I’ll admit, this post is coming a bit late, but we’re still recovering from our month-long sleepless, caffeinated, sprint across North America. On the plus side, we’re done filming! We visited as many hackerspaces and makerspaces as we could in a month, but that was the easy part….
Now begins the post-production work.
We’ll be working for a quite a while on getting everything just right, so unfortunately I can’t give an exact date of release. I can, however, tell you that we’re going to try to have it done by next spring. Believe me, we’re just as excited to see the finished film as you are!
I want to say thank you to the dozens of people who helped us out along the way. Without the car trips, beds, and donations of both hackerspace members and kind strangers, there is absolutely no way we could have done this. We may have had the cameras, but it was all of you who made this possible. Thank you!!
For updates on the film, check out www.twohandsproject.com! I’ll do my best to keep all of you in the loop here on hackerspaces.org as well.
Note: This is the first specific installment of a five part series on Hackerspace organization called “Hackerspaces and Money: Five Approaches“.
C-base. Noisebridge. C4. HacDC. They are officially recognized and organized as independent entities. These spaces are funded, operated and controlled as directly as possible by their members. They open their spaces up for events, classes and social gatherings, and eagerly invite new members to join. These spaces are good examples of the Membership form of organization, the style of organization that most directly inspired the wave of spaces that began to form in late 2007, after Hackers on a Plane and that year’s Chaos Communications Camp.
While these spaces may make it look easy, bootstrapping a space under the Membership form of organization is often far more difficult than pursuing other forms of organization, especially when starting from scratch. There are also other ongoing organizational challenges. Ultimately, if something fails, members can only blame themselves.
Unlike Anarchy, Membership spaces require an official form of organization with explicit expectations, rights and responsibilities of members. Unlike Angel spaces, Membership spaces require their members to contribute the bulk of what it takes to rent and operate the space. Unlike Owner spaces, Members have an equal say in where to locate, how much to pay in rent and what projects to pursue with group funds. While spaces run by a Board and spaces run by Members are largely similar, the degree of difference in control and responsibility can be substantial depending on the situation.
Following this formula, the first step in bootstrapping is officially forming an organization. Incorporating is usually the first place where the 2+2 model from the critical mass pattern comes into play. The 2+2 group is usually the first to sign the paperwork and contribute the startup funds necessary to secure and rent a space.
Even while the 2+2 group has an implicit authority by virtue of being founders and visionaries, all they can do is set an example, work on the tasks at hand and inspire others to help. Without a space, these membership groups recruit others by reaching out over e-mail, attending conferences, dropping by local events such as DorkBot and Maker Meetups, and hosting their own workshops in shared spaces. More members means more dues and resources, but it also means more opinions and potential for disagreement.
In some areas, the 2+2 group will often contribute a substantial boostrapping funds to execute a lease, after which the usual rent and expenses are paid for by member dues. In many ways, it’s easier to “sell” potential members on the value of a space once it’s actually leased. Some hackerspace efforts began collecting dues long before a space was leased, making the process of executing a lease a shared effort from the beginning. In any case, once a group is large enough to pay the expenses, it’s safe to call the bootstrapping process over.
The notable advantages over alternative forms are largely ones of legal compliance, independence and true democratic control:
- Anarchy: Membership spaces are official legal structures with explicit expectations and guidelines for operation and more stable bases of operation.
- Angel: While Membership spaces can generally collect donations from outside the group, core expenses are paid for by members and function entirely independently.
- The Owner: Members are not accountable to the concerns of an owner, the nature of their business, living situation or other concerns. As a group, members are free to use the space as they see fit, negotiate changes as a group of peers and have discussions where everyone is on equal footing. There is no “veto power” in a Membership group.
- The Board: Members generally stay informed to all operations of the group and generally participate in any discussions that make a substantial change in the group. Instead of changing decisions made by a board, or waiting for a board election to intervene, decisions are made as a group from the beginning.
The notable disadvantages over alternative forms require more work from the members and more time spent on administrative matters and potentially distracting disagreements:
- Anarchy: Membership spaces must periodically file paperwork, support the space through dues, stay on top of other legal requirements and fulfill their stated obligations as members. This leaves less time for projects, hanging out, etc.
- Angel: Members are generally constrained by the resources they can obtain themselves. Instead of having the space and cool projects paid for, members must assess dues and raise money to pay for rent and expenses.
- The Owner: Instead of having an owner to rely on for collecting and paying the rent, easily making special arrangements, mitigating disagreements among participants and having one “final say” on matters, members must come to agreement on certain issues or figure out ways to work around issues.
