The article investigates how technology and politics are framed by subsequent
generations of hackers, in particular those who have been operating hacker clubs on
physical premises. The differing historical genealogies of hacklabs and hackerspaces are
used to explain a recent controversy dividing the foremost hacker gathering in Europe:
Observe. Hack. Make. (OHM2013). It is shown that gatherings like OHM2013 play an
important part in organising shared machine shops like hacklabs and hackerspaces into a
“scene”, and serve as the site where controversies can unfold as participants of various
hacker clubs, adhering to different hacker cultures, meet. What appears at first sight
as a single scene where shared machine shops played a key role quickly exploded to
warring fractions – which I demonstrate can be understood as the clash between
alternative hacker cultures, models of shared machine shops, and framings of technology
hackers, controversy, state, capital, recuperation
A German and an American hacker running around in circles around a golf cart at a camping. It bears one of the chief organisers of the Dutch hacker camp, who is otherwise the public relations director of a major security company working for the national police. The foreigners entangle the vehicle in a yellow tape bearing the black letters POLICE: DO NOT CROSS. What to make of this mess?
Introduction: From situation to history
The article investigates how technology and politics are framed by subsequent generations of hackers, in particular those who have been operating hacker clubs on physical premises. The differing historical genealogies of hacklabs and hackerspaces are used to explain a recent controversy dividing the foremost hacker gathering in Europe: Observe. Hack. Make. (OHM2013). It is shown that gatherings like OHM2013 play an important part in organising shared machine shops like hacklabs and hackerspaces into a “scene”, and serve as the site where controversies can unfold as participants of various hacker clubs, adhering to different hacker cultures, meet. What appears at first sight as a single scene where shared machine shops played a key role quickly exploded to warring fractions – which I demonstrate can be understood as the clash between alternative hacker cultures, models of shared machine shops, and framings of technology versus politics.
Pioneering studies such as the seminal Levy (1984) already described several relatively independent scenes in parallel, and recent scholarship such as Coleman (2012) argued for “proliferating differences rather than destroying them” (210). However, few of these studies analysed controversies which put differences into action before, the reasons for these differences and the results they yield. Those which did focus on internal constroversies squarely centred on commercialisation, like Söderberg2011b. Since the labels hacker, hacklab, hackerspaces, etc. are widely contested terms, looking at these contestations has at least as much heuristic value as looking for consistencies in the material. Discussing internal divisions does not preclude situating the phenomena in wider social processes, but in fact helps to get a grip on the connection between hacking, hackers and the society they live in.
I make use of participative observation, interviews with current and past participants, archival materials and my previous historical research to draw the trajectory of hacker clubs amidst changing socio-economic conditions in the Netherlands, in order to pick apart the differing attitudes and stances which actors took at this moment towards the authorities. Methodologically, I show how historical (diachronic) research can be connected with ethnographic (synchronic) findings to enhance the heuristic value of the accounts.
In particular, I argue that technology is framed by politics for the generation of hackers who invented and operated “hacklabs” in the beginning of the naughties (here 1999) in squatted social centres. Conversely, politics is framed by technology for those who founded the first “hackerspaces” in the Netherlands a decade later (2009) in so-called “anti-squat” rented spaces. I show how the tooling (available machines) of hacklabs and hackerspaces, their respective activities, and the political attitudes changed in tandem with the socio-economic profiles of participants and the wider social history.
Theoretically, the reading of the controversy together with its prehistory shows how hacker clubs structure the European hacker scene as it manifests itself at embodied gatherings. Processes of recuperation, institutionalisation and integration into the market led to the viral configuration of hackerspaces which proliferated at a much higher rate than more activist-oriented hacklabs ever before. However, as the controversy shows, the contrast between technology-for-politics and politics-for-technology is not merely a matter of historical periodisation but a living reality which plays out in the contemporary, complex context of the European hacker scene and its increasing interactions with the state and capital.
In the next sections I present the controversy at hand, followed by the historical background which explains the lines of tension. Then I offer a model of linking ethnographic data on the controversy with the historical data on the background. Finally, I dwell on the afterlife of the controversy and attempt draw some political and strategic conclusions.
The situation: Can the police be a part of the hacker scene?
The European hacker community meets every two years at outdoor hacker camps drawing more than 3000 attendees recently. The hacker camps are the strongest manifestation of hacker culture – rituals, celebrations, and conferences at once, complementing the yearly Chaos Communication Congress in Germany and a series of smaller camps, gatherings and events. Many participants and organisers of the hacker camps are also members of hackerspaces – self-organised and self-managed community workshops where hackers come together to socialise, produce and share knowledge and infrastructure, as well as work and collaborate on technology projects. These two social institutions – the hacker camps and the hackerspaces – complement each other in the social dynamics of the hacker scene. While hacker camps are organised around the idea of a shared and fixed time for coming together, hackerspaces provide a shared and fixed place for the same. Therefore hacker camps (and similar events) can be understood at least partly as temporary hackerspaces: an embodied gathering of hackers and their gear. Conversely, hackerspaces can be though of as permament hacker camps: and indeed, such imagery inspired many of their founders.
