Journal of Peer Production - New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change
Editorial Notes image

Editorial Notes

Can it be imagined that hardware technology will one day be produced collectively and along the principles of free software development, to result in something as complex as the GNU/Linux operating system? In 2004, at the third Oekonux conference in Vienna, this question was the talk of the town. It was directly posed in a presentation by Graham Seaman, who for some time already had documented cases of free hardware projects on his site Open Collector. To many in the audience, including one of the editors of this special issue of JoPP, the proposal sounded off-the-wall. We estimated that such a scenario must be at least twenty years into the future. It is not that examples of hobbyists tinkering with hardware in their homes was lacking in the early 2000. There were even a handful of open hardware technologies in production at the time. One noteworthy example was the Indian-based initiative to make a computer for the Indian countryside, called “Simputer”. The Simputer project calls to memory what might be, arguably, the most groundbreaking hacker projects of all times. That is to say, the small computers conceptualised and cobbled together by the members of the Homebrew Computer Club in the 1970s (Levy, 1984). Back in 2004, however, such individual examples belonged to a cabinet of curiosities. It did not suggest that open hardware development would soon be generalised. What seemed to be missing out was the kind of community development which is the hallmark of free software projects. To have such a community was critical if an open hardware project was to outlast the ebb-and-flow of enthusiasm of a few individual hobbyists. Only then could open hardware projects scale geographically and grow in technical complexity to a point where they matched free software development. This appeared to be a distant dream in 2004, and for one all-too-obvious reason: Hardware development is so hard to do. By recalling how far-out this scenario seemed just a few years ago, one can better appreciate the headway already made by the nascent movement around open hardware development, which, as we know, has answered the question above positively.

The possibility of implementing a biohacker set of practices was being discussed at about the same time in different circles. In the early 2000s, the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), an art collective based in the US, was demonstrating the possibility of making biotechnology “public” and base it on free knowledge sharing. They appropriated the know-how which until then had been monopolised by scientists and multinational corporations, thereby putting in question the dominant mode of organising the life sciences. Critical Art Ensemble’s proposal for a contestational biology was intended to provide tactics for putting biology under public scrutiny (2002). Still, their intervention was primarily artistic in character. They were linked to the art world and social movements rather than with laboratories and the scientific community. In the meantime, in the mid-2000s, scientists in the US started talking about the possibility of making biology hackable. Indeed, the shift towards open source approaches to living matter and standardisation of biological parts was crucial in the evolution of synthetic biology. The next step was the inclusion of people coming from outside scientific institutions, people without PhDs. A “do-it-yourself” or “garage” biology and biohacking movement has emerged in past few years. It is a movement of lay experts that are trying to build cheap and open source tools and infrastructures for experimenting and sharing scientific knowledge. The first and most famous community was DIYbio, a network of biohackers established in Boston in 2008 and now represented by local groups in dozens of cities around the world. Small labs that enable people to perform simple experiments have been set up in places such as garages or kitchens. Community labs with cheap lab machinery and material have been popping up in America, Europe and Asia, explicitly modeled after hackerspaces. The word “biohacker” has become publicly recognisable, as is suggested by its recurrent usage in mainstream media.

These new practices promise to bring radical changes to both hardware development and biological research. The hope is that the same principles of distributed creativity and free cooperation which free software development builds on will also come to define material production. It remains to be seen if this enthusiasm will result in cutting edge technological and scientific innovations. What seems to be happening, in any case, is that the surge of biohacking and open hardware development are reshaping existing hacker culture (Delfanti, 2011). This amounts to an expansion of hacker practices, hereto closely associated with writing and manipulating software code. The expansion has opened the hacker culture to new sources of influences, in particularly the environmental movement with its roots in local, renewable and alternative technologies. A token hereof is the shift in aesthetic sensibilities within the hacker culture. Previous generations of hackers tended to be enthralled by virtual reality and flows of information. This was often felt as a longing to escape the shortcomings of corporeal and material existence. In contrast, to the new generations of hackers, bodily fluids and rusty scrapyards are their playgrounds of choice. All along, this renewed appetite for the world is pursued while honoring the ideas and methods of free software development and hacking. Now as then, the hacker is characterised by an active approach to technology, undaunted by hierarchies and institutional forms of recognising and validating knowledge. Likewise, the commitment to sharing information freely is as vivid as it ever was.

With this special issue of the Journal of Peer Production, we open up for a discussion about these latest developments within hacker culture. Scholarly perspectives have until now been missing out in debates about the implications and meanings of biohacking and open hardware development. Most accounts so far have been produced by practitioners or/and promoters. Such writings are often well informed about the topic, but tend to lack a distance towards the object under discussion. This is important, not the least since hype has become an integral part of project management. Hence, with this special issue we hope to provide more balanced and critical points of view (Lovink and Tkacz, 2011) on what these new phenomena mean. It is but a first attempt at grasping the complexity and heterogeneity of hacker practices’ in the domains of hardware and biology, hopefully to be followed by many more. Besides engaging with other scholars studying the same topic, our aspiration is to reach out to practitioners and other interested parties who wish to make sense of the society-wide and political implications of their involvement in technological and scientific grassroots development.

