[hackerspaces] Hacking the Spaces: A critical acclaim of what was, is and could be a hackerspace (or hacklab, for that matter)

das ende der nahrungskette jg at monochrom.at
Sat May 9 23:10:19 CEST 2009

Johannes Grenzfurthner/Frank Apunkt Schneider (monochrom)


A critical acclaim of what was, is and could be a hackerspace (or
hacklab, for that matter)

// Hackerspaces 1 // History

The history of the so-called hackerspaces expands back to when the
counter culture movement was about to make a serious statement. In the
decade after the hippies attempted to establish new ways of social,
political, economical and ecological relationships, a lot of experiments
were carried out concerning the construction of new spaces to live and
to work in. These were considered as niches to relieve and rescue people
from the monotonous way bourgeois society directed civic spaces from
kindergartens to cemeteries to be exactly the same and to reproduce its
patriarchal and economical order. The politics of establishing open
spaces were meant as explicit statements confronting a capitalist (and
in the East: an authoritarian communist) society whose very structure,
purpose and operating mode were broadly considered to "alienate humans",
to take control of and to modify their basic human needs and
relationships. Thus, the failed revolt of the sixties survived and
flourished in the shadows of a ubiquitous bourgeois lifestyle. And the
idea of change was conjured up from nebulous lysergic dreams and
pathetic speeches to get one's dreams and/or feet back on solid ground -
to be dis-obamaized, if you like. This conversion gained its popularity
because macro-political hippie dreaming ("I had too much to dream last
night" as the title of a classical psych pop tune by 'The Electric
Prunes' put it) had completely deteriorated. The hippies learnt that
social and political change demanded more than just joining the mantra
of posters, pop songs and drug fantasies that were promoting it. The
real world was way too tough to be impressed by a bunch of filthy
bourgeois drop-outs mantra-ing about change. The capitalist imperative
of the real world was way too effective to really be changed. And yet,
when it all was over in 1972, some of the people involved were not ready
to give in and give themselves over to the system and to fade into
integration - hence the launching of micro-political tactics. Instead of
trying to transfer the old world into a new one people started to build
up tiny new worlds within the old world. They made up open spaces were
people could come together and try out different forms of living,
working, maybe loving and whatever people do when they want to do
something. It is necessary to have a look at the historical development
of political movements and their relationship to spaces and geography:
the students' revolt of 1969 was driven by the idea of taking back
places and establishing a different psychogeography within the maze of
the city through détournement. Likewise, the autonomia movement of the
late 1970s that came to life in Italy and later influenced people in
German-speaking countries and the Netherlands was about appropriation of
spaces, be it for autonomous youth centres or appropriation of the
airwaves for pirate radio. Thus, the first hackerspaces fit best into a
countercultural topography consisting of squat houses, alternative
cafes, farming cooperatives, collectively run businesses, communes,
non-authoritarian childcare centres, and so on. All of these established
a tight network for an alternative lifestyle within the heart of
bourgeois darkness.

