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.

Categories : organization  people  theory

3 comments

  1. Thanks, Nick. A well-written piece, and evocative of both the successes and challenges that come with what we do. I personally think that the functions served by entities like l0pht and NHC are slightly different than those served by Noisebridge and Cbase. I believe your observations here are spot-on, but I also think that it’s important to note that we should avoid falling into the trap of being overly critical of groups like l0pht, because, frankly, they were trying to do something completely different than we are.

    That said, thanks for speaking so kindly about Noisebridge ;>

    steen, August 20, 2009
  2. I absolutely agree. It’s worth noting that the spaces that informed the Design Patterns were inspired by the L0pht and similar spaces. No criticism of these spaces was intended, quite the opposite–I had a great time hanging out at NHC while I was in San Francisco and I wish it were still around. If anything, we have to acknowledge their contributions as being vital to this latest wave of Hackerspaces.

    NHC was truly an epic space, I wish there was more documentation available about it. I was sad to see it fail, to be there helping members move the last of their equipment out of it. In the end, it closed because it failed to bring in new members and excite the community in the way that Noisebridge does. There are other structural issues that might be worth getting into, were it not for the spirit of pluralism and democracy that informs our current spaces.

    It would be a tragedy to see this next wave of hackerspaces see the same fate, to close because of a lack of interest or enthusiasm. This wave of spaces must focus on sustainability, and we must examine the ongoing theory to ensure that these spaces continue to exist. 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. Being aware of this responsibility to the community outside the membership is, I believe, the biggest contributing factor to ensuring their continued success.

    Nick Farr, August 20, 2009
  3. Nick, thank you for your post on hackerspaces and how to keep the movement going.

    Although I don’t have much opportunity to get involved with hackerspaces these days, I am glad to see the establishment of places such as the Hacktory in Philadelphia and HacDC. In some ways, they also parallel the MAKErs movement, another great development to encourage hacking/tinkering.

    I agree about the importance of the casual attendees and visitors being important. Besides their direct contributions to the hackerspace, they also serve as ambassadors of the hackserspace concept. Getting the hackspaces somewhat visible to the general public helps to dispel the weird associations people have with the term “hacker”.

    This ambassador triat points to one of the responsibilities for people associated with hackserspaces: educate others about what hacking is and what it isn’t. Sometimes, this may mean dealing with a newcomer who see hacking as the means of ripping off freebies or harassing others. (I am thinking of the occasional newbies whose questions centre on how do I break in… motifs and hardly on how do things work and how can do some really cool stuff with them. Hacking as merely a tool, not as an approach to tech, systmes, and such.)

    That may bring an obligation to try encourage such probelmatic newbies to see other aspects of hacking, to mentor where possible. In some cases, it may mean distancing from somebody really going on a disastrous course.

    (I am thinking of how some of the sports lockspicking club in the Netherlands and Germany handle those people who want to breaking into places rather than learning how locks work. Those clubs face liabilities with their countries’ criminal laws. One of the good things I’ve seen is how to the clubs managed to prevent overt criminal use of their resources and, at the same time, not lose the hacker spirit.)

    Jonathan D. Abolins, August 23, 2009