- The Board: Instead of electing someone you like to make decisions for you, members must spend time on an ongoing basis meeting to discuss issues and working to solve problems collectively.
Talk of a fully democratic membership organization may be a bit misleading. In any group, leaders will generally emerge. Those founders who start spaces naturally fill a leadership role by guiding their space from nothing to existence. Sometimes, in the best interests of getting the space going, founders will gloss over underlying issues within the group that form from differences of opinion. Failure to resolve these in time usually results in group fragmentation that can lead to a group’s demise.
If the founders or other leaders who emerge exercise too much power, or hold onto it for too long, they can alienate others in the group or possibly even default in practice to another form of organization.
Another problem with fully democratic organizations is that members can always vote with their feet! Failing to attract new members or high membership turnover is also a big problem with membership spaces. Unlike Owner or Board spaces, every member is inherently responsible for creating the conditions that attract and retain members who help support the space.
While I strongly believe this form of organization is the best and most closely aligned with what hackers look for in a space, it’s not without its problems. Hackers are generally bad at paperwork and group dynamics, so sometimes an alternative form of organization is the best course of action to pursue. Sometimes ceding a little bit of control for the sake of having a space or keeping it open is the best thing to do.
However, if you’re serious about building a dynamic, sustainable space, you should consider following this model! It’s worked throughout the world and with the right energy, it can work for you too.
First of all, please introduce yourself – who is behind syn₂cat and what do you do for a living?
While syn₂cat began as a two men project in August 2008, it has by now developed into a fully fledged non-profit organisation, featuring 4 administrative members and 4 additional officers. The initial founders, Steve and David are a freelance IT consultant and a political science student respectively.
Of the additional people that soon stocked up the syn₂cat office, macfreak109 is a school teacher in information science, xx5y is a microelectronics engineer, Bartek a post-grad physics student, Gunstick a sysadmin and Michel is a student in secondary school. We only now got reinforced by an 8th crew member.
So how did you come up with the idea to found a hackerspace?
The idea of a hackerspace was born out of desperation
David felt that, should he ever have to return to Luxembourg after university, there’d have to be a hackerspace. Visiting the Metalab in Vienna, though only for a short hour and without much going on, was a key moment in filing that decision.
Though the idea of building a hackerspace was initially scheduled for after David’s graduation, we spontaneously decided to do it “right there and now”. Since then, the project has been steadily growing like an open source project, with its “developers” learning by doing how to run such a show.
What are your future plans for the hackerspace?
Bootstrapping the space is still the near future and once we accomplished that, attracting more people and launching projects will be our focus. One group will focus on youth projects to get more young people into thinking outside the box and begin seeing solutions instead of problems.
Another future task is to constantly shift the responsibility of the actual space to other, maybe younger, people. Although we talked about an “administrative” board, we are far from paper tigers and want to keep the complexity as flat as possible.
Why do you think is the movement spreading so fast right now?
It gained a lot of momentum by the Hackers on a Plane project and the incredible amount of hackerspaces growing in the US. The sudden US movement had its spark from some German hackerspace visits so I guess it was the Germans again
Interestingly enough this amalgamate of people starting open spaces backlashed to Europe again to give rise to a new iteration of hacker- or open spaces. The movement is nothing new but currently it sees fit in the hacker culture which sees an imminent uprise. To get to the point: People saw peers doing cool things in cool spaces and thought – “us too!” – and started doing it too.
Another factor might be the rise of social networks which allow ideas to spread quickly, especially amongst technically minded people. Hackerspaces take the connections made online and map them into the physical world.
Are there any fixed dates for events at syn₂cat?
There’s a list of fixed dates on our website. As we use Semantic Media Wiki (SMW) quite extensively, it is even available as an RSS feed.
The next big things will be our OpenWeekend where we show the space to the general public and keep it open for 36h straight. Further, we are also planning regular Python classes and electronics (soldering) sessions, with another focus on attracting other peer-groups such as user groups , the Chaos Computer Club, miniature railway hackers etc…
And the last question, where can we find some pictures?
There are photos on our website – but be ready to be rocked by the upcoming “after syn₂cat” pictures!
The Two Hands Project has been pushing along, visiting every space possible!
After the California adventure, we made our way up to Seattle. After getting in late, we met with Justin Martenstein from a hackerspace known as Saturday House. Unfortunately we learned that Saturday House is no more, and we discussed several reasons why hackerspaces can fail.
