Last week, I visited the Parisian hackers at /tmp/lab. Located a little ways outside of the city, in a somewhat tricky-to-locate industrial building, /tmp/lab is nevertheless an active and thriving hackerspace. The weekend I stopped by, they were having three separate events: an OLPC-repair night, a soldering workshop, and an experimental film screening.
Hmm...this sign smells like hackers...
Brendan: How long has /tmp/lab/ been around?
Philippe: One year and a half, yes?
P: So last year.
B: And how many people were involved with the founding? When you first started?
P: Around 10, but then 3 or 4 people really got this thing going, really said “Oh, we are going to do it!” It’s not all the people who said, ‘we are going to do it,” who are the people who are continuing to do it. It’s a constantly rotating membership, new blood.
B: Where did you get the idea or how did you decide you wanted to have a physical space?
P: Chaos Camp!
N: Wireless chaos camp, it was. August 2007.
The subterranean entrance. As a great philosopher once wrote, "RTFM"
B: How long did it take you get started, after the idea?
P: That’s an interesting thought, because said “we’re coming back and we’re doing the hackerspace,” but we had lots of problems getting a space. And some guy actually showed up from the team and said, “Maybe I have a lead some space,” basically he contacted some people. I came here, and thought “Wonderful, let’s do it!” The team split because it was not a legitimate-for-rental place. Half didn’t want it, and the other half said, “F*&% it, let’s do it.”
B: So the space is squatted, then?
P: No, actually, we have kind of an understanding with the owners, but we don’t pay rent.
N: Renting for free.
P: We pay only the ADSL line, nothing else.
B: Where did you originally get members for the space, did you all know each other before?
P: Actually not so much.
N: Not so much. We are friends of friends of people we knew, mostly. A lot of people we didn’t know, but from the same social circle, probably.
Replacing an OLPC keyboard at /tmp/lab
B: So you didn’t advertise it or anything?
N: Not really, I remember getting an email from some friends of mine that said, “Tmp lab is opening. You’re welcome,” that’s all.
B: How much time do you, personally, spend on a weekly basis working on the space?
P: Here, or in general?
B: Well, just anything related to the space.
P: I don’t know. I don’t really count.
N: Me either.
B: You said the only real bill is the ADSL, does everyone just kick in? Or how does that get paid?
P: Actually, it’s part of an artist’s co-op, and this is considered one of the artists’ spaces. People put in some money for their situation, but it is not this money which is being used to pay for the ADSL. It’s individual members who say, “we are going to also kick in to the main organization.”
B: So you don’t have membership dues?
P: Yeah, we should have something like €30 per year or something.
N: But we don’t know who the “members” are.
P: We don’t care, actually. We’re all equals.
B: That was my next question, actually, about the organization of the space? You said it’s constantly changing, are there some people who are more in charge of making decisions, or is it just by votes?
N: We just have co-members.
P: And the decision-making makes me very *joking stutter* un-c-c-comfortable. Decision-making is always hard.
N: We try to minimize complexities. We try to keep things as decentralized as possible.
B: Can you give an example of a time there’s been a conflict, or a disagreement about how to use the space?
P: Workshops! There was a question about having the workshops be centralized by a few people, or being completely chaotic, and basically the vast majority were saying ‘let anyone who wants to organize a workshop do a workshop,” and a few people were saying, ‘oh we should centralize it,” so we finally settled it that the three people should centralize it [their workshops] for themselves, and everyone else can be as chaotic as they wish. It didn’t fit, really, the agenda of the people who wanted to centralize, so in the end it turned quite chaotic. But it’s a very fixed way of doing things, because when you want to do a workshop, you just sign up on the wiki, and create a new workshop on a date, and if it fits the agenda–the date is free–then you get admin rights on the agenda [google calendar page] to add your event. And each person who has done an event before has full admin rights on future events. So it’s like, do sh*t and you get some kind of access.
Fun with soldering guns
B: How much lead time for an event, like, for this soldering event? How far in advance do they plan that?
P: The soldering event was one of the most planned. It’s usually like a couple of days. A week, couple weeks maybe for this.
B: What were some of your original goals for the space and do you think you’ve achieved those?
N: Getting the people together, to do stuff, and enjoy it.
P: And we’ve done that.
B: I have to say, I’m pretty impressed with the number of people you have turning out for events here.
N: We too!
P: I’m definitely impressed.