The biannual rhythm of hacker camps is established by tradition so that Dutch hackers organise a camp with a different name each four years since 1989 (the Galactic Hacker Party), complemented by the Chaos Communication Camp organised by the Chaos Computer Club (a German speaking hacker organisation) every other four years since 1999 (maxigas 2013). While the latter events are in the hands of a stable organisation (even if it has “Chaos” in its name), the responsibility to organise the Dutch camps has been passed around between various groups and ad-hoc organisations. The camps were started by the notorious hacker crew Hippies from Hell, infamous for their exploits, the publication of the hacker magazine Hack-tic and for their mind blowing parties.
Since the last camp, Hacking At Random (HAR2009), a large number of hackerspaces have been founded in the Netherlands – partly thanks to inspiration and initiative drawn from the camp itself. As the website of OHM2014 [states], “HAR2009 … has without a doubt been the epicentre from which a tsunami of hackerspaces spread out over The Netherlands.” Therefore hackerspaces and members took serious responsibilities in organising the next camp for 2013, called Observe. Hack. Make. (OHM2013). In fact the legal organisation which was set up to coordinate the event (the IFCAT Foundation) held its first board meeting at the Sk1llz hackerspace in Almere, while the kickoff party took place at the Hack42 hackerspace in Arnhem. Two of five board members were founders of other hackerspaces, in Den Haag and Amersfoort. The organisational team explicitly called on hackerspaces to get involved, viewing them as the offspring of the last conference and the main supporters of the next one: “Time to close the circle: hackerspaces of the nation, join your forces to create a place-time of wonder!”
I made field visits to 7 out of the 11 active hackerspaces in the Netherlands, as well as the one active hacklab in the December before OHM took place. Members of all these spaces except one planned to attend OHM, and for instance the relatively small BitLair contributed core members to both the lighting team and the Network Operation Centre. Similarly, at the event itself I could see the “branded” tents of most significant hackerspaces I know about in Europe, including those from my Germanic and Eastern-European field works. Interviews with participants also made it clear that the hackerspaces and their members have been instrumental and essential in making the event happen. Therefore it is not far fetched to state that the gathering was not simply a gathering of hackers from various scenes but the most significant gathering of hackerspaces in Europe. Other shared machine shops were represented but not so prominently. LAG hacklab members came individually, as members of some other hacklabs. One of the two Fab Labs in Amsterdam came with their fab truck, while the other embedded in the Waag Society did not have an official presence. This supports the hypothesis that shared machine shops form loosely overlapping scenes.
The first fissure
The controversy around OHM2013 broke out following a letter on the internal mailing list. It was reported that Team High Tech Crime (THTC) – the cybercrime unit of the Dutch police – approached the organisers about the possibility of setting up their own village at the camp. According to the event wiki, a village is where “you and a bunch of other people with a like-minded set of interests camp together”, usually around a larger tent, often organising their own programmes, events and activities. As a keystone of the democratic and participative process through which the event is organised, anybody attending the event can set up their own village. However, not everybody thought that the THTC can, or should, too.
A blog post raising questions about the position of the organisers regarding their relationship with the authorities and to the darker side of the industry sparkled much debate and hit the ball running (groente 2013). It came from the blog of PUSCII, the Progressive Utrecht Center for Information Exchange – a collective which maintained one of the first public Internet workspaces in the country, using mostly squatted spaces and recycled hardware, and building a server infrastructure for the social movements. PUSCII’s position in the field of the Dutch scene is both peripheral and central. Their explicit political commitments to an anticapitalist standpoint are seen as representing a minority position amongst hackers, while their central role in the history of hacking – bringing Internet access and free software to the people, politicising technology, etc. – is unquestionable. This explains why it could sparkle such a debate.
Thus, the controversy foregrounded issues which has not been exposed clearly before, although they have been much discussed in a more diffuse manner. The main points raised have been that, firstly (1) some organisers seen the police as “people just like you and me” (letter to ohm2013-org by Koen Martens on 2010-09-15) and were happy to involve all the stakeholders around hacking in the dialogue which goes on in the hacker camp. On the other hand, critics pointed out that the authorities – and more precisely the THTC itself – have an official mandate to hunt down hackers, and therefore they are natural enemies of the hacker scene. A reasoned dialogue on equal grounds seemed impossible as long as one side had a monopoly on violence.
