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Donating Items: Rules of Thumb, a Hackerspace Philosophy

Donating Items: Rules of Thumb, a Hackerspace Philosophy

Rule 11: Donations is an event, not a location.

PROBLEM: The Hackspace is full of cruft, much of it was donated.

A quick explanation

Rather than have a culture in the space of bringing items into the space and leaving them somewhere in a communal donations pile (possibly to become an expensive WEEE problem or worst unremovable totemistic cruft) donations should be less a place you put things and more a time or an event where folks exchange things, taking them home with them afterwards.

A much deeper dive

When Nottingham Hackspace was first founded it was a common occurrence that people would offer the group their old CRT computer monitors. A good sized CRT monitor, only a few short years before, had been a status symbol in the nascent world of home computing, somewhat expensive, a status symbol of sorts. But as we know, smartphones and laptops were rapidly taking over and desktops started to have flat LCD screens, which became more prevalent, folks didn’t need or really want their bulky CRT screens any more. Yet somehow, such a big, once expensive item still held the reminder of its value and might be useful to SOMEONE else, not them but someone. A good way to purge the guilt of buying something new and of the moment when you don’t really really need it (almost everything we buy) is to feel better by giving it up to a good home. Maybe the folks at Hackspace will want it?

At the time, the Hackspace was housed at an arts collective space, an organisation which was existing in a city building at a peppercorn rent. Its operation was mostly as landlord but with a few unusual side hustles. One of which was a recycling/up-cycling centre. I have vivid memories of being shown a room stacked floor to ceiling with CRT monitors of all sizes. There must of been close to 100 of them in total. That was when it dawned on me, this stuff wasn’t a blessing, it was a burden.

A few years before that, I’d been working in a new job as a facilities manager in the public sector for a QANGO. The QANGO ran a large laboratory, which was more of less ruled over by the scientists, who could not bear to dispose of any equipment. Just off site we had a building known as the “Black Shed” which it is my understanding was rented at £6k per annum. With in the black shed were scientific instruments, moulding and rusting, long since obsolete but state of the art in their time. Fancy orthopaedic chairs with missing legs. A display about how the site was to be redeveloped for housing. A shipping container sized room with 12 years of scientific results in curled up paper. 1 ton of bagged samples where they were looking for asbestos. Several bacteria immune sinks. 4 microwave overs that had been eaten by chloride gasses. 19 desktop computers with pentium processors. On top of all that there was a plethora of equipment. Further more the QANGO had excellent practices in health and safety management…except in the avalanche prone black shed, which seemingly was off the H&S radar. it took 4 members of staff 2 weeks and £2k worth of skips to clear. But all that stuff… it MIGHT have been useful.

So in short what I’m trying to say is, is that it might be human nature to ascribe an ongoing value to something that is now obsolete for us. When something has been replaced it might not have reached the end of its useful life. Maybe we feel a little guilty about the fact we got the new thing and that we over consume in our culture, buying things because they are the new norm and not because the old one no longer works.

We are done with the old thing but yet we put a value on the item, we don’t really want it anymore not for ourselves, but it was valuable to us at some point and we can not bear to get rid of it, besides we might need it in the future or it might come in handy for something?! A way around this guilt and a way to free up some space at home for more hoarding, is to give the item to someone else.

People at Hackerspace enjoy stuff. There is a DIY make and mend culture in Hackerspaces. There is no greater joy than mending something that didn’t work, or than repurposing obsolete technology or dismantling something to salvage the objects of desire from within. Nothing satisfies our ambition more than all the cool things we can imagine that COULD be done with an item.

When I used to be a member of Bristol Hackspace, there was a good 16th of the space devoted to 2 shelves filled with old HP laptops of mid 1990s vintage. I think there was 34 of them in total though it may have been more than that. At that time, the then tiny Hackspace had little or no storage space at all, but a good portion of the storage was taken by these objects of potential. I recall discussions about them. “We could make a video array” quipped one person. They were always so full of potential those laptops… yet nothing ever happened to them. In the end they were disposed of.

At the Nottingham Hackspace we have a high shelf filled with server blades. They are horribly obsolete and my understanding is, that for them to be useful, they need some obsolete hard drives to go with them. They arrived from someone work place one evening. They’re heavy and have sharp edges, they are just a little too big to comfortably carry. They are have been on the high shelf for nearly 7 years. They are essentially WEEE waste that the company we took them from should have paid someone to dispose of responsibly.

As member run organisations, its fairly easy for a private person to take some of this industrial waste to a recycling centre. However as registered companies, Hackerspace really do have a duty of care over waste and should be taking responsibility over what happens to it. Donated items of electronics or tools or anything else are problematic for a Hackerspace. They are objects of desire, they play to some baser need tinkerers have and yes of course sometimes they are useful.

Often though, in reality they take up large amounts of space and consume lots of effort or worse clutter our sacred spaces and become totemistic objects that “could be useful”.

One pleasant counter measure at the Nottingham Hackspace is the museum of obsolete technology, a relatively low effort curated collection of pretty and interesting tech from the past.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of junk as much as the next person…. so what is to be done about this?

As mentioned briefly above I’d propose we think of donations less as something you bring and leave in the Hackerspace and more of an event, like a market. Donators would bring their items to the space, they offer them to others for free or in-exchange for a token fair price or as a swap for other items they find themselves wanting. Importantly any item brought to the event is TAKEN AWAY FROM THE EVENT AT THE END, so unwanted items are taken away by the donator. Its key that items are not PUT SOMEWHERE and that their is a level of interaction.

This makes a good social event, a time when those who might want something from a traditional “donations” pile can turn up and seek those things out and those who wish to unburden themselves and donate can curate the offering. *

  • Foot note: I am aware that some will want one of the following situations:

    • 1: Items that are available for unforeseen needs in the future. i.e. it might come in handy/its useful to have a pile of junk on hand to pick through for projects as yet undreamt of

    • 2: Some might think that items are needed for a “proper” Hackerspace and misplace their own desire to have something and channel that into “the Hackerspace” must have something.

    I will attempt to address both of these issues in related Rules of Thumb later.

Rules of Thumb, we are all about stories.

Rules of Thumb, we are all about stories.

Sacred Space Part 1. Project Storage: Rules of Thumb, a Hackerspace Philosophy

Sacred Space Part 1. Project Storage: Rules of Thumb, a Hackerspace Philosophy