photo by :sfslim
Disclaimer: These are opinions. You may not like them. These things happen when you express opinions.
In 2007, at the 24th Chaos Computer Congress the first effort at drafting design patterns was attempted. At the CCC Camp that same year, hackers on a plane brought Americans to Europe en masse for the first time to experience a far more vibrant hacker culture than existed in the US, at that time. Americans returned, and two new American hackerspaces sprung up. The first of many new spaces. The first drops in what would become a worldwide deluge.
5 years on, I find that a lot of the excitement that I was wrapped up in in 2007 has gone. What was once new, and full of promise, is now very much real, and part of the day to day humdrum routine of life. Hackerspaces are now so common place as to afford the term an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. Hackerspaces.org’s blog hasn’t been updated in a year. Because honestly, what is there to say that we don’t already know? The new hackerspace smell is gone.
At one of the earliest NYC Resistor meetings Bre said “This thing isn’t real until it’s been around for five years.” Bre was trying to make a point about how much can happen in five years and why we’d need to plan for the things we didn’t see as being immediate concerns. He was right, more right I think, than he could ever have imagined. In the next 5 years of Resistor’s existence we saw enough members move to California to start a space there. And others move to even more far flung regions of the world. We’ve seen members marry, have kids, and start companies. One of those companies exploding out into the world, and maybe exploding a bit inside of itself as well. I myself, ended up spending a couple years at NASA Ames working on a wildly successful Open Source project. Something I would never have thought possible at the time. And, now after three years in California, I find myself back in NYC taking stock of things.
I think I have a message for Hackerspaces. One that I think is of critical importance. An addendum to the Design Patterns. Something new, that’s worth saying. At the 5 year mark, I find that my definition of hackerspace has changed.
When I left NYC in 2010, I was leaving behind friends, and family. NYC Resistor was a home for me. The members of Resistor were almost a second family. And, leaving was hard. But, it was also exciting. I knew there was another community waiting for me in California.
Now as I return, I feel that loss again. Communities I’ve broken away from. Friends I’ll see less and less of. A family left behind. A past slowly receding.
It hurts now, but it’s a good pain. One that I know will transform into great memories and happy recollections. It’s because of this journey I learned what a hackerspace really is.
A hackerspace isn’t a building. It isn’t soldering irons, CNCs, or parts bins. It’s not classes, or libraries. It’s a community. It’s a group of people who you trust. Who you want to be around. Who you are inspired by, and who you inspire. It’s a family that supports each other. Because, when all the new hackerspace smell is gone, and the routine has taken over, the only thing that really will matter to you about your hackerspaces is the people you share it with.
While I was in SF, Aaron Swartz committed suicide. It hit the several communities I was a part of there very hard. It struck to the core of many software engineers. There’s a lot of stress for programmers in silicon valley. You are surrounded by the best. And many folks are working desperately to build a future for themselves. Make a name. Sell a product. Open source successfully. We tend to wall ourselves off inside of our offices, our workshops, even hiding in seats at coffee shops. It can be a very solitary life style. Even with family, and loved ones, it’s not always a part of your life you can share. And it’s a big part of your life. Depression has traditionally been the ever present companion of the ‘intelligent’ person. Writers, engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers… the best of us all know depression well. He’s a companion that will stay with us throughout our lives. And more often than not, we find ourselves fending him off alone. We don’t have to.
Your hackerspace should be a place, where you can confide in your fellow members, that you aren’t perfect. That you can be terribly unhappy. You should be able to cry on a shoulder, and you should feel good about being able to do that there. If you don’t feel that way at your hackerspace, you are missing out big time.
Hacking is about bringing joy to yourself, to others, to the world. But to do that it demands sacrifice. It can be expensive financially, it can be expensive in time, it can cost you life and limb occasionally. It’s not something we should do alone. You wouldn’t work in a machine shop alone. You shouldn’t face off against life alone. You shouldn’t face off against a prototype, or a the chance to make a dream real alone either. You don’t have to.
When Noisebridge handed out keys to their space, the message was clear. You are not alone. You are welcome to be a part of our community. We can hack together. It was a touching gesture, a bold gesture too. And the message was beautiful. But ultimately I think it was fool hardy.
Communities are built on bonds of trust. Those bonds form initially over shared interests. They strengthen with shared sacrifice and shared success. Without those bonds of trust no community can exist.
The radical inclusivity that Noisebridge is so proud of, is the corrosive that erodes communities there. Even as people work together to learn new skills, make new things, or share what they’ve done already, there is the continual flow of people whom will take advantage of the space, and abuse the grand intentions of that radical dream of community for all. In the forms of thievery, sexual assault, and simple dereliction the bonds of trust are severed violently. Communities that would have been, never have the chance to form. And, people who should be part of a community, end up alone in a space that seems so very cold and dead.
Hackerspaces aren’t supposed to be dead things. They are supposed to be the physical manifestation of a living community that inhabits that space like a hermit crab in a particularly tool endowed shell. They are supposed to be something you think of as a friend, because it’s so much a part of your family that you can’t imagine it as being just some walls and a ceiling. Hackerspaces are supposed to be a reflection of us. It’s right there in the name. It’s only a hackerspace because it’s filled with hackers.
We can share a space together alone. Or we can build a community in that space and breathe life into it. But to do that, we need to understand how to build a community. We need to accept that trust networks don’t scale beyond a certain point. That trust is built on some commonality. That a community cannot be all things to all people. That sometimes, you will need to sacrifice things for that community. And sometimes, what you will have to sacrifice will be your own preconceptions. If you can’t view your hackerspace community as a community of equals, you will never be able to challenge yourself to meet the demands of that community. And communities are demanding. They are a commitment. And they are worth the investment.
Today, hackerspaces are just another word in the dictionary. They are as many as the cities on a map. And, I find that all I really want out of a hackerspace, is to see a community that loves each other.
If you are planning on starting a hackerspace. Or are helping to run one now. Remember that what you are building transcends physical space. What you are building is a community of friends that could mean the world to you. That could very well save your life. That could change the world for the better. That people are worth more than materials, and that dreams are better when shared.
Be a community. Be a hackerspace.