Tracing the Genealogies of Hacklabs and Hackerspaces

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* Article: Hacklabs and hackerspaces – tracing two genealogies. By Maxigas. Journal of Peer Production, Issue #2: Bio/Hardware Hacking, 2014




"It seems very promising to chart the genealogy of hackerspaces from the point of view of hacklabs, since the relationship between these scenes have seldom been discussed and largely remains unreflected. A methodological examination will highlight many interesting differences and connections that can be useful for practitioners who seek to foster and spread the hackerspace culture, as well as for academics who seek to conceptualise and understand it. In particular, hackerspaces proved to be a viral phenomenon which may have reached the height of its popularity, and while a new wave of fablabs spring up, people like Grenzfurthner and Schneider (2009) have started asking questions about the direction of these movements. I would like to contribute to this debate about the political direction and the political potentials of hacklabs and hackerspaces with a comparative, critical, historiographical paper. I am mostly interested in how these intertwined networks of institutions and communities can escape the the capitalist apparatus of capture, and how these potentialities are conditioned by a historical embeddedness in various scenes and histories.

Hacklabs manifest some of the same traits as hackerspaces, and, indeed, many communities who are registered on identify themselves as “hacklabs” as well. Furthermore, some registered groups would not be considered to be a “real” hackerspace by most of the others. In fact, there is a rich spectrum of terms and places with a family resemblance such as “coworking spaces”, “innovation laboratories”, “media labs”, “fab labs”, “makerspaces”, and so on. Not all of these are even based on an existing community, but have been founded by actors of the formal educational system or commercial sector. It is impossible to clarify everything in the scope of a short article. I will therefore only consider community-led hacklabs and hackerspaces here.

Despite the fact that these spaces share the same cultural heritage, some of their ideological and historical roots are indeed different. This results in a slightly different adoption of technologies and a subtle divergence in their organisational models. Historically speaking, hacklabs started in the middle of the 1990s and became widespread in the first half of the 2000s. Hackerspaces started in the late 1990s and became widespread in the second half of the 2000s. Ideologically speaking, most hacklabs have been explicitly politicised as part of the broader anarchist/autonomist scene, while hackerspaces, developing in the libertarian sphere of influence around the Chaos Computer Club, are not necessarily defining themselves as overtly political. While practitioners in both scenes would consider their own activities as oriented towards the liberation of technological knowledge and related practices, the interpretations of what is meant by “liberty” diverges. One concrete example of how these historical and ideological divergences show up is to be found in the legal status of the spaces: while hacklabs are often located in squatted buildings, hackerspaces are generally rented.

This paper is comprised of three distinct sections. The first two sections draw up the historical and ideological genealogy of hacklabs and hackerspaces. The third section brings together these findings in order to reflect on the differences from a contemporary point of view. While the genealogical sections are descriptive, the evaluation in the last section is normative, asking how the differences identified in the paper play out strategically from the point of view of creating postcapitalist spaces, subjects and technologies.

Note that at the moment the terms “hacklab” and “hackerspace” are used largely synonymously. Contrary to prevailing categorisation, I use hacklabs in their older (1990s) historical sense, in order to highlight historical and ideological differences that result in a somewhat different approach to technology. This is not linguistic nitpicking but meant to allow a more nuanced understanding of the environments and practices under consideration. The evolving meaning of these terms, reflecting the social changes that have taken place, is recorded on Wikipedia. The Hacklab article was created in 2006 (Wikipedia contributors, 2010a), the Hackerspace article in 2008 (Wikipedia contributors, 2011). In 2010, the content of the Hacklab article was merged into the Hackerspaces article. This merger was based on the rationale given on the corresponding discussion page (Wikipedia contributors, 2010). A user by the name “Anarkitekt” wrote that “I’ve never heard or read anything implying that there is an ideological difference between the terms hackerspace and hacklab” (Wikipedia contributors, 2010b). Thus the treatment of the topic by Wikipedians supports my claim that the proliferation of hackerspaces went hand in hand with a forgetting of the history that I am setting out to recapitulate here."

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