Diversity and the hacker scene

No matter how you slice it, the hacker scene is not a terrible diverse one. And yes, there are a few hackerspaces that are outliers. By and large there are a few certainties when walking into a hackerspace:

  • LEDs, lots of LEDs
  • Defunct 3D-printers
  • Upper-middle-class white males

Is that a problem? Yes it is, according to the hacker ethic. To quote Richard M. Stallman:

The hacker ethic refers to the feelings of right and wrong, to the ethical ideas this community of people had — that knowledge should be shared with other people who can benefit from it, and that important resources should be utilized rather than wasted.

Unless you define “other people” as upper-middle-class white dudes and the rest of  humanity as non-people, hackerspaces and hacker events clearly fail this ethic merely by their lack of diversity.  Since I am a white upper-middle-class dude myself, I am not terribly likely to figure out the fix for this since I’m quite likely to be part of the problem. Nonetheless this is about sharing a bunch of half-baked, slightly-assorted thoughts on contributing factors to the problem.

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The MakerBot/Thingiverse move to the Dark Side (Updated)

NYC-Resistor offshoot and a generally speaking cool company MakerBot Industries has caused a sudden uproar which seems not to subside. MakerBot has introduced two new successors in their Replicator series of 3D-printers, the Replicator 2 and the Replicator 2X, that for the first time in MakerBot history are not open hardware. Probably not coincidentally, people started to notice that Thingiverse, the online repository of 3D-designs which is also run by MakerBot Industries had changed its terms of use last February. I will quote the bit that has caused quite an uproar in verbatim:

3.2 License. You hereby grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to Company and its affiliates and partners, an irrevocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free and fully paid, worldwide license to reproduce, distribute, publicly display and perform, prepare derivative works of, incorporate into other works, and otherwise use your User Content, and to grant sublicenses of the foregoing, solely for the purposes of including your User Content in the Site and Services. You agree to irrevocably waive (and cause to be waived) any claims and assertions of moral rights or attribution with respect to your User Content.

The relevant bit of the old terms of use read as follows:

However, by posting, uploading, inputting, providing or submitting your content to Thingiverse.com, you are granting Thingiverse.com, its affiliated companies and partners, a worldwide, revocable, royalty-free, non-exclusive, sub-licensable license to use, reproduce, create derivative works of, distribute, publicly perform, publicly display, transfer, transmit, distribute and publish that content for the purposes of displaying that content on Thingiverse.com and on other Web sites, devices and/or platforms.

The significant difference being that in the old terms of use the license had a limited scope, ‘use, reproduce, create derivative works of, display, transfer, transmit, distribute and publish’ , being the operatives. As a lawyer I tend to struggle with the application of copyright notions to open hardware, but precisely because open hardware and copyright are a poor match, the scope of this license was very much limited to Thingiverse-like platforms. As Bre Pettis wrote in his earlier blog on the change of the terms of use: this bit was probably nicked from the YouTube terms of use or those of a similar content-sharing platform. The net result was that this caused an inadvertent limitation on MakerBot Industries ability to incorporate stuff uploaded to Thingiverse in non-free open hardware products. Because selling a 3D-printer most likely does not fall within the scope of ‘the purpose of displaying that content..’, the newer terms of use however allow for such a thing.

Now these are both decidedly moves away from the openness that MakerBot was evangelizing in the past. Josef Prusa, of RepRap fame, has already started a Occupy Thingiverse movement and others in the community have responded so unfavourably that Bre Pettis, MakerBot Industries CEO and figurehead felt compelled to write a blog titled ‘fixing misinformation with information’ about it. In which he provides an argument that boils down “we haven’t figured out yet how to kick-start a hardware company with venture capital and remaining fully open at the same time. But trust us, we’ll be as open as possible, whatever ‘possible’ means”.  Which is about as tangible as Mitt Romney’s promises for the policies he’ll enact when elected president. Mind you, this section 3.2 of the Thingiverse terms of use is comparable to what is known in free and open software circles as a contribution license agreement. There are are all sorts of ways and purposes for which these are used and having been part of an effort to harmonize these I won’t say it is an inherently evil thing to do.

What is less-than-awesome is the way both changes have been enacted by MakerBot Industries. It is one thing to publicly announce that you’re having to compromise on openness because building an open hardware business model is still pretty much uncharted territory and that you’re moving back to some enclosure and also stating what your goals for future openness are. It is another thing to do kind of omit it in the fanfare surrounding the launch of a new generation of your products, a new generation whose polish was made possible to a significant extent by all the people willing to put up with all the quirks, bugs and sometimes outright braindead engineering decisions embodied in your earlier generations, just because an open 3D-printing future is awesome.

