaces view them as communities of practice. My interest stems from their role as spaces of informal learning where identities are constructed and knowledge is freely shared. Through a series of blog posts I’d like to share what I’ve learned, and solicit feedback from members of these spaces – comments are welcomed below or through Twitter.
A scruffy 20-something with close-cropped hair, wireframe glasses and a red DefCon t-shirt stands behind me as I put the tip of an 1/8″ drill bit of an electric drill to a plastic faceplate. As I depress the trigger, its tip skitters across the surface. “You can hold your hand here to steady it,” he says patiently, pointing to the upper-left corner. I didn’t realize that the clamp wouldn’t be adequate to keep the plastic from bending. I hold the corner with my free hand, and sure enough, the tip goes through the plastic like butter. Then he hands me a much larger bit with a ring of nasty looking teeth around the edge, about 2 1/2″ in diameter. I remember earlier asking another member about safety, and what he would do if a guy like me walked in off the street and wanted to use equipment he was clearly unqualified for. “It’s more a watch and advise kind of thing,” he said. I start to sweat as I screw the savage looking bit into the hand drill. He doesn’t stop me.
Looking into a Hackerspace
I’m at a Hackerspace in Fullerton, where people can come to chat, work on projects, and come together as a community. It’s about 1000 square feet zoned in an industrial area, where noise isn’t an issue and heavy gear can be easily wheeled in. A pile of unwanted gear stands outside: a full rack on wheels, an old snack dispenser covered in stickers, and boxes of plastic pipes and cables. People of all ages mill about. A scant few, such as the fellow giving me advice on drilling, are “key holders” with unlimited access. This most prestigious ranking requires a large donation to cover rent. The majority are members who contribute a smaller amount. A few others are visitors like me, just checking the place out or coming in with a few questions. John Draper, also known as “Cap’n Crunch” in phreaker circles, has made an appearance and is talking about sustainable communities. As night falls, people migrate from the cluttered space to outside, standing around the table of food that grows in size as burgers are taken off the grill. The warm air is filled with chatter of current projects (a CO2-powered beer cooler), the upcoming DefCon, and a recent win in a hacker challenge bankrolled by Red Bull.
The Hacker Ethic
In 1995 I was given a firsthand look at a precursor of the current Hackerspace movement. Back then The L0pht was just a place where action happened, frequented by people dressed in all black, identified only by nicknames like “Deth Vegetable” – hackers I met at 2600 meetings. I quickly learned that hackers revered technical expertise that was demonstrated with flair or humor, a nod to pranks perpetuated at MIT. One of my first forays into the then-unmapped Internet was decompressing a small file provided by L0pht guru Count Zer0 in gzip format. It was manipulated to expand infinitely, filling my small Linux HD and crashing my machine.
Then there is the hacker ethic of pushing hardware and software beyond its intended uses in ways that may not be entirely legal. The L0pht group was particularly fond of the “exploit” – identifying a weakness in an existing system and making a small program or script to take advantage of it. The L0pht hackers discovered a bug in Windows NY in 1997 that allowed passwords to be more easily cracked. They alerted Microsoft, who were not interested in taking advice from a bunch of nobodies. They denied the problem existed at all, stating in a press release, “this is not a security flaw with Windows NT” (Thomas, 2002, p. 107). In response, the L0pht hackers ported their UNIX-based exploit to the Windows platform and made it available for download. The press, who previously had little interest in such a story, now vilified the group as malicious, even as L0pht member Mudge compared the exploit to the magazine Consumer Reports, because it, “alerts the general populace to the problem and forces the company to fix it” (Thomas, 2002, p. 109). They were using technology to draw attention to a weakness in a popular software product, forcing a company’s hand to fix it.
Hacking was about expanding knowledge within a confined community, which tended to be clique-ish. 2600 meetings started in the food court of the mall, but broke up into smaller groups, where “serious” (often illegal and most certainly exclusionary) hacking commenced. Doug Thomas has described the “hacker style” in his book Hacker Culture. Hackers were only secondarily about bricolage, or creatively improvising from available resources. They primarily sought to “perturb or disrupt authority and challenge any understanding or representation of who they are” (p. 141). It’s a version of what Hebdige wrote about when examining the Punk movement as a member of the Birmingham school. A subculture emerges in response to what is lacking in mainstream culture, using and shifting cultural meanings. Punks in the 1970’s pogo’d to dance and played music that was more noise than harmony, because they were consciously searching for alternate modes of self-expression. Similarly, hacking was always an ongoing search for the next coolest thing, a constant struggle against authority. If you didn’t keep up, you couldn’t run with that crowd.
