Reviewer: Sivlia Lindtner
This paper focuses on a very timely topic relevant to an array of fields such as STS, technology studies, anthropology, media and cultural studies: local manifestations of the hackerspace movement. The paper raises important questions about how hackerspaces figure as intermediaries and sites of translation between knowledge production in academic institutions and citizen engagement through practices of mixing and appropriating. I believe that the chosen sites in Asia are particularly interesting as they draw attention to the hackerspace phenomenon as site of transnational movement of ideas and objects. The authors illustrate how the growing phenomenon in Asia is not about a linear model of transfer from west to east, but a complex site of friction – a point that could be brought out stronger in the paper, as I allude to in more detail in my comments below. For example, the findings about the creation of shareable DIYbio toolkits and their travel across regions is fascinating. I wanted to hear more detail here. The authors suggest that the hackerspaces they worked with apply their technological approach to particular local concerns, e.g. health problems, rural poverty and trauma. Also here the paper would benefit a more in-depth analysis of how this unfolds in practice and the day-to-day workings of the hackerspaces.
I really enjoy the interdisciplinary approach that the authors took, drawing both from their own work with hackerspaces, but also on anthropological literature and science and technology studies. As I was super enthusiastic about this project and enjoyed reading this well written paper, I found myself somewhat disappointed towards the end as the overall analysis and synthesis across sites and findings fell somewhat short. I do believe that with the adding of a more cohesive story line and more work on the analysis and related work this can be a really wonderful paper that contributes to the growing interest in practices of hacking, DIY and the linkages between countercultural practice and innovation. Below are a series of detailed comments and suggestions for improvement that I hope will help the authors turn this paper into a strong contribution:
1. Indigenous and traditional knowledge
The authors suggest that hackerspaces re-appropriate “traditional” or “indigenous” or “pre-modern” forms of knowledge production. I found this framing somewhat problematic, since it creates a strong distinction between past and presence, modern and post-modern, etc. This is particularly problematic in the context of research with groups who do politically sensitive and critical work. “Tradition” itself is often appropriated by governments to exercise a form of governing and project of nation building, where certain aspects of the past, e.g. craft, come to stand in for the cultural essence of a nation, an authentic cultural heritage that’s invoked for disciplining in the presence (see prior work in STS for example on the working of narrative and discourse such as Philip, K. 2004. Civilizing Natures: Race, Resources, and Modernity in Colonial South India. Rutgers University Press). So while I find the phrasing here problematic, I am fascinating with the practice of “drawing from and re-invoking” the past especially amongst a collective that’s often labeled as embodying the society’s future (or innovation). So what I am suggesting here is not to get rid of these findings, but rethink their framing.
2. Relationship Hackerspaces and citizen engagement
One of the central questions this paper aims at is the relationship between hackerspace practice and citizen engagement. However, the analysis and empirical data here remains high level. It would be great to hear in more detail how hackerspaces enact this form of translation between science, academic work and citizen engagement. For example, is this happening through the organization of workshops, hands-on learning sessions, collaborations with universities and companies, etc.? The authors allude to this here and there, but details are missing. For example, in the section on the common flowers project, the authors suggest close ties with EU based initiatives and the Asia DIY bio scene. What kind of initiatives do the authors talk about? What are the motivations from each side (Asia and Europe) to work together? What are the funding structures? A good example in the text is the case of collaborations between the biomodd project and the university of the Philippines and TED foundations. Again, also here the paper would benefit from a more in-depth analysis of the workings of these collaborations. Relevant related work here could be for example Knorr Cetina’s notion of epistemic cultures, where she approaches knowledge productions through their machineries of working (both material, semiotic, social, political, etc.) (Knorr Cetina, K. 1999. Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Harvard University Press). What is the relationship between activist ideals and countercultural practice and the drive to support local practice? In the paper, I found a lot of statements like this, where further elaboration then is missing: These tools enabled citizens to deal directly with the disaster and to measure, share and interpret data and to take responsibility and deal with the crisis on psychological and social level. The paper does not elaborate HOW these tools enable citizens.