It is outright underhanded to use the same legal tricks outright evil companies such as Facebook and Apple use for the terms of use of a website you awesomely started to create an ecosystem to change the playing field that you can reuse the fruits of other people’s labour and creativity in any way you see fit. Again, you could have announced that due to the different economics of tangible goods versus those of pure information, you’ll need to be able to do stuff that is not necessarily congruent with openness. If done so in advance, the uproar could possibly be equally as bad, but would eventually subside. Especially if you made it clear that if you were actually using a design contributed by a Thingiverse user, you’d be reimbursing them. In fact, MakerBot has already done so, without even being obliged to do so. So if you are already doing something that is acceptable, why not be transparant about it? Because that is what it all boils down: MakerBot betrayed the massive amount of trust it had and makes it worse by telling the community which calls it out for it to trust it even more. And this is what really baffles me. The world of open source is littered with projects that collapsed after a major actor in that community decided to enclose it. Who remembers Mambo? The fork away from OpenOffice.org to LibreOffice because none trusts Oracle? The current forks of MySQL, for precisely the same reason? Or closer to home, Junior Veloso who pulled a similar stunt resulting inbeing overtaken by B9Creator? MakerBot explicitly set out to create a community-based ecosystem, both on the 3D-printer hardware side and the 3D-design side of things. Put a massive effort into that, especially communication. And it is all being thrown away. With platforms like Github available, a Thingiverse contender can easily be created. And then what? MakerBot Industries still won’t have the control it apparantly craved and nothing to show for it to its venture capital funders. I just don’t get it. For now I’ll steer clear from Thingiverse and will suggest others to do the same.

(Updated after the break)

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Some thoughts on personal fabrication

One of the buzzwords doing the rounds in the past few years is ‘personal fabrication’. The idea that in the foreseeable future we all will be able to fabricate our own stuff. And although the founder of the fablab phenomenon, MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld, is pretty nuanced about it (watch his TED talk on the subject), some are actually talking about upsetting the traditional supply chains for manufactured goods. It actually is one of the stated goals of the Global Village Construction Set project by Open Source Ecology. The heavily ajective-laden newspeak of their website, this is actually a cool project. Watch Marcin Jakubowski’s TED talk about it. Also read Far McKon’s rather thoughtful criticism of it on his blog. The snark in me prevents me from omitting that the Open Source Ecology are doing everything in imperial measurements. Which aren’t quite useful for your stated target audience: farmers and villagers in the developing world. Get with the program guys, use metric!

Other than that, I find any ideas on reducing our interdependencies a bit interesting. There are a few snags here and there. First of all, economies of scale matter. They matter a great deal. Actually, a lot of the activity in hackerspaces would be impossible weren’t it for the fact that China has become our global workshop. There is no way other than massive robot usage in which we can ever dream to meet the current price-performance ratio of the Chinese manufacturing base. Also, do not forget that current shipping all over the globe is probably one of the last things to survive through the permanent oil crisis we have just entered. Simply because the energy expended lugging that container full of stepper motors for your repraps from Shanghai to Rotterdam or San Diego is actually pretty low. A shame that those massive container behemoths burn really dirty oil for that. Not even the next leg, either inland shipping over the river Rhine or over rail from San Diego elsewhere in the USA (granted, electrifying US rail networks would be a big win and will be inevitable). It is the last hundred or so kilometers that are the really energy-intensive part of those steppers’ journey.

Personal fabrication only makes sense for niche products such as spare parts and when access to the world’s supply chains is not really affordable. Which indeed means the developing world, but perhaps also rural communities in a not so distant future in which the world has stopped shrinking and has expanded again because oil is not so cheap anymore.

All of this does not mean that the GVCS is not an incredibly interesting idea that doesn’t deserve support. It also doesn’t mean distract one jota from the fact that affordable CNC-machines and additive manufacturing will make craftmanship accessible again, without the five years minimum you have to spend to get a skillset need for say, advanced woodworking. In the past lots of us had great ideas that would require the collaboration of several disciplines and therefore execution would be difficult. Now that lasercutters,CNC-mills and 3D-printers are within reach of hobbyists and hackerspaces, these barriers are crumbling. Atoms may or may not become bits, but lasercutters are cool!

Hackerspace incorporation patterns

As a mere participant of Revelation Space, a hackerspace (or makerspace, if you will) in The Hague, who also happens to practice law (but not corporate law), I found this article on hackerspaces.org interesting. Interesting but incomplete. Incomplete because it doesn’t really explore perfectly reasonable combinations of the patterns described. Also incomplete, because it reeks of a reinventing the wheel, but poorly. Read more “Hackerspace incorporation patterns”