Are hackerspaces similarly defined as an oppositional subculture concerned with upsetting those in power? It’s difficult to reconcile the constantly shifting elitism of mid-90s hackers with the open-door policies of current hackerspaces. During a recent night at NullSpace that was supposed to be on malware, the instructors ended up teaching the young arrivals about binary code, because they were at a beginner level. The hackers I remembered from fifteen years ago would be more likely to simply tell them to “RTFM” and show them the door.
Part of the puzzle is the entry of “makers” to the scene. By contrast to hackers, they are primarily concerned with tinkering through bricolage, and are more likely to be interested in kits and artistic projects than a subversive style. Hackerspaces fall in varying places along the hacker/maker spectrum, which I’ll talk about in more detail in the next post. For now, the distinction might be best seen by looking at Make magazine, which started in 2005 and has become something of a bible for makers, with a readership of over 125,000. A glance through the most recent issue reveals a wi-fi receiver, anti-dog-bite siren, and “Build an Ancient Egyptian Bag Press.” Contrast this with old issues of 2600, with their back-cover pictures of payphones of the world, breathless reporting of federal lawsuits involving hackers, and dialup numbers. Making a clock that plays pong does not serve the same goal as publishing the numbers of telco dialups. Makers are more interested in learning for fun or profit while working on projects that embrace artistic goals.
A maker project: a musical instrument made out of found containers and solenoids
Offline and Online Community
Jens Ohlig and Lars Weiler were co-founders of the Chaos Computer Club, which you may remember from its connection to Wikileaks vis-a-vis its second in command, Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Nick Farr and other founders of American hackerspaces picked up the concept from the Chaos Computer Club summer camp in 2007. Ohlig and Weiler also wrote a widely-circulated PDF in late 2007 where they 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 used equipment, aim for ten people to start with, add a comfortable lounge space, charge monthly fees (anywhere from $15 – $200), and you have yourself a recipe for a hackerspace, which you can open to people who understand the hacker ethics of tinkering, respect knowledge, and enjoy friendly competition. The exact projects worked on in the space are decided by the people who come there.
“The primary thing you get with your membership is community,” says Jorge*, one of the original members of an 18-month-old hackerspaces in Los Angeles. Hackerspaces are physical spaces first, built to foster a sense of community in like-minded others. In this, they are similar to Oldenburg’s concept of “third places,” which refers to locations with conversation is the main activity, a set of regulars, and a playful mood. These places tend not to have a formal structure. He didn’t see the main activity of these spaces, “hanging out,” as a symptom of delinquency, as is common in everyday life – think about getting a ticket for “loitering.” Like Habermas, Oldenburg saw places like coffee shops as full of possibilities for pro-social activities and civic engagement. There has been a marked downtick in participation in neighborhood organizations, as noted by Putnam in his controversial Bowling Alone. Hackerspaces offer a type of informal learning, identity, and community that is attractive to members.
Learning Through Tinkering: A Macro View
If hackerspaces are open to the public in theory, their physical appearance is deceiving. Typically they are located in dicey low-rent neighborhoods and have minimal signage. This echoes Oldenburg, who considered third places to typically be plain, unimpressive, and inelegant… think of your local bar where the “regulars” go, or the street corner hangout. This may be particularly true in the modern day, because “in cultures where mass advertising prevails and appearance is valued over substance, the third place is all the more likely not to impress the uninitiated” (p. 36). The online channels of communication, wikis and IRC (Internet Relay Chat), are similarly minimal, and some hackerspaces, even reject social media for publicity purposes. The outside may only have a small sticker next to a buzzer on a door down a dark alley, like NullSpace, or have a full storefront of gadgets and full signage, like Crashspace. Regardless of how easy they are to find, open-door policies for “serious fun” are a factor in the flourishing of hackerspaces. Tinkering is a valuable form of co-learning; John Seely Brown has proposed the metaphor of the architectural studio as a pedagogical environment where we learn through tinkering, through proximity of working “shoulder to shoulder” with peers an architectural studio. But it doesn’t come close to explaining why people are attracted to these small, difficult to find locations. To do that, we must zoom out to look at the bigger picture.