// Hackerspaces 2 // Present

Hackerspaces provided room where people could go and work in laid-back,
cool and non-repressive environments (well, as far as any kind of space
or environment embedded into a capitalist society can be called
laid-back, cool and non-repressive). Sociological termed "third spaces"
are spaces that break through the dualistic scheme of bourgeois spatial
structure with places to live and places to work (plus places for spare
time activities). They represent an integrative way that refuses to
accept a lifestyle which is formed through such a structure. This means
they can come to cooperative and non-repressive ways of working on e.g.
technical problems that may result in new and innovative solutions. And
that's exactly where Adorno's "Wrong Life" could slip in too. The
Capitalist system is a highly adaptable entity. And so it isn't
surprising that alternative spaces and forms of living provided
interesting ideas that could be milked and marketed. So certain
structural features of these "indie" movement outputs were suddenly
highly acclaimed, applied and copy-pasted into capitalist developing
laboratories. These qualities fit best into the tendency in which -- by
the end of the seventies -- bourgeois society started to update and
re-launch using the experiences gained through countercultural projects.
Mainstream harvested the knowledge that was won in these projects and
used it. Normalizing dissent. Uh yeah. Thus, the sixties revolt and all
the micro-revolutions that followed turned out to be a kind of
periodical refreshment. As a system, capitalism is always interested in
getting rid of some of its old-fashioned oppressive traits that might
block its overall evolution and perfection. As an example:
eco-capitalism became trendy, and it was quite effective generating
capitalist "good wealth" and capitalist "good feelings". Hackerspaces
today function differently than they initially did. When the first
hackerspaces were formed there were always clear distinctions (an
"antagonism") between "us" (the people resisting) and "them" (the people
controlling). Certain people did not want to live and toil within the
classical bourgeois working scheme and refused to be part of its
ideological and political project for some pretty good reasons. The
otherness of the spaces back then was determined by the consistency of a
bourgeois mainstream culture on the basis of a dualistic cold war world
order. Here again they proved to be third spaces of a different kind:
neither state nor free trade capitalism. And being structural and
ideological different from that had been an important political
statement and stance. In a society easily distinguished into mainstream
and underground categories, each activity carried out within the open
space of such an underground was a step from the wrong direction. The
very practice of making personal use of alternative structures came with
assurance of being on the good side. But post-cold war society
established a different order that deeply affected the position of the
hackerspaces. While on the one hand it got harder and more repressive,
the system (a clever one!) learned to tolerate things that are different
(in the pipeline of integrating or assimilating them) and to understand
that it always has been the edges of normality where the new substance
grows. Milking covert culture. Before that, the open intolerance and
often brutal oppression carried out against countercultural spaces only
made them stronger and their necessity more evident (at least where
society didn't succeed in crushing them). Thus, alternative life forms
were applied ideally as a rejuvenation of what was old, boring,
conservative and impotent to progress and adapt in an ever changing
bourgeois present. New ways to solve technical (and aesthetical)
problems were cooked up in the underground and bourgeois talent scouts
watched closely to occasionally pick this or that, just as it happened
in the field of pop music with the so-called alternative rock of the
nineties. Alternative mainstream, ahoi! On the other hand, the nineties
marked the triumph of liberal democracy, as Slavoj Žižek writes: "The
fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 marked the beginning of the
'happy 1990s'. According to Francis Fukuyama, liberal democracy had, in
principle, won. The era is generally seen as having come to an end on
9/11. However, it seems that the utopia had to die twice: the collapse
of the liberal-democratic political utopia on 9/11 did not affect the
economic utopia of global market capitalism, which has now come to an
end." It's thus highly ironic that geeks and nerds, while watching the
death of liberal democracy in its political form (civil liberties
granted to keep the social peace) as well as its economic form (crisis)
turn to become liberal-democratic defenders of an ideology that has
already failed. Without the political demarcation lines of a cold war
society, hackerspaces changed sometimes without even noticing it. The
political agenda was mushroomed by individual problems that techno nerds
tried to solve in nice fearless atmospheres, non-aggressive states where
the aggressiveness of the market was suspended; where one could discuss
technical and creative problems and challenges politely with likeminded
people. As such, the political approach faded away on en route into tiny
geeky workshop paradises. The micro-politics failed on the same scale
and to the same extent as older macro-political projects got pulverized
through the irreversibility of capitalism. The idea of having a
revolution (of whatever kind) was domesticated into good clean
reformism, and the only revolutions that lay ahead were the
technological semi-revolutions of the internet and its social web
sprouts. Without former political agendas hackerspaces turned into small
places that did not really make fundamental differences. Comparable to
the fall of squat houses becoming legal in status and turning into new
bourgeois housing projects where the cool urban bohemians live their
lives commuting steadily between art world, underground, IT-business and
advertisement agencies. This may not be the case for all the
hackerspaces out there today, but it should be noted that most have
travelled along the same paths. And while for a long time the
macro-political scheme had worked quite well to provide the inherent
difference that had been attached to all of the activities carried out
in hackerspaces (even to things as trivial as soldering, pottery lessons
or juggling trainings), it is missing now. And due to this deficiency
hackerspaces can no longer be shaped and politicized on a broader scale.
And that clearly means that whatever we might do: our hackerspace
communities remain constricted; nothing more than nutrient fluid for
breeding human resources. (Soylent Google is made of people!)

// Hackerspaces 3 // Future

So what can be done about this? Actually, it is not very hard to find
something to protest against. Surveillance, whatever. It's no problem to
use the prefix "anti". Use rule 76 - as long as you can think about it,
you can be against it. But that's just too simple. Never before in the
history of bourgeois society has everything been as fucked up as it is
right now. But what is lacking amongst all the practising going on in
hackerspaces is a concise theory of what bourgeois society is like and
what should be attacked by us building and running open spaces within
that society. The lovely alternative approach we share should be
grounded in such a theory, which is to be read: a political agenda that
lends some revolutionary glam to what we are doing on a daily basis
making technical gadgets, networking through the world, or utilizing our
technological and programming skills. To get there we really need a more
explicit sense and understanding of the history of what we are doing, of
the political approaches and demands that went into it long ago and that
still are there, hidden in what we do right now. So to start off we
would like to organize some workshops in the hackerspaces where we can
learn about the philosophical, historical and other items that we need
to get back in our lives. Theory is a toolkit to analyze and deconstruct
the world. Plus, we need to reflect and understand that the hackerspaces
of today are under the "benevolent" control of a certain group of mostly
white and male techno handicraft working nerds. And that they shape a
practise of their own which destines most of the hackerspaces of today.
(It is hard to understand that there are hackerspaces in certain parts
of the US that don't have a single Afro-American or Latino member. But
we'd like to keep our European smugness to ourselves. We have to look at
our oh-so-multicultural hacker scene in Europe and ask ourselves if
hackers with a migrant background from Turkey or North-African states
are represented in numbers one would expect from their percentage of the
population. Or simply count your women representation and see if they
make 50% of your members.) As such, we find today's hackerspaces
excluding a lot of ethnical and social groups that don't seem to fit in
or maybe feel so and are scared by the white male nerd dominance, their
(maybe) sexist or exclusionist jokes or whatever might be contributed to
them. Or perhaps they don't have the proper skills to communicate and/or
cooperate with the packs of geeky guys (or at least they might think
so). What is needed is the non-repressive inclusion of all the groups
marginalized by a bourgeois society just as it had been the intention of
the first hackerspaces in countercultural history. If we accept the
Marxian idea that the very nature of politics is always in the interest
of those acting, hackerspace politics are for now in the interest of
white middle-class males. This needs to change. Well, that's all for the
moment. Let's start to work on this and see what would happen if we
change the somehow boring hackerspaces of the present into some
glamorous factories of an unpredictable freedom for all of us even those
who do not fit in the classical nerd scheme. Change the nerds. Make them
a better space. For you and for me and the entire human race.


(Thanks to Jens Ohlig for comments and advice. Thanks to Melinda Richka
for grammar-slashing.)



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