Secondly (2), the incident raised questions about the employer of some members of the organising team, a company which was also the top sponsor of the hacker camp. At that point two of the four persons on the board of IFCAT –the foundation coordinating the camp – worked for Fox IT (in technology and marketing positions). The company, with its mission “for a more secure society”, produces and provides security related solutions for state and industry actors. It has also produced surveillance software (WikiLeaks 2011) that has since been sold to another company and exported to oppressive regimes (Winter 2011). The company’s director, Ronald Prins, was known for his controversial statements on hacking back — the idea that it is legitimate to break into computers of citizens and companies when it is necessary for fighting cybercrime effectively. Such unilateral action obviously goes against the idea of state sovereignty, international law and conventions on human rights (Siedsma 2013), some of which is acknowledged by Prins himself when he states that “Should there be an attack on national security, for example on the critical infrastructures in the Netherlands, I believe that it is sometimes necessary to hack back without the permission of foreign authorities.” (Prins 2012). Industry and government positions seemed to be in concert here, as the comments echoed a proposal in the Dutch government which would legalise such practices (Siedsma 2013).
Thirdly (3), it was observed that some organisers have a difficulty making the connection between their support for the authorities and their employment in the security industry on the one hand, and their employer’s sponsorship of the hacker camp and their own involvement in hackerspaces on the other hand. While the OHM organising team proudly invited whistleblowers from the NSA, the FBI and the CIA who are openly critical of those organisations, framing it as an organic connection to the authentic roots of the hacker camps beginning in 1989 and being openly critical of technological surveillance (mail to firstname.lastname@example.org on 2013, 22 May), they saw this coherent with their work in Fox-IT and their embrace of the THTC. The underlying argument here was that Dutch authorities and industry has a much more positive relationship with the hacker scene than the imperialist United States and its three letter agencies.
The controversy raged on two discursive strata. “Criticasters” (gmc 2013b) quickly relayed messages critical of OHM on Twitter, comments below articles and on the channels of the Internet Relay Chat networks, expanding the number of people involved in the debate, heating up the conversation and sometimes even calling for a boycott of OHM, like in the case of the Chaos Communication Club of Zürich. The most vocal participants of the hacker community in the United States and Germany (the countries with the strongest hacker cultures) quickly raised their voices in protest. On a more reflective level, blog posts by local hackers attempted to consider the issues involved in their more complicated context (gmc 2013b, walter2013a), calling for a dialogue rather than cementing their positions. This culture of compromises was identified in private conversations as a local cultural trait too. PUSCII organised a live debate on the politics of hackerspaces (PUSCII 2013). Finally, the THTC decided that they do not want to set up their own village after all, and the conference organisers have put together a panel addressing such issues, including some of the most vocal participants of the debate.
A running crack
Dissenters choose three main strategies. First, some especially from the German speaking communities decided to stay away entirely and meet in other circumstances with their peers. Second, many grudgingly accepted the status quo and went along with the OHM structures, perhaps lowering their volunteering involvement in the self-organised event. Third, a hosting company called Greenhost invested in organising a group of villages called Noisysquare  with the mission of “Putting resistance back to OHM”. The call met an enthusiastic response and managed to marshal a host of well-positioned techno-activist organisations (mostly NGOs). In parody of the original mailing list thread, a postcard was produced by another company (IPredator), showcasing the two camps with a diverse group of hackers on one side and “people like you and me” (police officers in uniform) on the other. Another propaganda tool was a considerable lengths of barricade tape mimicking those used by law enforcement with the lettering “POLICE: DO NOT CROSS”. Even though not official Noisysquare propaganda products, both artefacts can be read as separatist and oppositional gestures which positioned Noisysquare in the context of the whole camp as an “internal opposition”.
All these strategies had a felt impact on the camp. Many had friends who did not come for political reasons. Others noticed that there are less lasers, leds, etc. than usual. Finally, there was the continuously evolving thread of tensions between Noisysquare and the main organisers.
At the camp itself there were both jocular and more serious conflicts, of which I mention three briefly to give an impression. First, an unknown person spray-painted “NSA”  over the tent of Fox-IT, the aforementioned Gold Sponsor of OHM. Second, the situation mentioned in the foreword. It started with Sabine Hengeveld-Auer driving a group of journalists around the camp in a golf cart, arriving to Noisysquare which had a no photos policy, which was also voiced by a few individuals at the time. It continued with said individuals entangling the mounted crew in barricade tape. It ended in allegations of vandalism and gossips of rape and more heated discussions on the following day. Third, one night featured a standoff over noise levels between the camp security who brought dogs to the scene and the party crowd of the Italian village (right next to Noisysquare) which served free grappa. These were all followed by heated discussions on multiple levels. As the camp concluded, many felt that Noisysquare exposed the internal tensions and contradictions of the organisation, while producing valuable content around related aspects of hacker politics.
The long term outcome was threefold. First, felt betrayed by the hacker scene that they worked so much for, several OHM organisers lost their morale for organising another big hacker camp. Second, calls for crowd funding the next Dutch hacker camp instead of corporate sponsorship began to circulate. Third, the process inspired a series of smaller hacker gatherings with a more explicit political profile, such as Camp0 (called Camp++ in its second edition) in Hungary, the anticapitalist Backbone 409 in Spain/Catalonia, and Interference in Amsterdam which explicitly questioned hacker identities. All in all, the voice of what was a loud minority in the beginning found its way to a critical mass of participants in the hacker scene.
