Respect the Past, Examine the Present, Build the Future

Nick Farr | Posted 2009.08.25 at 5:00 pm | Perma

Hackerspaces aren’t a recent phenomenon. The latest crop of Hackerspaces to emerge over the past two years represent a Third Wave, something approaching a critical mass in a longer continuum of efforts Hackers have made to collaborate in physical spaces.

Spaces like the L0pht, New Hack City (Boston and San Francisco), the Walnut Factory, the Hasty Pastry, and many other First Wave spaces that date back to the early 1990s are the stuff of legend. Some of my most cherished memories among Hackers took place at NHC, circa 2001. I wish New Hack was still around, just down Market street under the “We Buy Diamonds” awning, only evidenced by a buzzer button labelled “SETEC Astronomy”.

Did spaces like NHC contribute to excitement over hackerspaces? Absolutely. Did they inspire the Hackers in Germany and Austria who began building spaces of their own in the late 90s? It’s a question worth looking at, it points at a need for expanded theoretical discussions about the development of Hackerspaces. Hackers throughout Europe fueled the Second Wave of spaces, proving Hackers could be perfectly open about their work, organize officially, gain recognition from the government and respect from the public by living and applying the Hacker ethic in their efforts.

With a decade of experience and the collected wisdom of the Design Patterns, efforts like C-Base and the C4 inspired the Third Wave of spaces like NYCResistor, HacDC and Noisebridge.

I choose to view the Hackerspace phenomenon under a Toffleresque framework of successive waves. You might frame it more elegantly, or not frame it at all, and I will probably happily agree with your conclusions. As I wrote on the Hackerspaces discussion list, looking at the theory of hackerspaces is not about casting firm definitions or assigning motivations. It’s about identifying patterns, trends and theory that help us frame and examine what’s happening with Hackerspaces. It’s an invitation to open debate and documenting our thoughts and feelings about our spaces so we can benefit from each other’s experiences and give new spaces the benefit of our collected wisdom.

Firm debates along clear lines such as hackerspaces vs. non-hackerspaces, serving members vs. serving the public and spaces of old vs. spaces of new are not as clear cut as they’re sometimes framed. Simplification allows us to discuss generics and trends while lending others a framework for examining their own efforts. Developing and sharing theory is about being inclusive.

We could very easily kill the enthusiasm behind the movement if we use theory as an exclusionary fence. Theory should illustrate progression and suggest the best paths for moving forward, not define a set of limitations. If a hackerspace is “a place where people can learn about technology and science outside the confines of work or school”, then a hardware hacking skybox at the Riviera during DefCon, or a food court during a 2600 meeting should qualify as a hackerspace too.

Even the idea of Hackerspaces as a benevolent collectives is worth challenging. As Hackers struggle to find work in the global downturn, why shouldn’t we have patently for-profit hackerspaces? The idea may be initially offensive, but what better way of getting towards a future where soldering irons are as normal in bars and coffee shops as pencils and moleskines are today? Instead of discounting the for-profit idea and other efforts to expand Hackerspaces as a concept, we should be encouraging and participating in such efforts. The global economy being what it is, who wouldn’t support some entrepreneurial hackers with their local parts store and coffee shop?

If we’re not growing conceptually, if we’re not networking as spaces efficiently, if we’re not exciting those younger and more enthusiastic than we are, this incredible global phenomenon we’ve got going is bound to fail. In a way, a certain level of failure is inevitable. Odds are good that we’re going to lose some spaces over the next year. With some continued effort and global cooperation, we can keep most of the explosive net growth we’ve had over the past two years. We can build a future where a hackerspace is already waiting in the next place our life takes us.

The First Wave showed us that hackers could build spaces. The Second Wave showed us how to make it sustainable. The Third Wave will ultimately provide us with critical mass, or it’ll peter out. So much effort goes into building these spaces and so much good comes out of them that I believe we must focus on ways of keeping them alive and vital.

Looking at the history of these spaces and the theory behind them is something we can all take part in. Even if you aren’t directly involved in a hackerspace, you can help research old spaces and contribute your findings to the hackerspaces.org wiki. If you have experience with non-profits, write a wiki page on fundraising, or some other aspect you have experience in. If you are involved in a Hackerspace, respond to Far McKon’s Hackerspace organization questions, join the Hackerspaces discussion list and jump on the upcoming call-in!

Categories : organization  people  theory
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The Rights and Obligations of Hackerspace Members

Nick Farr | Posted 2009.08.19 at 2:25 am | Perma

With Hacking at Random now behind us, giving us a fresh supply of hackers excited about the Hackerspaces movement, it’s worth noting that the “Design Patterns” by Ohlig and Skytee are now two years old. Initially presented after the first Hackers on a Plane, and later revised for the 24C3 and other conferences, the patterns are still the best guiding theory behind the global Hackerspace Movement.