As stated above the paper falls short in its analysis throughout and summary towards the end. For example, the conclusion shouldn’t necessarily be the place to introduce more examples from the data. The paper tends to be somewhat descriptive, as visible in this sentence “how the “low-tech but high-impact” logic of Hackerspaces operates in various contexts and how it can connect science, culture and society in ways that traditional STS policy discussions could not even imagine.” The paper, however, does not elaborate HOW this is happening. Similarly the authors introduce terms laden with meaning such as fetish and ritual. There is relatively little work done that connects these big terms with the data. This was also visible in the overall tone of language throughout the paper that appeared to me somewhat celebratory of hackerspace and DIY practice (e.g. “DIY open source hardware uses powerful technological objects and transforms them into alternative, low tech and imaginative uses that open new possibilities of interaction.”). For example, the authors emphasize the potential for innovation, new forms of participation and knowledge production in hackerspace practice. Statements like this render hacking a more authentic form of production that will lead inherently to new forms and proliferations of participation. While there might indeed be new forms of participation in hackerspaces, the paper takes this notion at face value and starts of with it as a priori unit of analysis, rather than investigating it. This is additionally problematic as members of the DIY and hackerspace scene often render themselves in similar terms. DIY, innovation and participation are emic terms in these collectives and as such should be engaged with empirically. Prior work has drawn our attention to this, see for example Coleman (e.g. Coleman, G. and Golub, A. 2008. Hacker Practice. Moral genres and the cultural articulation of liberalism. Anthropological Theory, 8 (3), 255-277) and Kelty’s work (e.g. Kelty, C. 2008. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software and the Internet. Durham, NC: Duke University Press). I encourage the authors to include this body of work and perhaps reframe some of their framings accordingly. I believe that in part this problem could be also solved by better connecting the findings to the more high level claims the paper makes such as “hackerspaces are sites that negotiate these paradoxes between tradition, industrial, post-indusrial and hyper globalized modes of production and knowledge” How do these negotiations unfold in daily practice?
4. Include more details about your methods
It would be great to hear more about the kinds of engagements the authors chose with the hackerspaces. E.g. were ethnographic methods used, or other forms of participation and collaboration? At this point, the reader does not understand the relationship to the fieldsites and how data and what kind was generated.
1. Is the subject matter relevant?
Yes, I believe that the subject matter is relevant. It is an incredibly interesting overview of biohacking initiative in Asia. A timely topic
2. Is the treatment of the subject matter intellectually interesting? Are there citations or bodies of literature you think are essential to which the author has not referred?
I would have loved to see a more critical theoretical engagement with Asian hackerspaces both in discussion of space, and especially technospace, as productive force (James Hay, Radhika Gajjala, Lefebvre, etc). I also would have wanted a more in depth discussion of biopolitical implications of hacker activities. For example, the author writes “To be a good and responsible citizen means to become a biopoliticial subject that takes seriously information on DNA data, nutrition etc. and changes his practices of eating and cooking by using science and technology.” But this is never taken up again and not really extended any further. Do hackerspaces promote social and cultural change or do they serve as another space where neoliberal market shapes its citizen consumers? Here I would suggest works by Rose, Rabinow and even Foucault to make this point shine.
3. Are there any noticeable problems with the author’s means of validating assumptions or making judgments?
The author uses words such as “indigenous”, “pre-modern” and “romantic” to refer to hackers. These are judgment statements, not supported by evidence. I believe that these are loaded terms, which do not contribute anything to the argument and take the reader out of otherwise excellent piece.
4. Is the article well written?
Yes, very much so.
5. Are there portions of the article that you recommend be shortened, excised or expanded?
I would move hackerspace in Asia section after the genealogy of hackerspaces section. I would expand the genealogy section to cover a bit more theory.