In Hackerspaces and DIYbio in Asia: Connecting Science and Community with Open Data, Kits and Protocols, Denisa Kera gives an overview of the geographical expansion of the hackerspace movement in Singapore, Indonesia and Japan. Thereby she demonstrates how hacking practices are inscribed in and shaped by the cultural and political contexts in which the hackers find themselves. Pre-existing traditions in these countries and punctual events such as the Fukushima nuclear accident have come together to define the local scene in this most global of social movements. This has had a bearing on the kind of technical practices that the hackers engage in, as well as on what kind of political claims they make on behalf of their undertakings.

The second contribution to this special issue, Hacklabs and Hackerspaces: Tracing Two Genealogies, draws similar conclusions from a historical case study. Maxigas describes a fork between hacklabs and hackerspaces over the question of what role politics should play in hacker practices. Hacklabs predated hackerspaces and provided the inspirational source for the latter. This origin has largely been erased from public view, and, sometimes, from the collective memory of the practitioners as well. Hacklabs were often set up in squatted buildings organised by anarchists and autonomists. Subsequently, the hackers frequenting hacklabs came to inherit a more overt and confrontational understanding of politics than the one typically upheld by those who participate in hackerspaces.

The old fork over politics is actualised anew by the recent disclosure that some parts of the hackerspace/maker movement are funded by the US military. This reinvigorates an old cleavage which cuts straight to the heart of the hacker culture: on the one hand, an appendix of the cold war and military-industrial complex; on the other hand, a child of the Free Speech movement. In the ‘invited comments’ section of the journal, in a piece called Hacking at the Crossroad – US Military Funding of Hackerspaces, Mitch Altman reflects over these latest developments and the ethical choices they pose to hackers. Himself an old-time hacker, among other things being one of the founders of San Francisco hackerspace Noisebridge, Altman’s decision to break with MAKE Magazine/Maker Faires over the question of military funding sent ripples through the forums and the blogosphere. What road is taken by the collective of hackers and hackerspaces might well turn out to be another defining moment in the conscious formation of hacker culture.

MAKE Magazine is at the center of another article in this special issue. In DIYbiologists as ‘makers’ of Personal Biologies, Sara Tocchetti explores how citizen biology was constituted as a personal technology, tracing the genealogy of do-it-yourself biology back to the American digital ideology and to the techno-libertarian pragmatism that inform most Silicon Valley innovation systems. In her work, Tocchetti reconstructs the influence of MAKE Magazine and Maker Faires on the DIYbio movement, and unveils how the tradition of grassroots American innovation has become a natural source of the entrepreneurial ethos that has been integrated and recombined in the movement’s cultural evolution.

In How to Make a “Hackintosh”: A Journey into the “Consumerization” of Hacking Practices and Culture, Paulo Maggauda stresses the connection between lay expertise and mass consumption. He argues that modification and subversion of digital devices are undergoing a process of popularization where new segments of the population are being included, amateurs, laypersons and non-experts. Magaudda exemplifies this with a paper on the hacking of non-Apple computers transformed into “Hackintosh”, and more specifically into MacBook Nano-like devices. This paper demonstrates how the heterogeneous realm of hacking is influenced by cultural elements, discourses and representations typical of the consumption sphere that cannot be limited to its technical elements.

Finally, in Build Your Own Lab: Do-It-Yourself Biology and the Rise of Citizen Biotech-Economies, another contribution to the invited comments section of the journal, Morgan Meyer presents three sites of biohacking practices: two laboratories in Europe and US, and the development of an open source tool for citizen biology labs. Cheap, available, recombinable, open objects for conducting life sciences research play a key role in enabling people to “domesticate” biology, along with platforms for knowledge and information sharing. This could enable the emergence of “citizen biotech-economies” that Meyer conceives as open, collective, distributed and accessible, and that might point to a democratisation of technoscience.

One lesson that can be drawn from the various contributions in this special issue is that hardware development and biological science are just about to be infused with the same kind of contestations and contradictions that characterize software hacking. This is due to the fact that hackers are not simply engaged in hands-on approaches to technology. Those practices are at one and the same time a means of doing politics. They are geared towards the development of concepts that lay at the very core of our societies, such as openness, property, freedom and autonomy (Coleman and Golub 2008; Kelty 2008; Söderberg and Daoud, 2012). It is also for this very reason that studies of hacker culture and practices, such as the ones offered here, are indispensable when trying to make sense of the evolution of science and technology in the ‘information society’ at large.

Alessandro Delfanti and Johan Söderberg

Works cited

Coleman, G. and Golub, A., 2008. Hacker practice. Moral genres and the cultural articulation of liberalism, Anthropological Theory 8 (3), pp. 255–277

Critical Art Ensemble, 2002. The molecular invasion. New York: Autonomedia

Delfanti, A., 2011. Hacking genomes. The ethics of open and rebel biology, International Review of Information Ethics 15 (09), pp. 52-57

Kelty, C., 2008. Two Bits. The cultural significance of free software. Durham: Duke University Press

Levy, S., 1984. Hackers: heroes of the computer revolution. New York: Doubleday

Lovink, G. and Tkacz, N., 2011. Critical point of view: a Wikipedia reader. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures

Söderberg, J. & Daoud, A. (2012). Atoms want to be free too! Expanding the critique of intellectual property to physical goods. TripleC 10 (1): 66-76. [online] http://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/288