Of course, the theory must keep up with the practice of Hackerspaces. One of the things I enjoy most about Defcon, HAR and the other conferences I attend are the intense discussions on Hackerspaces and the theory behind them. One of the biggest points of contemplation in the discussions I have are the differences between members, non-members and other casual visitors to local hackerspaces. Many in the community don’t have the time or resources to build a hackerspace or become a member. However, it is these “casual users” that help breathe life and vitality into today’s spaces, the ones that ensure the success of this global movement and the ones I believe we have an obligation to support and encourage to make this movement sustainable.

In an interview for HAR FM, I noted my belief that Hackerspace members do in fact have obligations that come with the rights and benefits of building and sustaining a Hackerspace. While the rights of membership are clear, such as having a key, a place to build and store projects and other special privileges, the obligations of membership are something not often discussed or even consciously realized.

Since each Hackerspace differs slightly on members and the issue of membership, I choose to define a member as a person directly involved with the upkeep and governance of a Hackerspace. Most members pay dues to cover rent and expenses and share the obligations of administration, publicity, documentation and other duties essential to keeping a space open and flourishing. Without these members, the Hackerspace itself would cease to exist.

It’s worth noting that Hackerspaces have been around for quite some time, the most notable being the L0pht in Boston. Founded in 1992, the L0pht began life as a storage space for Oblivion’s electronic and excess computer junk and, as he describes, “turned into quite a presence”. The wikipedia article on the L0pht shows how its members functioned in a role similar to those in hackerspaces today:

As L0pht occupied a physical space, it had real expenses such as electricity, phone, Internet access, and rent. Early in the L0pht’s history these costs were evenly divided between L0pht members. In fact, L0pht originally shared a space with a hat-making business run by the spouses of Brian Oblivion and Count Zero, and the rental cost was divided between these.

The key distinction between a space like the L0pht and a “Design Patterns” Hackerspace is that the latter actively engages those outside their direct membership and the former exists primarily to serve its members and their interests. Spaces like c-base and the C4 that inspired the Design Patterns exist as a venue for the local hacker community, in sharp contrast with spaces like the L0pht and spiritual successors like New Hack City (San Francisco). The distinction is very well put in an article about the hacker documentary Disinformation, and the challenges the filmmaker had shooting NHC and Cult of the Dead Cow members who built and sustained the space:

The hackers are seen chatting, goofing around, and demonstrating their break-in skills at one of their said-to-be San Francisco-based hangouts, the so-called New Hack City hacker social club. “Said-to-be” because the whereabouts of the clubhouses that host the spare-time activities of the Cult of the Dead Cow is a well-guarded secret.

That secrecy made life difficult for director Backer, who was constrained by time, money, and few opportunities to interview his subjects.

“They were very strict,” Backer said. “They blindfolded us and drove us around for a couple days, going in circles. Finally we got to their secret location, and I had no idea where I was. They said we were in San Francisco.”

Nearly a decade later and just down the street from where New Hack City existed, Wired wrote about Noisebridge, quoting founding member and TV-B-Gone inventor Mitch Altman who explained how Noisebridge operates on an entirely different philosophy inspired by the Design Patterns:

“In our society there’s a real dearth of community,” Altman says. “The internet is a way for people to key in to that need, but it’s so inadequate. [At hacker spaces], people get a little taste of that community and they just want more.”

Noisebridge even welcomes non-members to come use the space, and Altman says non-members can do everything that members can (except block the consensus process). The community governs itself according to the guiding principle expressed on a large poster of Keanu Reeves hanging from the loft: “Be excellent to each other, dudes.”

The spirit of excellence from Noisebridge not only covers how members must treat each other, it extends to how members should treat the community outside their membership, those that benefit from having a space nearby. This obligation is not a static one, as new members are almost always casual users first. There are also many casual users that spend a lot of time in hackerspaces, perhaps making more significant contributions than regular members, but decline to officially join for many different reasons.

Without these casual users, hackerspaces run the risk of disappearing like the L0pht and New Hack City did. Being welcoming to the outside world helps ensure our collective success and sustainability, helps show the world what hacking is all about and helps feed and cultivate projects and activities going on locally and globally. It leads to more hackerspaces and more resources for existing hackerspaces. It’s the kind of thing we should keep in mind when we build and maintain our spaces, that we’re not just in it for ourselves, we’re in it for our neighbors and our world.