The 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
Hacking at the crossroad: US military funding of hackerspaces image

Hacking at the crossroad: US military funding of hackerspaces

Mitch Altman

This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

— Douglas Adams, “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

In the modern world in which we find ourselves, ethics isn’t easy. Some things feel really right, others feel really wrong. But when we think about why, it is often quite difficult to articulate the reasons we feel the way we do. And, when it comes down to it, it may only be a strong feeling, with others having equally strong (or stronger) feelings, different than our own, making it difficult to reconcile the differences. Ethics can be rather messy.

For me, however, it is easy to state, in the abstract, why I think something is right or wrong: if, to the best of my ability, I have consciously thought through the pluses and the minuses of a given choice, and, to the best of my ability, I have weighed these out, then I can see, to the best of my ability, if my choice will make the world a better place, or a worse place, for me and those around me. Clearly, if a choice makes the world a better place, then my choice is good.

In practice, this isn’t always so simple or obvious. It can be really challenging, or truly bizarre, to attempt to balance a set of “pluses” with a set of “minuses”, like comparing apples to oranges, or apples to electrons. And, of course, the “best of my ability” may lead me to being wrong. But there’s no way to know until I act, and experience the consequences. Then, if I choose to, I can learn from those consequences, and make new choices. And, so, I live and learn. And I can learn, if I choose, to respect others in their learning processes. We can all learn from one another. And, why not? It does feel good.

But I digress a bit. I want to talk about money. Money is one of those things that people have strong feelings about. It is also one of those things that many haven’t really put a lot of thought into. There really are many unhappy people on our planet. Whether they are happy or not, people seem to want money. Money, while useful, doesn’t actually make people happy. Not having enough can certainly be problematic, and can be conducive to being less happy. But once you have enough to buy food, shelter, and other necessities, and then enough to buy the things you want to live the life you want to live, having more money doesn’t make anyone any happy. In fact, I propose that it actually makes people less happy, since it means that they have spent time making money, rather than doing something that may be more fulfilling.

Something that may be worth considering, is the notion of “enough”. How much do you need to do what you really want to accomplish? If you want to start a community space where people can come and explore and do what they love, how much money do you need? And what are you willing to do to get that money? Wouldn’t it be cool to create a brand new building designed by a famous architect who you admire, and that will take up an entire city block and go up 12 stories, and be filled with every conceivable amazing tool, and state-of-the-art A/V systems in rooms with amazing acoustics? Yes! That’d be an awesome hackerspace! But coming up with that kind of money would be a huge project in itself. And, personally, I’d rather hack. As it turns out, hackerspaces don’t need a huge amount of money to start. Even though no hackerspaces are like the one I initially described, they are all still awesome places! And they are all unique, wonderful places that suit the people who start them. There are something like 1,000 hackerspaces listed on, and growing. All of them started with very little money. We don’t really need a lot of money to do incredibly cool things.

But let’s say that you have in mind an expensive project, one that really does cost lots of money that you don’t have. How do you fund it? And does the funding source matter? I’d like to explore that here.

Let’s start out with a hypothetical situation. Imagine that there is a politician who you really like (please, use your imagination). Unlike other politicians, this one has championed several programs that did not merely facilitate profits for corporations, but actually helped the people they were elected to represent — they chose important issues that didn’t necessarily gain them the most re-election money from corporations. Then, one day, the newspapers report that this politician accepted a cash gift to the tune of several million. The newspaper goes on to report that the gift is totally legal. And the gift-giver is an organization that is well known to be a supporter of projects that the politician fought against; as well, the organization fought against programs that the politician struggled hard to implement. The organization claims that there are absolutely no strings attached to their current large gift – the politician can do whatever they want with the money. Not only that, but there is possibly more money available in the future. The politician could, of course, use the money to implement programs that were against the organization’s goals. The politician, now with lots of money, may be able to do all sorts of really good things. And, since getting re-elected is very expensive, with this large amount of money our politician would be more likely to be re-elected. What would you feel about this politician after hearing about them accepting this gift? Would you trust them and like them as much as before?

Now let’s take the above example, keeping it exactly the same except for one change: imagine that the funding source came from an organization that is 100% aligned with the vision of the politician and with you. How do you feel about things now? There are no absolute, external, rights and wrongs in the above examples. But I hope that it does point out that the funding source can make some difference.