The next day we met with Rob, another member of Saturday House, and then Willow and Baron, who are starting a new space in Seattle called Jigsaw Renaissance. Baron was awesome enough to give us a ride out to Vancouver that night, where we checked out VHS. After driving us back to Seattle, Baron dropped us off at Bill Beaty’s house.
Bill Beaty is clearly a mad scientist, but awesome nonetheless. We interviewed him the next morning, as he seemed to know quite a bit about the history of the local hackerspaces. Following that, we talked with Noid about The Black Lodge (fomerly known as Eastside Hackerspace).
Having finished the West Coast portion of the trip, we shot across the country to Charlotte, North Carolina. Teleco Bob gave us a ride from there to Atlanta, where we experienced the beauty of FreesideAtlanta. Their space is huge!
The following day we caught a ride with Freeside to the Hackerspace Meetup at Makers Local 256 in Hunstville, Alabama. Great ideas were discussed, including things which could very well change the direction of hackerspaces at large… more on that in a later post.
Now that the chaos has subsided a bit, we are sitting in the airport, waiting for a flight to Chicago, eager to continue capturing the passion and creativity of the hackerspaces that await.
I’m always surprised at how little sleep the human body can run on.
Between visiting Noisebridge, NIMBY, the reMake Lounge, HackerDojo, Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, 23b Shop, Radish Research Center, Machine Project, Sugar Shack, and the Public School Project, we’ve barely had time to rest!
After visiting so many spaces, I’ve noticed a few things. At first glance, it seems that the only common feature of these spaces is that they are all different… but upon taking a closer look, similarities do appear. These places all share more or less the same core values; they realize that having a place for people to gather, share ideas, and create new things is vastly important.
I think I’m starting to get a feel for the nature of these hackerspaces. While there have always been places “like” hackerspaces that embody the nature of collaboration and creativity, the difference now is that these places are being created by many different kinds of people in society. In other words, hackerspaces come in flavors; some are artist inspired, some are entrepreneur inspired, and some are coder inspired.
It is refreshing to know that no matter who starts these spaces, they all seem to be teeming with the hacker spirit.
- Jordan Bunker (writing from the Long Beach Airport)
Just this weekend, our fellow hacker Leah Kubik, who some of you might’ve had the luck to call a friend, or the chance to meet at HAR in the Netherlands as part of the Hackers on a Plane 2.0 crew, tragically passed away.
The Sun writes on Friday:
A playful, late-night search for ghosts inside a University of Toronto landmark ended in tragedy yesterday when a 29-year-old woman plunged to her death. Leah Kubik, who was just two weeks shy of her 30th birthday, was found without vital signs inside a courtyard at 1 Spadina Cres. just before 2 a.m.
Kubik and a man were on a first date and were believed to be exploring an old building rumoured to be haunted, Toronto Police Const. Wendy Drummond told the Sun.
Leah was a fantastic cocktail maker, a huge Linux and open source advocate, and an excellent systems security administrator – her sudden death leaves a hole in the lives of her beloved ones, friends and collegues, as well as the hacker community.
Sincerest condolences from the hackerspaces team.
You got hackers. They want a fixed space. Now what?
The next question probably comes down to money. The biggest hurdles to bootstrapping and maintaining a Hackerspace involve the management of resources that have actual value. Physical places, even ones which are “free”, require the payment of rent somewhere along the line.
A recent post on the Hackerspaces Discussion list points to the need for the right structure for organizing and managing the finances and resources of a Hackerspace. It’s a question each Hackerspace effort needs to consider carefully and resolve for itself. An organizational structure needs to accomodate each space’s unique culture and reconcile it to the various laws and conditions in play at the time of formation.
The five approaches I outline should be a good starting point for a discussion on the theory of Hackerspace organization. When I look at how Hackerspaces have functioned in the past and how they function today, this framework of five categories seems to make the most sense to me. That being said, odds are good that many spaces will not fit “cleanly” into any of these five categories. Categories are clean, nature is messy. We have to start somewhere.
So, the Five Types of Hackerspace Finance:
- The Angels
- The Owner
- The Board
- The Membership
A few spaces have functioned quite well without an explicitly organized system for managing money. Anarchy, as I use it, doesn’t mean the absence of order or even the absence of money. In this context, I’m describing spaces where needs were met on an ad-hoc basis by those involved. There may not be official dues, but a clear expectation that everyone involved needs to contribute something to make the effort work. Certain Hackerspaces in squats, temporary spaces, basements and other places that can be had for “the taking” are the most common. These efforts tend to prefer completely voluntary contributions and eschew explicit expectations. Some spaces that are officially organized on paper prefer to operate as close to Anarchy as possible, preferring overarching concepts (i.e. “Be Excellent to Each Other”) to specific policies.
