Respect the Past, Examine the Present, Build the Future

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 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!

6 thoughts on “Respect the Past, Examine the Present, Build the Future”

  1. Although I like the “waves” description of hackerspaces, I still think the hacker history encompasses the whole history of computing, from early prototypes of hackerspaces we can imagine as Leonardo’s Workshop in Firenze to Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine and the later effort by John Von Neumann, Alan Turing, George Boole, JCR Licklider, Douglas Engelbart, Robert Taylor and Alan Kay, Ted Nelson… The whole history of the emergence of graphical computing and the Internet is paved with the hacker spirit, although the term only appears in the 1970s with MIT hobbyists and soon-to-be free software advocates.

    Hackerdom has roots in the Renaissance University, where knowledge was to be transmitted for the benefit of all mankind. The main difference between hackerdom and academics, IMO, is on the one hand the reliance on praxis, or experimental science rather than theory, and on the other hand the deep scientific connection of research for all: information wants to be free kinda cyberpunk theme.

    Thus hackerspaces share a long history of men and women (the first programmer was a Lady*) seeking science and willing to share their knowledge with the broadest possible audience. What Nick calls the Third Wave of hackerspaces certainly share this public endeavor to make IT available to all and spread the virus of learning and teaching and sharing knowledge and know-how.

    To build upon the same train of thought, Industrialization brought and broke communal workshops and mills, and otherwise shared production resources, spaces and tools that existed since Renaissance. XIXth Century workshops where one could come with bare metal and go back home with a lock and key, were replaced by tightly controlled and organized factories where only the boss could profit from the effort of all workers. Indeed, hackerspaces bring back to front the idea of sharing resources to learn and make things otherwise thought impossible to achieve for an individual.

  2. Hackerspaces go back farther than you think.

    The resistors for instance started in the 60s and 70s. Ironically NYC Resistor was unaware of them when we chose our name… but both groups are north eastern based, and have chatted back and forth since.

    But, if you are a sporting man… you can go back to the 1600s and earlier and see shops like da vinci’s throughout the Renaissance acting much like hack spaces.

    Things have not changed much. Just human lives are short, and our memories doubly so. It’s easy to forget the past.

    What matters most is that we maintain an adventurous spirit and an overwhelming desire to forge new ground defy convention and seek a better tomorrow. Regardless of whether or not we happen to be aware of our past equivalents doing the same.

    We stand upon the shoulders of giants. But we also stand in a path trodden upon many times before. The only questions is, will we be the first to succeed where others have failed?

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