Participatory culture in general is a given for younger individuals who don’t remember a time without Google – the so-called millennials. Getting together to work on “crowdsourced” projects in a nameless offline meeting space seems more feasible if you’ve grown up with the idea that anonymous individuals can meet, collaborate, and create online. To go further, Henry Jenkins has written extensively about the failings of the educational system, which tends to be formulaic, unstimulating, and doesn’t allow youth venues for self-expression. Hackerspaces can be seen as one way individuals are finding creative solutions to failings in the current educational system. Mike*, a Ph.D student at a highly-ranked private University in the Los Angeles area, described to me why he couldn’t follow his passion when selecting a topic for his dissertation. It was highly ambitious, so it had a high chance of resulting in unusable data. Mike opted for a less exciting project that had a higher probability of producing usable data, even if the results didn’t come out as he expected. He has to hide his hackerspace affiliation from his university, because it could be perceived as breaking the requirements of his funding. He must lead a kind of double life, fulfilling his grad school requirements by day, and pursuing a project he is passionate about by night.
There is a slogan from agile software development – “fail early and often” – that’s a reminder not to view failure as a bad thing. Or, as former Google CIO Douglas Merrill put it, “Sometimes being dumb changes the game,” because you approach problems in unconventional ways. Ways that might not be welcomed in other educational spaces. In the same Hackerspace as Mike, Ben* is working on a degree in electrical engineering at a local college. He could get access to resources at school, but this would require him teaming up with professors, who tend to have a heavy hand in designing projects students work on. Ben goes a hackerspace for similar reasons to Mike: higher ed isn’t fulfilling their desire for more learning, and they don’t have access to organizations with both equipment and a group of similarly-minded peers. Plus, it’s fun to them. “My friends are home playing Xbox,” says Mike. “I’d rather come here.”
Members of hackerspaces are also quick to point out that you can’t repair anything now. If your TV breaks, it’s so cheap and complex that it’s often easier to simply replace it. In “The Future of the Internet,” Jonathan Zittrain points out that an increasing number of companies are making their hardware un-modifiable, which impinges on the ability of individuals to improve it. His suggestion is to to not stifle tinkering, because that’s how the got the Internet to where it is today. It’s a sentiment echoed by many scholars, particularly at the Harvard-affiliated Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Lawrence Lessig, long a proponent of reducing the power of overly-constrictive copyright laws, models how behavior is regulated as being due to norms, market forces, laws, and architecture. The fear is that laws have become so powerful that it stifles innovation. A lawsuit can quickly bankrupt an individual – not because she is in the wrong, but because she doesn’t have the financial resources to compete with a corporation. The abuse of patent law has led to the coining of the phrase “patent trolls” for companies such as Intellectual Ventures, which serve primarily to sit on patents that can be used to demand money for what are often very basic website features. The excess lawsuits of the music industry is well-documented. In this climate, hackers and makers are responding to what is possible rather than simply what is permitted by law (i.e. legal) or market forces (i.e. profitable).
Members of hackerspaces are pushing back against the end-user mentality Zittrain describes in a very hacker-esque way. Yet, hackerspaces have expanded their goals to learning (more broadly considered), become hybridized with makers, become more inclusive, and even embrace tackling social justice issues. To speak of going “beyond hacking” means to look at the hacker ethic exemplified in the L0pht as merely one of many starting points for hackerspaces. Hackerspace members talk of tinkering with a purpose, reaching beyond their immediate community and finding a thrill in learning for its own benefit. Most hackerspaces hold classes, and even the more secretive ones are generally open to visitors, who are free to use the equipment. This would be an uncommon occurrence in similar communities in the 1990s, where knowledge sharing was tempered with paranoia and elitism; you only shared with those you knew were on the same level, and mentorship was a more serious affair, and occurred in back rooms, not public spaces.
Hackerspaces are best considered as communities of practice – collectives that volunteer to learn about topics they are passionate about. Wenger defines these as requiring 1) commitment to a domain, 2) meaningful discussion and shared activities, and 3) a shared repertoire of resources. It should be stressed that many hackerspaces do not view themselves as formal organizations, but often develop internal structures to tackle problems (more on this later). The one rule in San Francisco’s Noisebridge Hackerspace is “be excellent to each other dudes!” In the coming months I’ll map the practices of these spaces, the distinctions members draw among themselves, and the roles that exist in hackerspaces.
Coming in Part 2: Hackers vs. Makers, Projects, and Exclusionary Dynamics.
* = an alias. Often an alias of an alias, even.
Hebdige, D. (1988). Subculture : the meaning of style. London: Routledge.
Oldenburg, R. (1997). The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day. Marlowe & Co.
Putnam, R. D. (2001). Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon & Schuster.
Thomas, D. (2002). Hacker culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Wenger, E. (2002). Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity. (Reprint.). Cambridge: Cambridge University.
Zittrain, J. (2008). The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It. Yale University Press.