It is possible to run a very good hackerspace without any kind of official organization. Were it not for legal matters, liability and a need for explicit order and hierarchies, it might be the preferred choice.
However, lots of reasons make Anarchy very difficult and unwieldy. Often, when dealing with lots of different hackers who have lots of different ways of doing (especially hackers who prefer structure and order) Anarchy just can’t work. There’s also the matter of accommodating new folks who may not share the viewpoints and collectivist spirit that otherwise make this style a possibility.
It’s worth noting that spaces in this category tend to have a strong political nature to them. While this is not an inherently bad thing, spaces that are intensely political tend to alienate or divide people who “just want to hack”.
For me, this is the most difficult category. Angel spaces are ones that rely on outside sources, those that aren’t direct participants, for the vast majority of their support. Hackerspaces in Universities, sponsored by Governments or ones that operate in other businesses without an explicit lease tend fall in this category. Other spaces that may have their own facilities, but could not pay their bills without outside “Angels” fall under this heading.
The natural advantage of an Angel space is that they allow Hackers more time to hack and less time layering on and cutting through red tape. In a perfect world, we’d all be able to rely on Angels to find spaces for us and stock them with all the parts and tools we need to make really cool projects. Of course, we aren’t living in a perfect world.
To be clear, I believe every space should attempt to seek some outside support, either through donated materials, equipment, special project grants, etc. Most spaces do this, but only a handful I know of rely on Angels for ongoing support. As a boostrapping step, calling on Angels is great idea. Recruiting members is often difficult unless you have a space they can see and get excited about, and sometimes you need some help from above to get going.
However, relying on Angels can tend to make groups lazy about their finances, collecting dues or taking other steps to ensure continuity if the Angels pull their funding. Spaces subsidized by Governments or Foundations tend not to plan for crises like what we’ve recently experienced and end up scrambling to survive when the funding comes to an abrupt end. For example, what would have happened to a space funded by a Foundation that fully vested in Bernie Madoff?
The other big problem is that Angel spaces are almost always more constrained in their activities than truly independent ones. Spaces in Universities in the US, for example, are often unable to host parties with Alcohol or make an effort to recruit those who aren’t students or somehow officially affiliated with the host University. There’s also the matter of spaces constraining themselves and their activities so they do not anger or alienate the Angels that support them.
Because my theoretical focus is on continuity and inclusiveness, I’m naturally going to be more critical of Angel spaces. If you’re part of an Angel space and see nothing wrong with it, speak up and say why it’s an ideal situation!
Spaces of old like New Hack City and the Walnut Factory and current spaces like Hackerbot Labs fall under this category. This category might also be called “Single Center of Gravity” because matters of signing the lease, collecting money for the rent and being accountable for liability concerns generally rest on one person’s shoulders. They usually have help and receive funds from those involved, but the money and legal recourse ultimately flows through them. Otherwise, the advantages and disadvantages of spaces run by “The Owner” are largely the same as those for Angel spaces, except the owner is involved and generally the recognized leader of the Hackerspace.
Owners tend to be the de-facto financiers of the space by virtue of being the landlord, responsible for improvements and manager of any activities to raise money. The first Hackerspaces in the US were traditionally founded and managed by one strong personality who probably found it easier to “just do it” than make an effort to start a separate organization and go through the requisite motions to keep it going.
Explicitly for-profit spaces, ones designed to make a profit, are also often started and financed by single entrepreneurs who are ultimately responsible for their operation. These business owners that self-identify their shop as Hackerspaces and make an effort to cultivate community (as opposed to purely customers) are a relatively new thing that warrants close examination.
As far as traditional, non-profit Owner spaces go, the continued success of Hackerbot Labs speaks to the viability of the model. I used to be a much harsher critic of these kinds of spaces, having seen owners get frustrated, give up and call people like me in to help clean up and wind down their space.
However, we need to look at all the models that work. It may just be that your local crew of hackers needs a solid focal point and a single leader in lieu of a more collective form of management.
Most spaces based on the Design Patterns will fall in to either this or the final category. Almost every Hackerspace that takes a corporate form will have a Board of Directors of some kind, as corporate law throughout the world generally requires it. The Design Patterns suggest that Hackerspaces start with a small core of persons who usually comprise the first members and, by default, become the first Board of Directors.
