This year's Southern California Linux Expo (SCALE) ventured into
non-Linux territory with one of its keynotes. The kick-off keynote from Leigh Honeywell, Hackerspaces and Free Software, delved into the seemingly new trend of Hackerspaces. I say seemingly, because it turns out that hackerspaces have been around for decades — they've just become much more noticeable recently, particularly in North America.
For those not familiar with hackerspaces, and it seemed that quite a few in
the audience were not, Honeywell described them as a "third space"
intended to foster "a certain kind of creativity." The term third
space comes from Ray Oldenburg, who used the term to describe
community spaces where people gather for creative interaction. (A
first space being the home, and second space being work.) To that end,
hackerspaces act as "sort of a library for stuff" where you will find
all manner of equipment that members may not be able to invest in
individually — such as laser cutters and 3D printers.
Hackerspaces have been in operation, though perhaps not under that
particular name, for 20-plus years in Europe. The Chaos Computer Club (CCC), Metalab, and others have been around for
decades. If you haven't heard of CCC in reference to hackerspaces, you
still may have heard of its brainchild Project Blinkenlights and/or
in fighting biometrics in Germany. Honeywell recounted the story of CCC
lifting German interior minister Wolfgang Schauble's fingerprints and publishing them in Die Datenschleuder after he supported collecting biometrics from German citizens to fight terrorism.
But if you haven't heard of them recently, perhaps you haven't been
paying attention — even the Wall Street Journal took notice of the trend in 2009.
Hackers on a plane
How did hackerspaces make the leap across the pond? Honeywell said that it started in North America with Hackers on a Plane. The "wild trip" was organized in 2007 by Hacker Foundation founder Nick Farr, and took about 40 North American hackers through European hackerspaces to try to spread the idea. According to Wired's coverage, Farr said: "This is expensive, but I think the good works we'll see over the next few years will justify the trip. We're hoping that this trip winds up being a watershed moment for the U.S. scene." Apparently, it not only kickstarted the U.S. scene but overshot to Canada and inspired Hacklab.to, Honeywell's home hackerspace.
Hacklab.to was founded in July of 2008 with 35 members and has about 200 people on a public mailing list.
You'll find much more than a 3D printer and laser cutter at Hacklab.to. The
about page lists most of their tools
for public use. Those include glue guns and glue sticks, a sewing machine,
hand tools, a Tektronix Digital Storage Oscilloscope, and a Van de Graaff
generator — and, of course, a fire extinguisher and first aid kit.
The space also has goodies for computer geeks: a hefty server and
storage capacity, with a 1TB NAS, and PXE Boot environment so members can
drop in and do PXE installs of things like Ubuntu. The space also has two
laptops, and a workstation for members to use while they are there.
Members get a storage bin at the space, the option to bring in guests
and organize events at the space, and access to the WiFi network, private
wiki, and mailing lists. (Hacklab.to also has a public lists, and Honeywell
recommends that other hackerspaces do so as well.) Honeywell says that one of the interesting questions about hackerspaces is whether they serve as physical extensions for Internet groups, or whether the mailing lists, IRC, and wiki are extensions of the physical space.
But it's not all hack, hack, hack. The space also has "food tools," including a stove, fridge, dishwasher, and the requisite pots, pans, dishes, and glassware. The space is open 24/7. Access is controlled by RFID and a PIN-based deadbolt. When members come in, the access is announced on IRC. (The site also says that access is announced on Twitter, but it must not be the main account.)
Honeywell described some of the events and projects that members have
worked on at Hacklab.to — including refurbishing the laser cutter, and creating an Arduino-based device that dispenses candy when a member runs the dishwasher. Honeywell noted that it's a continual challenge to get people to wash their dishes, just like any shared space.
The other advantage of a shared space, says Honeywell, is that you'll usually find someone to help you do something that you want to do "like in-person IRC." Honeywell says that the people are an equally important part of a hackerspace.
One near you: No excuses
Honeywell said that if you live in a reasonably large city, there's a good chance there's already a hackerspace near you. The Hackerspaces site has an extensive list of spaces all over the world. The United States has more than 140 listed, including my home hackerspace Arch Reactor.
But if there is no hackerspace nearby, Honeywell advised the audience to create their own rather than packing bags for a city that has its own. Honeywell says that there are "no excuses" not to start a hackerspace of your own if your chosen city lacks one. If you live in a small town, then rent should be cheap and require fewer members. You don't need to start with a 3D printer or laser cutter — the important thing is to start a space and see what it cultivates.
While Honeywell maintained that there was no excuse not to start a hackerspace, there are challenges — some of which may be familiar to participants in open source projects, others specific to working together in meatspace. As with any business, there's the question of money: How much will dues be? How are memberships structured?
Just like instructions for creating your own gadgets from an Arduino, there are design patterns for creating your own hackerspace. Honeywell said that the patterns are just that — patterns. They can be adjusted or ignored in some cases, but provide a set of guidelines that can be useful. Some examples:
- Meet every week on Tuesdays.
- Don't let people sleep there (too often).
- Don't bother with plants, they will die.
- Set up a mailing list, wiki, and IRC channel.
Why Tuesdays? Honeywell says that every day sucks — Tuesdays work just as well as any other day, because any day of the week will be a problem for someone. You will need to set up a set of rules that fit your hackerspace. Honeywell pointed out that one rule at Hacklab.to is "no food, no humans in laser." This is a good rule, but not necessary until your space actually has a laser.
Honeywell said one common misconception is that hackerspaces are all about hardware. While there is a lot of hardware hacking that takes place, she said that hackerspaces can also be a good place for software hacking or joint hardware/software projects, as well as classes for learning new skills. The Hacklab.to community is a good example of this, with Arduino workshops, LaTeX workshops, and collaborating with other hackerspaces on a "Cupcake Challenge" to mail a cupcake at least 1,600 kilometers in "pristine condition."
Which brought around the last topic of the talk — recruiting
people who are not like you. Honeywell said that a hackerspace
should "bait newbies," and have open days and events that
bring in new blood. She also mentioned that people drop in and out of
hackerspaces depending on what's going on in their lives, so there needs to
be a continual effort to recruit new members. For example, Honeywell is
leading a Soldering Workshop for Women at Hacklab on March 14 to encourage
more women to get involved.
One of the things that is particularly interesting about the hackerspace
movement is that it's an excellent opportunity for free and open source
folks to rub elbows with people who may not (yet) be FOSS
proponents. Hackerspaces can attract all manner of "hackers" who may or may
not be software-oriented, and provide opportunities to meet people who may
know nothing about open source but all about re-wiring a laser cutter. But
it is a good opportunity for collaborating on free software as well,
especially if your area has user groups or enough people interested in hacking on a project.
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