The history: Developments of hacker clubs
Self-organised shared machine shops have a long prehistory which will not be recounted here. Guilds of the medieval era,  gentlemen’s clubs dating from the 18th century  and the working men’s clubs which began in the 19th century all exhibited aspects similar in one way or another to shared machine shops like hacklabs, hackerspaces, Fab Labs, medialabs, co-working spaces and the like. Tech shops and the movement for socially useful production in the 1980s pursued similar goals (Smith 2014). While an ample amount of studies show the innovation potential of grassroots technology research and development carried out in such environments, ethnographic work and quantitative surveys (Moilanen 2012) show that the social aspect of like-minded technology enthusiasts coming together in a public yet familiar environment is a crucial characteristic. These various clubs were conditioned according to the social circumstances of the time, the socio-cultural and economic background of their members; and should ultimately be understood in the context of social history.
Genealogy of hacklabs: Technology spaces with an explicit political frame
Hacklabs have been around since the turn of the century, situated in squatted social centres often coupled with other alternative infrastructures such as self-managed concert halls, anarchist infoshops, freeshops and Food Not Bombs kitchens. In short they have been part and parcel of the autonomous politics toolkit.
The Netherlands had for long one of the most lively squatter scenes of any major city in Europe, probably rivalled only by London and Barcelona, and much earlier Berlin (Pruijt 2012). A well-established autonomous movement, a huge student population in a densely populated area, as well as a lack of affordable housing and dormitories for young people all contributed to the numbers and strength of squatters. After initial, occasionally violent clashes, a squatting law was established (1971) which legalised moving in to abandoned properties, protecting squatters at least until the civil court case concludes. Houses were opened in open daylight to make the case for the right to housing. What was on one side a clash of cultures between capitalist proprietors and counterculturalists was complemented by an economic conflict based on the disparities between the needs and possibilities of the young generation, immigrants, etc. The struggle for autonomous spaces framed these conveniently in a country where geography has always been an important social, economic and political issue.
With the establishment of a strong squatting scene a division of labour and a certain level of professionalisation ensued, where squatting actions would take place at regular intervals organised through a central squatting office and helped by a dedicated, anonymous group of locksmiths who undertook the sensitive work of opening houses under the guise of the other demonstrators. Such manner of working found its parallel in the provision of information and communication infrastructures. The Squatters’ Linux User Group (SLUG, est. 2007 in Amsterdam) – designated the second generation of the hacklabs mentioned below – supplied computers and support to newly opened social centres. The free software installed on these computers was viewed as an integral part of the autonomist political project: putting the anarchist ideas of self-organisation, self-management and mutual aid into practice. Such software running on refurbished hardware (made easier by the modularity of the IBM-PC hardware architectures ubiquitous around that time) catered to the Do It Yourself ethos and the principles of recycling which were both a necessity and an ideal for squatters. On the level of political economy, all these activities relied on what could be scraped together from the street, donated by supporters, stolen or bought below market prices.
The squatted Internet work spaces, PUSCII and ASCII (est. in 2000 and 1999 in Utrecht and Amsterdam) fitted into this milieu. They were set up as informal radical technology collectives without an institutional background. Situated in occupied spaces for most of their existence as physical projects, they focused on providing Internet access and teaching ICT skills to anybody who cared to come in, while being a social hangout of alternatively minded technology enthusiasts otherwise known as hackers. Both these extrovert and introvert ambitions were funded by donations of form or another. While building hardware, setting up antennas for wireless links and doing soldering / welding were core activities, the main thrust of the organisation revolved around free software administration, development and advocacy. In all these aspects they reflected the tradition of hacklabs which was most widespread in Italy and Spain, but examples of similar spaces could be found elsewhere in Europe. Indeed, the Plug’n’Politix network linked like-minded spaces from cities like Barcelona, Berlin, Dijon and Zurich [Monoskop (2007); darkveggy 2014-04-22].
While supporting members, the local scene and the general public, these collectives also participated and organised events and actions, small and large. They gave the technological component to alterglobalisation struggles whether they manifested themselves in local independent media collectives or major mobilisations. Therefore, the demise of the alter-globalisation cycle of struggles and the autonomous movement affected the popularity of hacklabs negatively. With the rising socio-economic profile of DIY and the falling popularity of social movements, hacklabs could not follow technological development economically and sustain their social basis politically, so they largely withered away. Ones which have been established since, like the LAG hacklab in Amsterdam (technically an extension of SLUG activities) or the hacklab in Calafou, have to find new audiences and recreate their own context – for instance through the organisation of gatherings like Interference and Backbone 409. These new hacklabs follow the hackerspaces model in terms of stocking equipments like 3D printers, yet on a smaller scale.
