History, politics and culture of hacker spaces

I just read a thread started by Michael Zeltner on the London Hack Space group and assimilated the linked monochrom article.

Interesting points raised and I can’t dispute the history, but it seems to me that Monochrom (and I think also Zeltner)  sees hackspaces as a blank canvas onto which the (mostly left-wing) politics of the age are creatively drawn, and from which information is read by those nasty exploitative capitalists. Such an enterprise does need to agree on its purpose and destination in the way advocated by Monochrom, because otherwise the content of the canvas will be a complete mess, leading (in the real rather than the analogous world) to an unpleasant and fractious cultural space.

I thought I was helping to create a paint brush or a set of tools, capable of being used in a neutral and open way by any one friendly enough to turn up and get on with it without being an ass hole. I believed people would work on different canvases chosen by those individuals and any project groups they form as they socialise together in the space.  Some might work on their own web sites, perhaps even commercially while at the hack space as certainly happened at meetings #4 and #5. I contributed for selfish commercial reasons to an open project run by a major media company, but was friendy and sociable to the point of distraction while in “the space”. Others are working on kit to use in their own homes.  I’m sure others will get together and work on grander visions involving more people, even all of society, though I think that will take time to start happening. This latter model does not need a political direction or even a shared belief system, in relies on people with shared interests getting together and being sociable while using the facilities of the space.

Zeltner and Monocrom both approach the culture of hackspaces from what I would call (noting that my post 9/11 political awakening is still relatively recent) a collectivist meta-context and end-up ascribing collectivist features to it. Zelter reveals this when he calls setting up a space a political act and Monochrom likewise in his references to capitalists and capitalism as if they are something “other” than whatever it is he labels himself*. I wonder whether, if the factual history and consequent semantic baggage of the phrase “hacker space” is somehow unavoidably collectivist and whether I will find myself accidentally supporting a de facto left-wing political group of which I cannot approve. The rumours of funding from a certain assuredly left-wing media organisation does nothing to counter this impression.

I realise of course, that I have also ascribed features of the libertarian meta-context I was born with to the culture I expected to see formed at the London Hack Space. The description I gave above of a group of individuals united socially by accident of the facilities they enjoy and voluntarily uniting ad-hoc is basically the way I’d like my nation to be run, writ small. I would argue though, that this model of running a space – be it a country or a communal workshop – is superior exactly because it doesn’t matter if groups within the whole want to work on commercial, personal or communal projects as long as they respect the needs of every other individual sufficiently. The country, or the hackspace is a political entity in this model to exactly the same extent that a shop or a pub is political – not very political at all, but rather cultural or just social.

That all sounds very grand, but what it amounts to is turning up, getting on with whatever it is you want to get on with for whatever reason it is you want to do that, and getting on nicely with the others – exactly what has happened at every gathering so far.

Long may it continue.

* I realise I am anthropomorphising the group, but whatever…


  1. Michael Zeltner, 25. May 2009, 13:53

    Next time add to the discussion on the mailinglist, then I get to see it in time too ;)

    I’ve been saying this over and over again: if you read the essay, yes, there’s a very obvious leftist style in writing (monochrom are in general quite known for their stance in the political spectrum), but the only thing it tries to convey is the importance of critical and informed reflection, not a political agenda. If it was doing that I wouldn’t be supporting it as I don’t believe in homogeneous groups either.

    Your opinion and wishes are all valid and important to the topic, and it would be a pity if you drop out the whole thing without sharing it. By now the controversy over “can we actually talk about this?” has stopped on the hackerspaces.org discuss list, so I’m probably gonna start answering some of the on-topic replies – I don’t think I’ll post about it on the London one again, partially because people need to see how the dynamics of such a space develop in real life. As far as I know, no-one directly involved has been part of a similar undertaking before. And it’s like programming, the imagining of how it’s gonna work is all nice, but the implementation teaches you a lot.


  2. simon, 25. May 2009, 20:38

    Actually I posted to IRC about 2 seconds after you logged off. I have no desire to sign up to Google groups so won’t be posting anything there.

    Its odd that one member was upset that the space was going to be politically neutral – as if that meant she wasn’t welcome to come and do political things – I think that would be crazy and would happily call Russ and Jonty crazy if they went down that road. Paula is right that technology and politics are intertwined and a lot of geeks are very political. I am very political and I have enjoyed immensely talking to people at the hack evenings about political matters.

    I do have to insist that my money goes to the creation of an easel, not a canvas. I’ve no problem with the easel being used to support canvases whose content I would not approve of, but a political agenda for the hackspace as a whole is an obstacle for me. I would not be walking away – I’d be running.

    Fortunately, my experience hanging out with lefties is that I agree with them 50% of the time and enjoy arguing with them 45% of the time so I foresee having a generally good time with a clear conscience.

    As for what is being communicated, I don’t think that there is any doubt as to what monochrom advocated. Take a look at this excerpt:

    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

    That is what I’d call the hackspace-as-canvas model, where the group as a whole operates politically rather than members of the group being political (hackspace-as-easel).

    If you meant to be advocating something different from hackspace-as-canvas, then you need to be a lot clearer about what you mean. Perhaps you could start by describing what it is you think we should be informed and reflective about and who exactly you think needs to do that reflecting?


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