B: Especially because, not to dis your space, I like it, but it is hard to find, so to have people come all the way out here…
P: Maybe in the last three or four months things have been getting really streamlined. We have workshops every weekend, and people coming every week. We have cruise control now.
Replacing a damaged screen is surprisingly simple
B: That’s my next question. The workshops are whenever somebody organizes one, but are there any recurring events, like a regular meeting?
P: We have weekly meetings, but you are welcome to organize a workshop whenever you like: even on weekly meeting nights, or on Saturday or Wednesday, whenever.
B: What about sort of bigger events for the hacker community, I know you organized some sort of larger festival. Can you talk about that a little bit?
P: Yeah, it’s the Hacker Space Fest, in June 2009, it’s going to be the second one. The last one was 2 days of conferences, 2 days of workshop, and 3 days of experimentation and free association.
N: And parties! You have to have parties.
P: It was really interesting.
B: How many different hackspaces attended that?
P: We had…five, maybe. People from a hackerspace in Seattle, from Toronto, people from Berlin; Croatian people. Between five and ten different groups.
Yours truly trying to look 1337 around mysterious long-haired hackers.
B: What about events that you guys go to? I know you went to Wintercamp and CCC.
P: FOSDEM, it’s an open source developer meeting in February in Brussels.
N: Also, Wireless Camp.
B: Could you talk about Wintercamp a bit? because I wasn’t familiar with that one.
P: It’s the first one, this year. It’s a very specific event–
N: It’s closed.
P: Yeah, it’s closed, it doesn’t follow the hacker ethic of being open.
N: *jokingly* And I hate it because it’s closed! He went, I couldn’t.
P: Yeah, that sucks. It was really interesting to get these people together at the same place and time, but at the same time I would really have enjoyed having Niko along. Even just to have him join and say, “Hey, I’m from the same group,” wouldn’t have been so easy. One event we go to every four years is in Holland.
B: Oh yeah! What the Hack!
P: HAL [Hacking at Large], What the Hack, HAR [Hacking at Random].
B: I’m so disappointed I’m going to miss that.
B: Well, I’m supposed to be back in the US before it happens. Maybe I could go to the US and then come back…
P: Oh, please do. It’s really awesome, and such an important event.
N: If you need help, or some kidnapping, let us know.
P: We can fake a ransom letter from “HAL-Qaeda”.
B: “Help! I’ve been kidnapped by hackers!”
P: “Al-Qaeda?” “No, HAL-Qaeda!”
N: *sarcastically* They’re the worst! Hackers and Arabs! We must nuke them.
B: What are some of the projects you’ve worked on? You can talk about Consumer B Gone, I thought that one was cool.
P: Yeah, there was some synergy that came together on that one. I was going to get some gear at the supermarket to organize a party, it was maybe my birthday, and I was pushing the shopping cart, when it stopped. And I thought, “What the heck? If they can do it, I can do it!” so we went back with a scanner and another guy and did some reverse-engineering work. And then we were like, “Oh, we can do this! Oh, it does this! Then we can do this! Oh, maybe we can do this!”
B: Did you grab a shopping cart to work on reverse-engineering?
N: No comment.
P: Quote me, I’ll deny it.
B: Anything you want left off-the-record will be off-the-record.
P: Nah, nah, I admit nothing. Who is speaking? My name is Nicholas Sarkozy! But yeah, the cool thing is from nothing, you reach up to this finished project which can have a good impact, or a sh*tty impact.
B: What about you, Niko, any project you’re particularly proud of, or something somebody else did that you thought was cool?
N: I don’t know. I’m working on OpenWRT as developer, I’m pushing it, for one. We’re having a workshop in April, with wireless “battle mesh”, where we invited some wireless routing protocol developers to conference their approaches.
B: Are you working on expanding it [OpenWRT] to new platforms?
N: All kinds of things.
B: Last question, if you guys could have one wish for the hackerspace, what would it be?
P: Never to become a movement or a syndicate or a party or a church, keep it decentralized.
N: Keep it the way it is now. With a lot of different cells. And if it gets too big, it has to split.
P: Like spores in the wind. But I’d like to see us include not just geek stuff like networking, but also physical sh*t. I saw this guy who was talking about building these crazy artifacts which generate energy.
B: Well, that’s pretty much it. Thanks for your time.
The dream of every hacker.
All pictures by Lionel Laské of OLPC-France and Brendan McCollam, licensed under CC by-nc-sa..