If this small core of persons continues to effectively own and control the Hackerspace, it falls in this category, However, if a space takes the suggestion of the Design Patterns, and hands over effective ownership and control to all those who support the space equally through dues or other means, it falls into the last category,
Sometimes, this isn’t always what you want to do. The question Koen posed in his post is one worth exploring and involves matters of law that differ across borders. Koen’s example cites Dutch law, where a stitching is a board and a vereniging is a membership organization:
“The difficulty is in judging what is right. On the one hand, the democratic principle of a ‘vereniging’ is very much compatible with my idea of how a hackerspace should operate. However, a ‘stichting’ is a safer keeper of things like money and equipment. This might be especially relevant if said money and equipment are injected by external parties. However, the ‘stichting’ can not have members, thus there is no ‘membership fee’: any money asked for usage of the facilities will to the tax office look very much like an entrance fee for a commercial service.”
And herein lies one of the biggest critical distinctions between these last two categories. Do you give members certain administrative control in exchange for their membership dues? Or do you end up paying taxes or losing potential revenue to keep closer control over resources?
Of course, the specific matters of law and taxes and their inherent advantages and disadvantages vary depending on the jurisdiction. In general, the key advantage to a Board is the safety of having more control in the hands of fewer people. The disadvantage is potentially marginalizing those participants who support the space and aren’t on the board. They might lose out on a certain sense of ownership that comes with being a fully member-controlled organization.
Most Hackerspaces based on the Design Patterns fall in this category. Generally, the space is run by members who each a specifically defined contribution in exchange for the benefits of having an equal say in the space’s operation and special privileges like a key, locker, etc. They decide how much to pay in dues, who gets a key, where to locate and so on.
While these spaces will still have a Treasurer to handle the finances, a Secretary to take notes, a President to preside over meetings, etc. what these officers do is ultimately determined by the members. Ideally, every member supports the space equally, through work or dues and gain a sense of equal ownership over the space itself. The members set the agenda, make informed decisions on how to handle administrative matters and give specific direction to the officers.
Of course, there are disadvantages to having a membership organization. What happens when you can’t get a quorum of enough members to make decisions? What if your membership is apathetic to administrative concerns? What if organizing is seen as too burdensome a requirement? Sometimes, as through the first example, the benefits of membership can be effectively conveyed through means other than establishing an official membership organization.
As a quick side note, there are some spaces that are technically organized under one category and functionally operate under another. The classic example is NYCResistor, which is formally organized as a for-profit Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) comprised of the original founders of the space. Legally, they’re an entity run by a subset of the members, putting them in the previous category. Functionally, the larger and ever changing dues-paying membership has an equal say on each issue and they meet every Tuesday to discuss business. The decision to become an LLC ultimately ended up being one of convenience and expedience.
The example of NYCR highlights two things. First, each space may fall into several categories for any number of reasons. (I could make a case that the Metalab falls into all of them!) Second, this is a theoretical construct designed to help illustrate similarities in forms of organization. It’s a starting point for a conversation, not an explicit means of dividing Hackerspaces into groups.
I believe every place where Hackers go to make things and socialize is a valid Hackerspace. Building Hackerspaces that last and are inclusive is a particular emphasis of mine, as I feel every hacker should have a nearby place to go, make, learn and socialize with kindred spirits.
Hackerspaces.org is about bringing all these spaces together and inspiring people to build their own. The aim of this theoretical discussion is giving people the tools and background required to make more Hackerspaces happen. Our emphasis in discussion should be on finding ways to work together, using criticism as a means for identifying pitfalls rather than a blow to the hard work of fellow hackers.
As always, this is just my own milepost in a much larger conversation meant to keep Hackerspaces going throughout the world. Please take it and run with it! The spaces need your thoughts too.
Soon I may be visiting you!
Today I will embark on an epic journey with my friends Bilal Ghalib and Paul Jehlen to travel across the U.S. and Canada. Our mission? To record hackerspace history. We’re calling this film adventure the Two Hands Project… because along with everything else ever made, it will be produced with two hands!
Why are we doing this? As a member of Pumping Station: One, I know what a hackerspace is, but many other people don’t. If you are a member of a hackerspace, I’m sure you’ve had to explain it before, and it’s not always easy. If you aren’t a member, then I’m sure you’ve wondered yourself. We want to help explain what a hackerspace is, why they are important, and what it means to be a member of such a place.
So, we’re setting out to film the creation of projects, ideas, and whole new hackerspaces! We feel that now is an important time in the history of these spaces, and it is our responsibility to record that history.
For more information about the project, visit www.TwoHandsProject.com. I plan to blog here as much as possible along the way, so stay tuned for updates on our adventures!
- Jordan Bunker
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!
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.