Genealogy of hackerspaces: Technology spaces with implicit politics
The hackerspaces concept solidified around 2007, based on existing projects and experiences. The following years saw incredible proliferation across Europe and North America, and a less pronounced growth in other continents too. These far surpassed the popularity of hacklabs even in their heyday, also because the latter were largely confined to Europe.
Following the aforementioned hacker camp HAR2009, the first or second hackerspace to be established in the Netherlands was RevSpace (Den Haag), whose members have done much to promote the concept, including using the HXX Foundation (the legal entity behind the camp) to promote the hackerspaces model. For instance in subsequent spaces I learned that the bylaws for the foundation which provided the institutional basis were mostly taken from the RevSpace documents. The following years saw hackerspaces mushrooming around the country, with at least 9 other established by the time of the next hacker camp (OHM2013): ACKspace (Heerlen), Bitlair (Amersfoort), Frack (Leeuwarden), Hack42 (Arnhem), RandomData (Utrecht), Sk1llz (Almere), TechInc (Amsterdam), TkkrLab (Enschede), VoidWarranties (Antwerp).
Even though there is a significant amount of pure software development going on in these spaces, what really brought people together is hardware hacking. It can be argued that the wide availability of programmable microcontrollers, their increased usability because of development boards like the immensely successful open source Arduino, and the general lack of enthusiasm in the tech community towards building more websites following the burst of the dotcom bubble after the turn of century were three contributing factors opening the window of opportunity where hackerspaces could succeed as a model of organisation. Hardware hacking necessitates the pooling of tangible resources: both in terms of components and lab equipment, as well as tacit knowledge and know-how. Of course open source hardware, electronics and robotics is most often coupled with logical control and processing implemented in software code.
While hackerspaces in general gain their consistency from following the Hackerspaces Design Patterns initially formulated by Ohlig and Weiler (2007) in their kick-off presentation, most of these spaces in the Netherlands also have a family resemblance which is specific to their national context. General features include having a legal organisation behind the hackerspace, with formal membership and membership fees. All that enables engaging in a formal rent contract and securing the space so it can benefit from the relative stability compared to an occupation. This is obviously important for accumulating machines and building infrastructure for a machine shop, from hardware hacking through computer aided manufacturing to wood working.
On the other hand, both renting and accumulating machines is only possible if there are enough members who can bear the costs. The Hackerspace Design Patterns discourage relying on external sources for essential things like rent, utilities, basic gear, etc. Therefore a sustainable hackerspace needs enough participants who can afford it, yet have time to participate too. There is currently no precise designation for such a social group, although at some point in history a good term would have been “men of leisure” or simply gentlemen. The actual social composition of hackerspace members is highly intricate and therefore cannot be explored here even in a cursory manner (for a typology see maxigas (2014) or maxigas2014k). Let it suffice to say that educated middle class participants with a more or less steady above-average income are an indisposable component, but for paying the bills and acquiring the necessary equipment like 3D printers, laser cutters, etc. This remains true even if hackerspaces get a lot of in-kind support, since those also rely on a social network of a specific kind, including contacts in the industry and perhaps academic laboratories. The persistence of DIY practices is important too, but in technology intensive areas it is already constituted as another segment of the market, with its own suppliers and business models, so that most projects require some form of financial investment even if many other components are literally from the trash.
Given this internal logic, it is interesting to look at the political economy of Dutch spaces and the social conditions in which they could spread to most major cities in that country. In the years between the establishment of PUSCII and the founding of RevSpace many things happened. By 2009 the autonomist movement lost traction, the squatting movement had ran out of steam, and the lively alternative culture which flourished around them has been slowly institutionalised. By the time of the next hacker camp (OHM2013) squatting have been illegalised (Martínez, Piazza, and Pruijt 2013, 16) and Ubica, the occupied social centre hosting PUSCII evicted. In the meantime a number of formally organised cultural hubs – such as ACTA hosting the TechInc hackerspace in Amsterdam, or Performance Factory where TkkrLab is in Enschede – have been established. Most hackerspaces, however, found their space in so-called anti-squats: dilapidated properties with special contracts which fall outside of the normal protections for tenants. Anti-squat agencies were set up against squatters, their usual tactic being to rent a few rooms in a larger abandoned building so that they cannot be considered empty and therefore squatable. Therefore, many large spaces which could have been squatted before appeared on the housing market as cheap rentals: a good enough solution for hackerspaces. In this sense the existential conditions of hackerspaces have been partly established by the squatting scene where hacklabs participated.
Hackerspaces also built on the traditions established by hacklabs in terms of being a social club for hackers, rendering educational and infrastructural services to the general public, and being an all around collective workshop of grassroots technology research and development. Yet they were not integrated in a political context marked by radical autonomist ideas or squatting practices. While hacklabs were part and parcel of the hacking scene, hackerspaces are an even more internal development, having to do with the popularisation of the hacking concept. This is not to be taken in a purely negative light, since popularisation is one of the main goals of social movements too.
