Engine of More: Why are you spoiling robot club?
When it comes to Hackerspaces, who is it for?
This is a difficult topic and one that I keep putting off. I worry about exclusion. As a white, straight, middle class male I try to remember my privilege, and though I might not feel it, how it has and continues to afford me open doors, when it comes to influence and acceptance by the status quo. That is to say I get to play life on a difficulty setting of “easy”. No doubt I’m often oblivious of my privilege, defensive of it and use it for wrong. Please do feedback to me generously if my view points here are wrong footed, I will endeavour to reflect.
When I started Nottinghack as a meetup.com group in 2010 if you’d have asked me “who is it for” I’d have answered, “it’s for everyone” with out really thinking about what that means. There is still something I wrote* in about 2010 on the Nottingham Hackspace website:
*no doubt with a few tweeks and edits over the years by others.
Yesterday I took a little time to highlight some spaces, that aren’t aimed at everyone. Hackermom’s The Mothership in Berkley, Ca was created specifically for mothers, who wanted to make and so they pooled resources to have affordable childcare and a good social group based around making. Men’s Sheds is an organisation setup specifically to give older men somewhere to socialise and make things, Lovelace Space in Dublin has a feminist outlook, is primarily run by women and non-binary folks with the main aim being inclusion alongside making and geekery. Of course there are also any number of corporate or academic makerspaces that are not open to the public too.
Creating a hackerspace straw man a moment, some folks, tending to be those I have spoken to who frequent rather than organise hackerspaces, there is this feeling that talk of inclusion and reaching out to be more inclusive, somehow, gets in the way of “just making stuff”. Perhaps feeling put-upon, why do they need diversity in their spaces? They’re not against it, why should they actively have to create it, if such people don’t turn up? This form of emotional labour probably wasn’t the reason they joined “robot club*”.
* “Why are you spoiling robot club?” has long been my short hand for the conversations that follow any sort of social hacking talk or discussion of diversity in a Hackerspace.
So is it okay to make your hackerspace exclusive? Let’s take the case of NYC Resistor, a Brooklyn based Hackerspace, seen by many to be something of a proto-space in terms of the Hackerspace movement:
… go down on the open night, engage with the membership for a while, and if they all think you fit in (they’ll discuss you) then you’ll be invited to join them.
Hackerspaces have been around in their current form for about 10 years. I think the time is right to see many, many more organisations appear and flourish. In larger British cities like London, Birmingham and even Nottingham, there is more than enough room for many flavours hackerspace like organisation, not pulling against each other, but together to achieve similar goals.
For me hackerspaces have always been about ease of access to tools, better than those you could afford alone, to collaborate and share knowledge, a 3rd space to meet and socialise around the same world view, together we can solve problems!
I think for a long time the rhetoric has been that there isn’t room for more than one organisation in most towns. I think that view is wrong, especially if we try to create spaces that claim to be for everyone. I have often had conversations with makers who won’t join their local hackerspace because they don’t like the way its run or the people who run it, but feel unable to start a competing space, as the slot for local hackerspace has already been taken.
When I was much more involved with the Nottingham Hackspace, I was told on several occasions that a “FabLab” was planned for Nottingham. Mostly this was said to me in such a way that implied that I should be worried, that the Hackspace would be decimated by the arrival of what, on paper, would be a better equipped and funded space. Far from worrying about it, I could see that a new maker based organisation would enhance and not detract from Nottingham Hackspace. Water raises all ships.
I am against very large membership Hackerspaces. They have too much gravity and worst of all they cause “brain drain” from areas that would otherwise benefit from a space. I saw this at the Nottingham Hackspace with members coming from all over the midlands to use the space. I strongly feel their time, energy and money would have been better pushed into local spaces. Of course it’s was their choice and I don’t wish to seem ungrateful.
So why not think local? The population of St Annes ward in 2011 was around 19k (the area the Nottingham Hackspace is in) of which 60 identified as Jedi and 8 as believing in Heavy Metal! With the average age being around 32 concentrating membership from the local area alone and really reaching out to the community around us would have been much more inclusive. But of course also hard to do. Even the idea of doing this now, makes me nervous, with no really good reason. The idea of speaking to strangers who are entirely different, from different social groups and cultures to ones I identify with? Instead of course, whilst diversity at the Nottingham Hackspace compares very favourably to most other Hackerspaces I’ve seen, it was much easier for me to reach out online, mostly to other men like me. I’ll try harder next time.
I’m excited to see what the next wave of the Hackerspace movement looks like.
Todays thumbnail is me & Chad Elish the co-founder of Nation of Makers whilst at a mixer at NYC Resistor in Brooklyn, NY (and doing little to dispel the idea that all makers at least look the same).