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What Keeps Hacker and Maker Spaces Going?

By: Andrew Schrock

Hackerspaces are place-based collectives where individuals learn through socialization, tinker with technology, develop skills and pool technical resources. But what’s holding them together and moving them forward? Here are a few central themes drawn from my research in a western context that I am exploring, and would be particularly curious to explore internationally:

1. Do-ocracy: Action over Deliberation
Hackerspaces are very noisy spaces, full of improvisation and chatter about projects at various stages of completion. One word came up repeatedly to describe the hackerspace perspective on autonomy and action: do-ocracy. The term is often misunderstood to be a call to anarchism, but it does not mean “do whatever you want.” A more helpful version comes from Chen’s book on the burning man organization titled Enabling Creative Chaos. She defines the term as referring to how “individuals could launch an activity or project that addressed a civic need” (Chen, 2009, p. 55). In other words, a member should act in the best interest of the space itself, and this understanding is propagated through norms. Those who do not act in the best interest of the space or act selfishly set themselves up for reprimand.

I tend to downplay the discursive democratic conventions of these spaces because individual action is the first mover, with group voting and discussion used to shore up perceived offenses. Everyone has a vote, but voting tends to be limited to monthly member meetings, and big decisions such as banning an individual are rare. Members find deliberation frustrating and even a waste of time. As one member put it, “democracy doesn’t lead to something done fast.” This “ask for forgiveness, not for permission” policy is familiar to online knowledge-sharing sites such as Wikipedia, whose slogan “be bold” encourages participants to take action first.

2. Bold Leaders
Hackerspaces are not quite the leaderless organizations that you might imagine. They are composed of strong personalities connected by common space, mutual support and shifting sets of common interests. My claim here is that members require a tacit understanding of group norms (it is easier to show or perform “what it is we do here” than talk about it), but they also desire quick action through bold leadership. This seems contradictory at first glance – do you stay within the norms or stick out? – but it can be reconciled by drawing on Doug Thomas’ distinction between communities and collectives. In collectives, the motivation is participatory, entry/exit costs are nil, and an emphasis is placed on providing tools for increased individual agency. Furthermore,

Collectives… function in support of the expression of multiple, even conflicting identities across a wide range of users. In communities, investment flows toward structure, while in collectives, investment flows towards agency. (Thomas, 2011, p. 3)

A heightened individuation exists within collectives without the same type of friction that arises in communities. It’s important to keep in mind that hackerspaces are volunteeristic, with highly heterogeneous member motivations that are emphasized rather than downplayed, as might be expected in a community where there are specific goals. In contrast, in hackerspaces some are members because they need access to tools, others are the kind of subversive folks you might see at a 2600 meeting who like the social environment, and others see it as a mode of collaborative education. These disparate goals and motivations do not need to be reconciled to have them all participate in a common space and work on individual and group projects.

James Gee’s concept of porous leadership also comes into play here. According to Gee, people take ownership over various areas of an affinity space but “don’t and can’t order people around or create rigid, unchanging, and impregnable hierarchies” (Gee, 2004, p. 79). This is a volunteeristic, non-Weberian organizational strategy that emphasizes individual strengths over structure. This collectivistic orientation, back to Thomas, dictates little to no investment in organizational structure or rules – Noisebridge in San Francisco famously touts their one rule as “be excellent to each other.” Leaders also help define the goals of the space in a different way than most hackerspace members do, by showing up and working.

3. Projects as Material Ideas
Another word related to work that emerged repeatedly in my research was project. What was a project and why are they essential to the hackerspace experience? I am still unpacking the historical angle, but the term had negative connotations centuries ago. In the 17th century “project” had “a distinctly unsavoury connotation, being associated with unscrupulous schemes for getting money” (Novak, 2008, p. 3). To western hobbyists in the 20th century, projects were finite, recreational and semi-structured. To hackerspace members, projects are the motivation for showing up and a way of interfacing with the outside world. But projects hide what might be called a more salient driving force, that true-to-hacker-ethic of sharing information:

I don’t think that [keeping people people motivated is] about projects. I think it’s about interesting ideas. I think that by doing interesting things is how you keep people involved… by giving them the tools and resources they need to do interesting things. For some people that means tools, for some people that means software. For some people, it just means… people who will listen to them. – Interviewee (anonymous)

The above quote captures one member’s belief that projects were merely where ideas were made material and given (in his opinion, often unnecessary) restrictions such as deadlines. Their framing as “projects” is necessary mainly because they made ideas tangible/understandable, and served as recruitment and networking tools. Yet, he also contended that projects should ultimately be disposable and are only as valuable as the idea that drives it. If an idea isn’t noteworthy, the project should be jettisoned in a kind of evolutionary progression towards better projects and knowledge. Perhaps the term project is also preferable simply because it occupies a place between professional and amateur, with a fuzzy boundary of ownership.

4. Networking
Hackerspaces are going through a struggle for legitimacy as they mature, grapple with the stakes of becoming an organization, and network with other local organizations. For example, a hackerspace might wish to seek out funding, collaborate with an arts gallery on a show or provide informal support to local students. This networking forces hackerspaces to articulate themselves in a way that better aligns with expectations of other organizations. For example, negative presentations of “hacking” still pervade the media discourse, despite that it is seen by members more as a learning style similar to tinkering. As one interviewee put it, “we’re starting to network with those people a lot more as they realize that we’re not just guys who read 2600 and try and make free long distance calls.” Sources of funding are also a key debate, as seen in the ongoing discussion between Mitch Altman and Dale Dougherty about whether to accept government funds for hackerspace-like efforts in K-12 education.

Chen, K. (2009). Enabling creative chaos : the organization behind the burning man event. Chicago [u.a.]: University of Chicago Press.

Gee, J. P. (2004). Situated language and learning : a critique of traditional schooling. New York: Routledge.

Novak, M. E. (2008). The age of projects. Toronto: Published by the University of Toronto Press in association with the UCLA Center for Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Studies and the William Anderson [sic] Clark Memorial Library.

Thomas, D. (2011). From Community to Collective: Institution and Agency in the Age of Social Networks. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1754214

Haberdashery For Technology

Here’s a great Wired UK article from March that explains the concept behind a company that tries to solve the problems of limited resources, DIY/hacker education, and social/spatial relationships by modeling their hacker space on the notion of a traditional haberdashery:

The notion of a “haberdashery for technology” came from traditional haberdasheries which are (or, more often than not, were) filled with knitting needles, sewing machines, patterns, buttons, thread and examples of clothes, bags and quilts that you can make yourself. They tend to have shop assistants who are experts at their craft, as opposed to general salespeople, and they give you advice and host classes to learn new sewing skills.

Hirschmann explains: “Now replace all of that with LEDs, circuit boards, soldering irons and lots of lovely little drawers with resistors, capacitors and switches The store is immaculately organised and there are explanations of the bits and bobs near all of the components to help demystify what they do and how they might be useful. There are a selection of bespoke DIY kits for you to explore at home.