Learning from Hackerspaces

Opening up the maker community at November's DIY: Citizenship symposium in Toronto. Greg Smith reports.


InterAccess | Photo courtesy of Rob CruickshankLAST MONTH Microsoft launched Kinect, a sophisticated peripheral device for the Xbox 360 gaming console that allows rich interaction through gesture and movement. Expanding on the capabilities of Nintendo's Wii Remote, Kinect comes equipped with motion sensors, allowing gamers to play by moving their bodies rather than wielding traditional handheld controllers. When Kinect was released, DIY electronic kit retailer Adafruit Industries offered an X Prize-like bounty for the first individual to reverse engineer the device and develop open source software drivers. A week later, Spanish engineering student Hector Martin posted functional drivers online and a myriad of interaction designers and software artists are now freely exploring Kinect’s capabilities as a controller device. 

A community that converges on a piece of proprietary hardware to “open it up” is definitely emblematic of the hacker ethos. While there’s nothing novel about repurposing technology, there has been a remarkable shift in recent years where these kinds of initiatives have become social enterprises. Resources like Instructables and MAKE serve a growing populist movement interested in critically engaging technology rather than simply consuming it. 

In early November, this field of inquiry was put under the microscope at DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media, a symposium hosted at the University of Toronto. The event attracted academics, activists and multidisciplinary designers from across North America and Europe. DIY Citizenship featured a wealth of fantastic lectures featuring such luminaries as Steve Mann, Ron Deibert and Rita Raley discussing surveillance and data. 

I had been asked to chair a panel showcasing the local “maker” community (I live in Toronto). So I invited Kate Hartman of OCADU’s Digital Futures Initiative (DFI), Rob Cruickshank of the artist-run centre InterAccess, Leigh Honeywell of HackLab.TO, and Liav Koren, who is the Toronto chapter of the tech-centric artist talk series Dorkbot. They represent the city’s “hackespaces” – mostly informal, self-directed arenas for collaboratively exploring technology. Our session was dedicated to identifying the threads that connect these participatory hackerspaces, and in this month’s column I’d like to highlight a few of the general topics that we discussed. 

The race to develop open source drivers for Kinect is illustrative of hacking’s liberal attitude towards intellectual property (IP). The notion that every device or object might be modified, repurposed or gutted for components is pervasive amongst creative technologists, and a core value of hackerspaces. The last several years have seen the advent of open source microcontrollers and affordable build-it-yourself 3D printer kits, and it only follows that curious enthusiasts would both want and need social spaces in which to explore such platforms. Hackerspaces are at the forefront of digital creativity, and may yet provide the impetus for a wider social reframing of what intellectual property means to us. 

A recent white paper by Michael Weinberg championed 3D printers as a “disruptive technology.” The description is apt, given that related technologies will soon enable the widespread replication and production of “functional elements” (working parts) of copyright-protected objects. Will copyright be expanded or re-imagined? More utopian narratives suggest that we’re on the cusp of a manufacturing revolution, but it is naïve to think that corporate interests won’t fight hard to bolster and possibly expand IP laws. Regardless of which direction the scales tilt, look to “amateurs” to be at the centre of some provocative IP lawsuits in the coming years. After his presentation at DIY Citizenship, for example, Liav Koren cited furniture designer David Pye and his scholarship on “the workmanship of risk.” Koren highlighted the uncertainty of handcraft as a mean of yielding unique, one-off aesthetic “diversity” in finishes and assemblies, but his reference will undoubtedly soon relate to legal proceedings. 

The artist run centre InterAccess (IA) has been a fixture in Canadian media art since it first formed as the not-for-profit “Toronto Community Videotex” in 1983. One of its main attractions in the early years was the access it provided to the Telidon system – a Canadian, pre-internet, two-way television service that anticipated many features now commonplace on the web. Over the years IA has served as a nexus of knowledge exchange for various technologies: early laptops, laser printers, audio production suites, PIC microcontrollers – many of which have quietly faded into obsolescence or been displaced by inexpensive alternatives. 

IA representative Rob Cruickshank pointed out that while specific tools and platforms have come and gone, the need for “clean” and “dirty” spaces has remained constant. Electronics have always been a staple at IA, and the recently added milling machine used for digital fabrication, generates incredible amounts of dust and detritus. These  new forays into digital fabrication in areas where delicate components are assembled have problematized the relationship between those spaces – forcing the venue to reconsider layout of the entire workshop. For Cruickshank, though, it was "as important to engage technologies that don't go anywhere as it is to learn about the next big thing.” Seen in this light, hackerspaces are more than collegial workshops, they’re also sources of ongoing education in the archeology of media and technology. 

Another key aspect of hackerspaces is that they engender a transdiscplinary approach to problem solving. Transdisciplinarity moves beyond interdisciplinary collaboration to propose idiosyncratic methods of research and “critical making” that are forged in the no-man’s land between various disciplines. Perhaps the individual on our panel whose practice most exemplified this approach was Kate Hartman, a specialist in wearable technologies – clothes that double as expressive social interfaces (that foreground our idiosyncratic social rituals). An example is her Nudgeables project, a line of social accessories (jewelry, garters, etc.) embedded with electronics that allow wearers to covertly signal one using vibrating motors built into them (imagine a real world Facebook ‘poke’). These projects are clearly about more than interaction design or conventional fashion, and one can’t help but wonder at their implications for social anthropology. Hartman is currently designing and implementing new related curricula within OCADU’s DFI stream. She’s also active in more informal contexts such as the Toronto Wearables Meetup (which she co-founded), which features presentations by artists like Sean Montgomery, a neuroscientist researching the implications of biofeedback on fashion.  A takeaway point from Hartman’s presentation was that emerging fields of study have to sprawl across various domains of expertise AND remain connected to the more informal settings (like hackerspaces) in which they originate. 

HackLab.TO is a Toronto hackerspace that was launched in late 2008. It isn’t hardwired into the same arts funding channels as IA, registered instead as a non-profit corporation supported by membership fees. Representative Leigh Honeywell’s talk positioned HackLab.TO as part of a global network of hackerspaces dedicated to knowledge sharing and DIY culture. She focused on cataloguing various business and organizational models that a fledgling hackerspace could adopt, and highlighted some of the more idiosyncratic characteristics of these niche communities. Many hackerspaces repurpose unrelated structures (e.g. churches, industrial spaces), and Berlin’s c-base has even cultivated a pseudo-mythology by locating its headquarters underground, in the wreckage of a crashed space station. Quirky architectural narratives notwithstanding, Honeywell’s idealized description of how hackerspaces should work spatially was the idea of the “permanent hallway” – a non-hierarchical, informal space between spaces that lends itself to happenstance and the diffusion of skills and knowledge. 

Hackerspaces in Toronto and elsewhere are unique venues for exploration and collaboration. They cater to a certain tech-savvy pedigree, and while having been critiqued for being both apolitical and exclusive, they strive to counter such stereotypes. These issues were obviously on the speakers’ radars:  they were all explicitly concerned with reaching beyond their immediate organizational memberships and promoting community cross-pollination. The thing to remember here is that activities like product hacking, repurposing e-waste and creative coding all underscore the same point: all tools and media are, first and foremost, social technologies.


Greg J. Smith writes Some Assembly Required, his monthly column at Current Intelligence. He is a Toronto-based designer with interests in media theory and digital culture. He is a managing editor of the digital arts publication Vague Terrain and blogs at Serial Consign.