Framing technology and politics
As a simplified conclusion from the historical genealogies, it can be argued that in hacklabs and hackerspaces the relationship between technology and politics is configured in a different way.
Hacklabs are conceptualised as explicitly political organisations since they are embedded in a social movement and in social practices which question not only intellectual but also private property (personal communication, Lunar 2013-04-24). They aim to further social change through their specific contributions as specialised technologists. Hackerspace members on the other hand owe their loyalties primarily to the hacker scene made up of technologists, and defend the values and interests of that very group, mainly connected to user control over technology (including privacy, anonymity, open technologies and data, etc.). They question intellectual property through the critique of copyright and the development of free software and hardware like hacklabs but do not go all the way to take action against private property. Of course both groups include many hobbyists, lifestyleists and tinkerers who seek to stay away from anything which resembles political action. Nevertheless, they do play a role in the transformation of the technical possibilities in a direction with a certain tendency, which is in itself a political activity.
Yet there is a paradoxical twist in such an arrangement. Even though hacklab members aim for all-encompassing social change, they see their role as partial because they situate themselves with the underdogs of society on one side of the barricades, in accord with the radical left social imaginary. Such self-conception is limited by what is called an activist ghetto, that is the fact that most formations serve only their local activist scene. Meanwhile hackerspace members see themselves as serving the general public in the pursuit of universal values. This is true as far as the interests of the specific social groups standing in for the general public intersect with those of the hackers. Beyond that, the ability to claim universal values is simply the definition and effect of formulating a version of the dominant ideology: liberal democratism.
Thus – rather schematically – the hacklab activities arguably revolve around the desire for a widely conceived political technology, while hackerspaces pursue a more focused techno-politics: on one side technology is framed by politics, on the other technology frames politics.
I propose to theorise these two genealogies in geological terms as cultural sediments or strata. In stratigraphy a stratum is a layer of rock or soil with internally consistent characteristics, stemming from the fact that it is the product of a geologically distinct period. However, strata combine into stacked layers to form geological features such as hills. Vertical movements twist and turn the layers on each other so that they combine in various ways. A hill – or in our case the hacker clubs or even the hacker scene which incorporates them – thus appears as a single entity (a geological feature) and in many respects behaves as one. Conversely, in a historical light it shows that hacker culture is composed of multiple influences and historical periods which generally build up on each other. The advantage of such a formulation is that it is well suited for the study of contemporary cultural phenomena where various historical layers are present at the same time. While keeping a historical context and adhering to periodisation, we do not relegate all periods to the past, but treat them as active constitutive parts of the present.
Thus cultural sedimentation is how historical experiences, personal histories, collective memories, traditions and material infrastructures form features like the unitary hacker scene or what is commonly known as hackerspaces. The hacker scene or the hackerspaces can be perceived as a functional whole like a hill, yet it is prone to periodisation which takes into account the strata. Once again, periodisation in such a context is not really about distinguishing periods of the past and then treating the most recent one as the present. Instead, it is charting how various strata constitute the milieu at the moment as living, contemporaneous realities which achieved consistency at various times in the past.
The division of the scene created by Noisysquare can be read in such geological terms. The division enabled NGOs and other organisations to maintain and even develop their values through symbolic protest, rather then compromising their integrity by integrating to the questionable politics of the OHM. However, it was also an opportunity to keep the debate “on site” rather than splitting (Lonneke 2014-07-18). It is notable that for most organisations a boycott would have meant to be cut off from their main audience, but simple participation in OHM would have meant compromising their values in the eyes of many adherents. The NGOs and other orgaisations gathered in NoisySquare can be seen as the wedge between these blocks, which pushed against the new-school hackerspace stances, supported by the old-school hacklab attitudes.
A great example of such support is how groente, who started the controversy released an un-official invitation to Noisysquare as a Commodore 64 intro, an executable multimedia file which can be run on the original machine or in an emulator. This digital artefact references the demo scene where such intros and demos competed with each other in events called demo parties. Such grounding can be read in contrast with the official OHM invitation which refers to the ecumenical history of the Dutch hacker camps started in 1989 roughly in tandem with the demo scene (Dave et al. 1988), and roughly equivalent in cult value. While the OHM invitation refers to “great Dutch traditions” as windmills, tupils and cheeze, the intro remains on the universal ground of internationalism. This is interesting because the organisers’ justification for inviting both local authorities and critiques of foreign authorities rests on the specificity of the local context. In any case, the video welcomes all in a liberal way while the intro takes a more oppositional stance: “i wanted to invite you to the N\^2 village – cuz’ remember kids: pheds are no phun!” (which roughly translates as “the police are no good”).
