From Hackspace to Secret Hacking Lair

12-09-2016

I've been reading through a book called 'Sapiens' - A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It's quite a good read thus far, though he does ride rough-shod over some areas of history I think. I'm excited to see what he thinks about the future of humanity. One thing that came out of the early chapters for me is Homo Sapiens's ability to create fiction, and how these fictions shape the world we live in. Fictions like money, the nation state, religion etc. All of these things help us work and live together in larger groups and accomplish things we'd never be able to do on our own.

Before this time however, we also developed language. A very versatile language that allowed us to, for want of a better word, gossip. We all do it, and we've done it for a very long time. We talk about who is doing what to who, who is trust-worthy and who isn't. This allows us to work in close knit groups of around 150 or so individuals. We can forge relationships that are meaningful and bring us happiness. Our brains and bodies are all setup for such things.

This brings us to the changing nature of the hackspace and why I feel I am part of the collateral damage and, at the same time, part of the problem. It's also why I now have a genuine, underground hacking lair that I share with my partner who makes amazing jewellery.

I rarely venture into the London Hackspace these days and I'm not the only one. I've been a member for over 6 years now. I joined just as the space moved into it first rented place - above an archery range in Islington. I've seen it grow from a handful of individuals to the 1000+ members it has today. I've seen hackspace go from obscurity to the mainstream. I've seen amazing things built there but I've also seen problems grow and the community begin to fracture.

People have commented that the London Hackspace needs to be smaller. We have seen subgroups form that generally look after there own stuff. It's unclear to me how well these subgroups work with each other, if at all? Some subgroups cloister themselves in certain rooms. Others seem to function as one person's personal power-base. Some subgroups genuinely need separate rules and training for safety reasons so it's unfair to blame them entirely for making the place seem more fractured.

When I joined, I knew everyone. In addition, we were building a new thing and had a common sense of purpose. I can remember one mad afternoon where I and one other chap packed the entire hackspace away in boxes so the landlord wouldn't find out what we were up-to. These were good times! You could say that we all believed in the place or had a shared, common story that what we were making was a new, good thing and the UK should have this. I'm sure people involved in Hackspace Foundation have different ideas perhaps, but even as just somebody who helped move stuff and run the occasional class, there did seem to be a common fiction we all shared.

At CCCamp last year, I was amazed to see a march happening, with people shouting and carrying banners and the like. All the participants were protesting the government spying programs and the lack of privacy these days. I found it odd because after-all, who were they preaching to? Everyone at the camp was pretty much on-side. Now, I think I understand. This was more of a sort of ritual, reaffirming the very human need to belong. CCC and the European hacker types have a strong political streak that the UK hackerspaces do not. I think this is actually a good thing for the European spaces to have because it allows larger groups of people to work together.

The space today has drama and issues surrounding a wide variety of areas, from the abuse the laser cutter maintainers take, to the recent EGM. Some say these are just growing pains and that the space is genuinely better off. Indeed, the diversity of the space seems to have improved and we have a lot more space to play with now. Other members may disagree with many of the things I've said here. I'd be the first to admit that I've also changed, along with the space. One way I've changed actually hurts the space; I don't do as many of the basic chores, nor do I run any classes there anymore. I've begun to believe that if you arent doing these things you are part of the problem.

We've seen other models of hackspaces that avoid some of the problems by latching onto other mythos, such as capitalism and entrepenurship. Fab-Labs (and probably the god-awful Here-East) are different approaches that seem similar on the surface, but are founded on quite different principles underneath. I've never felt any sort of allegiance to these places in the same way, which suggests London Hackspace was on to something. I wonder if the future of the place is to either split into smaller spaces when the rent inevitably becomes too much or find a mythos, a cause or a story, to really rally behind

Ultimately, however, I just don't hang out there any more, having #topnerdybants with friends. While I still pop in to check the notice boards, buy a club mate and see if there are any interesting bits of kit in the recycling bins, I have many projects I wish to finish and that requires the right tools, ready for use. If I'm brutally honest, it make me rather sad. This is normal though. Things change and people move on. I'll still pay my dues - I want the place to succeed even if I don't see my place in it anymore. The place served me well and I served it. Perhaps that's enough?

The underground hacking lair is an absolute dream come true. While my partner and I don't have a lot of space we've managed to pack away quite a lot down there. One wall is covered with plastic boxes full of camping gear, teddy bears and Belfast inks. The other contains our respective work benches. One even has a tiny pillar drill on it! It's not really a hackspace of any-kind, but it's home!