I’d like to explore the first example a little bit more. Given that the politician believes they can do lots of really good things as long as they retain their political position, and given that it costs lots of money to get re-elected, they may start thinking about this large gift that they received. They may start thinking about getting more of this money, since it was made clear that more is possibly available in the future. Given that the politician knows the goals of the organization, and the goals are different than those of the politician, do you think that it is possible, or likely, that the politician may alter what they say and do? Personally, it seems clear to me that almost anyone in that situation would self-censor themselves to some extent. They would probably do less of what they know makes it less likely to get more funding. And they would probably do more of what they know makes it more likely. In this example, that probably means doing more of what furthers the goals for the funding organization, and less of what goes against those goals. How much does our politician change for the money? How are the goals of the funding organization furthered? Overall, do the pluses outweigh the minuses? It might not be easy to determine. But one would hope that the politician (and the voters) would think this is worth thinking about.

Here’s a concrete example to ponder. Once upon a time, there was a visionary man, our hero, with a dream of space exploration. He loved rockets! He struggled for many years to do whatever was necessary to realize his dream. But he lacked funds. Along came another man, a very powerful man, who led an organization that helped his country’s economy, but did so through totalitarian rule, and by killing tens of millions of people to gain and maintain his power. This man’s organization agreed to fund our hero’s life’s work. In return, our hero was required to develop and use his rockets as weapons for the country’s war effort. After thinking about it, our hero consciously chose to create rockets that were aimed at, and fired at, civilians in the enemy’s country. Our hero continued to work on his rockets, which, after the collapse of his country in WWII, were the basis of the rockets used to bring the first people to the moon, rockets that he, himself, contributed to greatly over the next 2 decades. Thus, our hero was able to realize his dream.

In the above example, one could argue that a lot of good came from Wernher von Braun’s choice to accept funding from an organization that many see as unaligned with their own goals. Was this a good deal? Did the pluses outweigh the minuses?

Here’s a contemporary example with little historical hindsight, one that is closer to home for me. When I went to the first Maker Faire in 2006, I found myself surrounded by introverted geeks – I felt totally at home in a group for the first time in my life! I had found my tribe. Wanting to be more involved, I started writing for MAKE Magazine. I started volunteering my time and effort, heart and soul, at the next Maker Faire in 2007. At that Faire I set up a table of 10 soldering irons to teach soldering, which I love. And I was mobbed! Lots of people, including myself, had a fabulous time. Given how wonderful this felt, of course I continued to do this at the next Maker Faire, and at every Maker Faire since, doubling in size till I maxed out with the creation of huge Hardware Hacking Areas that became iconic parts of Maker Faires. I loved this! I still do. But it all came to a sudden end for me. At the Maker Faire in New York last year, I was awarded the first (and perhaps last) “Mitch Altman Maker Hero Award” which was created by Maker Faire to honor individuals who’ve contributed an “outstanding contribution to the cause of maker-related education and/or open access to technology”. It was an incredible peak to my experiences with Maker Faire. A mere 2 days later, at the big thank-you-dinner at the end of the Faire, Dale, the person who started MAKE Magazine and Maker Faire, excitedly announced that they received a $10 million grant to help teach kids through hands-on learning. [Enthusiastic applause all around!] Then he mentioned, in passing, that the money came from a grant from DARPA. While some didn’t seem to care, to me it felt like a kick in the gut.

And thus began 8 months of struggling to make a choice I could live with. I wanted to continue to help Maker Faire. But I couldn’t feel good helping when I knew it would also help DARPA. What to do? Everywhere (and I mean everywhere) I’ve ever worked has been visited by people working for the US military who were desiring to use the technology that me and my co-workers created. This started at my first computer job, where I programmed games on Apple II computers. Folks from the military came in and asked us to create a custom “game” that would train people to use killer helicopters. The owners of the company agreed. I quit, not wishing to help. At the company where we created the first virtual reality systems (and coined the term) I spent three months of my life creating a VR system for a university, which, it turns out, handed that same VR system over to the US military to use for WWIII training simulators. I quit, disturbed that I had been tricked into helping. There are many other examples, too numerous to list here. I quit each time, since I do not, personally, wish to help make technology that hurts others. To ensure that my work goes towards helping rather than hurting, I now work at my own company, created to manufacture and sell TV-B-Gone universal remote controls, which turn off TVs in public places, a technology which, I believe, has no military uses.

The tools and toys we work on and play with are very powerful. And, of course, in a society where so much of the money is in the military industry, some of the best and brightest people are hired to find what’s new and cool, and to think up ways to use it all for military purposes. In this context, the technology is not neutral. Without taking responsibility for the technology we create, because of our cultural and economic context, our technologies probably will be used to feed this industry, and feed its military purposes. And all merely for profit’s sake. Clearly, this bothers me. Clearly, this does not bother everyone. But, since it does bother me, I have made choices that, to the best of my ability, minimize the help I give to the military, regardless of possible profit.

It would be nice if my country’s military existed only for our country’s protection and defense – we could, if that were our country’s goals, do this for a tiny fraction of the cost our current military budget. We could do this without excessively funding the military industries that exist primarily to make money without regard to the tragic consequences. And I would then feel good about helping our military. But this is not the world in which we find ourselves.