Additionally, while much of the content was shaped and contributed by participating activists, NGOs and other organisations, the PUSCII crew provided the radio, streaming and archiving services. This was the reason that while a significant part of the OHM recordings managed by volunteers were lost due to misconfiguration, the Noisysquare recordings were preserved intact for the historical record. The position of the PUSCII technicians can be seen in relation to the hacklab ethos mentioned above: as a supportive technical infrastructure to other elements of a social movement, which interprets itself advancing their political aim through technical means.
Such differences are not merely cultural appearances but they can be linked directly to life histories and experiences. The main voice of OHM2013 who have sent the original letter starting the controversy (gmc) is the co-founder of the first Dutch hackerspace (RevSpace in Den Haag, 2009), while groente who wrote the blog post kicking off the debate as well as the demo-invitation is co-founder of the second Dutch hacklab a decade before (PUSCII, 1999). As I wrote before, the role of RevSpace have been instrumental in setting up subsequent spaces, also through the spin-off HXX Foundation which incumbated at least 6 local hackerspaces, introducing them to the international scene. PUSCII in turn have co-evolved with other formations such as ASCII and SLUG (also mentioned above) and participated in attempts to link together European hacklabs under the Plug’n’Politics (Connect Congress) network. Moreover, gmc along with wilco (another person from the original board who later left) have been the driving forces behind the establishment of the SpaceAPI – a technical system of publishing metadata about hackerspaces and a way to aggregate them – which provided consistency, interoperability and visibility to the Dutch hackerspaces. Similarly, PUSCII’s (email, pad, web hosting) services still provide the technical infrastructure for many initiatives in the local and international autonomous activist scenes, setting the standard for the provision of more secure and self-organised technology-for-politics.
Again arguing from the distinctions made above, we can consider the role of the repressive state apparatus and capital as they appear in the context of the two political-economical formations. Structurally, hacklabs have to fight off the repressive state apparatus in order to defend what they have appropriated from capital. In contrast, hackerspaces have to legitimise themselves in the face of the repressive state apparatus and rely on capital to equip themselves. Both do so starting from a position of outsiders, but the first directly threatens the status quo while the second seeks to complement it – hence the contradictions in its justification.
All in all, even though participating in the same national hacker scene and contributing to the same gathering, both the initiating persons standing at the poles of the debate (gmc, groente) have been central to their respective lineages of shared machine shops: the hacklabs and the hackerspaces. As explained in the previous section, the root of the misunderstanding comes from the fact that both approaches recognise the essential link between technology and politics, but they frame the two in diametrically opposing ways. This explains how and why they took alternate stances about the request of the authorities to become an official part of the hacker camp program. From the PUSCII point of view, it was a general question of the social function authorities perform. The autonomist tradition is clear: “of course we say the cops are swine, we say a man in uniform’s a pig, not a human being, so we must tackle him. I mean we mustn’t talk to him … of course there may be shooting.” (Aust 2008, 11) For the OHM orga socialised in the hackerspaces milieu it was a specific question on Dutch authorities’ changing stance towards the Camp: “These are not the frank kolkman’s of olden days, but people just like you and me.” (gmc 2013a) Frans Kolkman (misspelled in the message) is the police chief who wanted to prevent the 2001 iteration of the Dutch hacker conference from happening (McCullagh 2005) – he stands here in contrast with the reformed THTC, as another step in the legitimation and institutionalisation process of the local hacker scene. Noisysquare formed in this rift following the debates which came out of the initial critique as a mediating element, driven by less hard-line organisations. That is how putting the contemporary controversy in historical perspectives can account for the conflicts which ensued.
It would be fruitful to trace such fissions back to the very beginning of the Dutch scene, where according to Patrice Riemens (2014-06-15), the Dutch hackers started to frame themselves info-activists in response to criminalisation and repression. The idea was to legitimise themselves as respectable activists in a social environment where hackers were seen as cybercriminals. Their changing profile from self-proclaimed techno-anarchists (as we can read on the cover of their Hack-Tic zines) to electronic human rights activists and service providers serving the general public helped the group to survive the scrutiny of the authorities and develop further, founding the first public Internet Service Provider in the Netherlands: XS4ALL (“Access for All”). It is to be remembered that Netherlands was one of the first countries to criminalise hacking in the legal code (Riemens). However, pursuing this line of argument would require further research.
Returning to the theoretical framework showing how cultural sedimentation in the subsequent periods marked by differing models of shared machine shops results in strata constituting a single hill of hacker culture, we can now understand how such a structure is animated when it is put under pressure. The controversy around police participation obviously put sceners under stress, forcing them to choose and articulate diverging positions. When such fault lines occur in the crust of the Earth caused by the movement of the underlying blocks, cracks and fissures form – as a controversy dividing the scene. Rift valleys emerge as some blocks move upwards and some downwards. Their walls (called grabens) expose the layers of rock (the strata) previously hidden from sight and playing a relatively passive role. Thus exposed to the elements, strata are eroded to various degrees depending on their material, and further, softer sediments develop over depressions. I propose to theorise the above controversies as such high pressure geological events which expose the composition of rock formations, leaving stratigraphers able to study the cultural sediments of a seemingly unitary geological feature. Of course this should not be read as a variation on “social mechanics” modelled after the natural sciences for extra legitimacy, simply as an inspiration where geology is an expression of human imagination.
In the specific case of shared machine shops, the history of hacklabs is covered by the history of the new generation of hackerspaces, and appears unitary for those who look back from the present, so much so that even the Wikipedia entries for hacklabs and hackerspaces are merged now (maxigas 2012). Similarly, the autonomous politics of hacklabs and the various strands of liberalism articulated in the wider hacker scene as well as in many new hackerspaces is compressed and pushed closely together by historical circumstances to form the complex reality of the hacker scene today.
Although it was not the main thrust of the presentation, it is also instructive to see how actors like the authorities (THTC), commercial actors (FoxIT, Greenhost, IPpredator) and civil society organisations (such as Bit of Freedom) choose to positioned themselves in the debate. As far as the picture layed out here is partial, it is to show the consistency of practice stemming from two different traditions which managed to set the extreme poles of the discoursive space, in the context of which other actors had to position themselves. While in many respects all these actors occupy a single discursive space, and for instance many hackerspaces draw inspiration from the descendant hacklab movement, the internal cultural logic, ideological properties and social composition of the various layers can be strikingly different since they were shaped by different socio-economic realities and cultural-political contexts.
Finally, the answer which emerged from the controversy to the question asked in the title of the first section (“Can the police be a part of the hacker scene?”) is an overwhelming “no.” Both the authorities themselves and the hacker scene at large arrived to the conclusion that the official inclusion of the police in the scene is a bad idea. If we accept Kelty’s idea (2008) that the distinguishing characteristic of geek publics is that they debate and simultaneously rework the conditions of their own articulation, we have to look at how the controversy transformed the aforementioned infrastructural circuits of the scenes. A preceding generation of hackers more or less successfully articulated their position both materially and discursively, mobilising enough people to force a small structural change in how recursive hacker publics are organised in time and space.
Note that this is a stronger reading of Kelty than his writing on Free Software and geek publics may admit. My argument is that it is not only the Information and Communication Technologies, or the laws and licences, which are recursively discussed and reworked by hackers. This controversy is not legal or technical. It is about the concrete social organisation of the hacker scene and how it positions itself in the wider political context. Therefore it is the socio-political conditions which are under controvertial discussion and reflective reworking: the recursive public is socio-politically, not merely techno-legally reflective here.
Regarding the socio-political organisation in space, Noisysquare have gone on to gather people interested in the repolitisation of hacker talk – which is normally preoccupied with instrumental reason – in the next cycle of major conferences like the 30th Chaos CommunicationCongress (2013 December) and the similar HOPE X in the USA (2015 July). Regarding socio-political organisation in time, conclusions drawn from the Noisysquare experience resulted in a cycle of minor conferences mentioned before where explicitly politicised discourse is the baseline, filling the cracks between the major meetings mentioned above. While this means that dissent continues to exist and expand merely in the fissions of “mainstream” hacker discourse, it is notable that Noisysquare is often the biggest and most visible block at the major conferences. Taking into account the observation that such bodily gatherings have been instrumental to the birth of hacker clubs and the negotiation of meaning between participants, these developments will no doubt affect the character and direction of work carried out in hacklabs and hackerspaces too, even though it is too early to gauge the results.
What can already be seen in a similar vein is diversification in the North American hackerspaces scene along gender lines, as documented in Toupin (2014) in this issue of the Journal of Peer Production. It is important to see that such an articulation of feminism repoliticises hacker discourse and practice in a similar way to Noisysquare – indeed, discussions around gender issues have been part of the programming at Noisysquare since its first iteration discussed here.
I hope to have shown that diachronic (historical) research can be helpful for synchronic (ethnographic) analysis both in terms of the explanation and interpretation of contemporary controversies. For those interested in the past, present and future of shared machine shops of any blend, the moral of the story is that we need a rigorous understanding of the diversity of engineering cultures involved, since spaces or communities which may look indistinguishable on the outset may behave totally differently when the shit hits fan. Developing a taste for such nuances is especially important in the crucial moment when subcultures like hacking go mainstream, leveraging their authenticity for a broader appeal. None of these, however, should prevent building theories and tactics based on clear distinctions, because coherent positions foster debate and reflection, leading actors to develop and articulate their political stances – as seen in the cultural rift around Noisysquare.
Amsterdam, Calafou, Arnhem, Barcelona, Montevideo
: The name itself a joke on Silent Circle, a well-known privacy solutions company.
: National Security Agency, the name of the devil in hacker culture.
: Notably, locksmiths’.
: Notably, the Eccentric Club.
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