Enter DARPA. According to Wikipedia: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is “an agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of new technology for use by the military”, currently with an annual budget of $3.2 billion. They are responsible for funding research on huge, killer military systems, as well as research that started the internet and GPS. A lot of good has come from some of what DARPA has funded. Was it worth it? I contend that we’d be much better off without organizations that exist to create new technology for use by a military that exists (in turn) for the profit of the military industry rather than for our country’s protection and defense. If even a fraction of the money and energy used by DARPA were available specifically to create technology for the betterment of humanity, what might our world look like now? But, alas (and again), this is not the world we live in. All of that money is being used for new technology for use by the military. Be that as it may, I, personally, can choose not to help.

Earlier this year, in May, that is what I did choose regarding the Maker Faire – as much as it saddened me, I chose not to help. But before I made that choice, I spoke at length with Dale. I have a lot of respect for Dale. I know he will use the money for really good things. As a result of his use of this money, lots of kids will have opportunities that they would not have had otherwise. This is a huge plus. But there are also minuses. The goal of DARPA is to create new technology for the military. This is why they created the grant that Dale applied for and received. Explicitly, the grant says that the US education system is not adequate to supply enough high quality engineers to meet the goals of DARPA. Also, DARPA will get a lot of really good PR from their relatively (for DARPA) small investment. And children who are educated with DARPA funding are probably more likely to think that DARPA is a good thing, and are more likely to work for DARPA, or other military organizations. Is this a good tradeoff? I don’t think so. But it is not necessarily easy to weigh these very different pluses and minuses. What I would hope is that people try, each to the best of their ability, to make a conscious choice based on the results of weighing these out for themselves.

The program created by the DARPA grant is called the MENTOR program. The grant is for a huge amount of money, renewable each year. The goals of the MENTOR program are laudable: introducing new design tools, teaching the collaborative practices of “making” to high school students, and creating “makerspaces” in schools. These are not the goals of DARPA – though there is some overlap, in as much as this helps DARPA increase the number of quality engineers at their disposal. Now, pause a moment, and please imagine, instead, that the funding for this program came not from DARPA, but from an organization, or from a bunch of individuals and organizations, whose goals closely and enthusiastically align with the goals of Dale and Maker Faire? What differences might there be if this were the case?

Well, first of all, if the goals of the funding sources were aligned with the goals of the recipients, then people involved with the Maker Faire and MENTOR program could continue to do everything they do, and expand on what they do, without a thought or care that the funders might get nervous and perhaps not renew their funding the next year. This is because the funders are way into what Maker Faire does, and the more that people continue to do the cool stuff they do, and expand what they do, the more likely it is that funding will continue.

It is too late now, and we may never really know now, but I think it would have been very possible for Maker Faire to get the same amount of funding they received, but by other sources, including foundations that exist to fund education, plus lots of individuals who love Maker Faire. If, at the beginning, word were put out that this MENTOR program was in the works, and that funding was needed, I would have put a lot of effort into getting the word out and doing what I could to help. I think many others would have as well. (Also worth considering: with several more people enthusiastically donating to a cause they love, it might have been possible to do just as much, or more, with even less money – we really can do incredible things with very little money.)

Secondly, there wouldn’t have been a rift, however small, in the community. To the contrary, the fund-raising would have brought more people into the community who are aligned with it. And the growth of the community would strengthen it, attracting more who are aligned with it.

Thirdly, it would all remain about doing what we love, rather than about the money. There would be no concern about changing what we do to appease the funders, whose goals do not align with ours. We would continue to do what we do simply because we love it. (And as a result, others who love it will support it.)

Lastly, the whole hacker movement is about openness, sharing, teaching, learning. It is not about hierarchy. It is not about command. It is not about mere profit. It is about exploring and doing what we love. And by doing so, it is possible (and likely) that we get enough of what we need, including money, to keep doing what we love.

I’m sure that good will come from the pairing of DARPA and Maker Faire. But all of this has been compromised, as I see it, by seeking and accepting funding from an organization whose goals do not align with our own.

Am I right? I do not know. I’m not really into seeing things simply as right and wrong. I will learn from the consequences of my choices, and I will make new choices as appropriate. I wish the same of others. Others may learn from me. I may learn from others. We can, if we choose, respect and learn from each other.

As I see it, so much pain and suffering on our planet is so avoidable. We really do seem to be more concerned about moving those green pieces of paper around than learning how to live lives that we enjoy, lives that we may find fulfilling, lives that we love. If we each make choices that, to the best of our ability, may make our lives better, and the lives of those around us better, then, maybe, possibly, hopefully, over time, as we learn from our experiences, and from others’, and then make more choices, the world around us becomes a better place. Worth a try? It’s up to you.