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Hacklabs and hackerspaces – tracing two genealogies image
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Hackerspaces are workshops organised with an open community model where people with technological interests can come together to socialise, collaborate, share and expand their knowledge. The last few years have seen an increased activity in this area including the founding of many new locations, increasing cooperation and discussions about the potentialities and the directions of hackerspaces. Similar spaces, however, called hacklabs, have existed ever since personal computers became widespread. Hacklabs are typically based on a political agenda. These new and old places are often seen retrospectively as part of a single trajectory and most of the discourse treats hacklabs and hackespaces as equivalent. Outlining the overlapping but still distinguishable genealogies of both hackerspaces and hacklabs will prove helpful in questioning the tendency to confound the two and can further contribute to the contemporary debates over this vibrant culture and movement. The article ends with a reflection from a strategic point of view how hackerspaces and hacklabs contribute to the production of postcapitalist subjectivities through their organisational dynamics. The findings are based on personal experiences and field work, mainly at a now-defunct hacklab in London (the Hackney Crack House) and a hackerspace in Budapest (the Hungarian Autonomous Center for Knowledge).

hacklabs, hackerspaces


1. Introduction

It seems very promising to chart the genealogy of hackerspaces from the point of view of hacklabs, since the relationship between these scenes have seldom been discussed and largely remains unreflected. A methodological examination will highlight many interesting differences and connections that can be useful for practitioners who seek to foster and spread the hackerspace culture, as well as for academics who seek to conceptualise and understand it. In particular, hackerspaces proved to be a viral phenomenon which may have reached the height of its popularity, and while a new wave of fablabs spring up, people like Grenzfurthner and Schneider (2009) have started asking questions about the direction of these movements. I would like to contribute to this debate about the political direction and the political potentials of hacklabs and hackerspaces with a comparative, critical, historiographical paper. I am mostly interested in how these intertwined networks of institutions and communities can escape the the capitalist apparatus of capture, and how these potentialities are conditioned by a historical embeddedness in various scenes and histories.

Hacklabs manifest some of the same traits as hackerspaces, and, indeed, many communities who are registered on identify themselves as “hacklabs” as well. Furthermore, some registered groups would not be considered to be a “real” hackerspace by most of the others. In fact, there is a rich spectrum of terms and places with a family resemblance such as “coworking spaces”, “innovation laboratories”, “media labs”, “fab labs”, “makerspaces”, and so on. Not all of these are even based on an existing community, but have been founded by actors of the formal educational system or commercial sector. It is impossible to clarify everything in the scope of a short article. I will therefore only consider community-led hacklabs and hackerspaces here.

Despite the fact that these spaces share the same cultural heritage, some of their ideological and historical roots are indeed different. This results in a slightly different adoption of technologies and a subtle divergence in their organisational models. Historically speaking, hacklabs started in the middle of the 1990s and became widespread in the first half of the 2000s. Hackerspaces started in the late 1990s and became widespread in the second half of the 2000s. Ideologically speaking, most hacklabs have been explicitly politicised as part of the broader anarchist/autonomist scene, while hackerspaces, developing in the libertarian sphere of influence around the Chaos Computer Club, are not necessarily defining themselves as overtly political. While practitioners in both scenes would consider their own activities as oriented towards the liberation of technological knowledge and related practices, the interpretations of what is meant by “liberty” diverges. One concrete example of how these historical and ideological divergences show up is to be found in the legal status of the spaces: while hacklabs are often located in squatted buildings, hackerspaces are generally rented.

This paper is comprised of three distinct sections. The first two sections draw up the historical and ideological genealogy of hacklabs and hackerspaces. The third section brings together these findings in order to reflect on the differences from a contemporary point of view. While the genealogical sections are descriptive, the evaluation in the last section is normative, asking how the differences identified in the paper play out strategically from the point of view of creating postcapitalist spaces, subjects and technologies.

Note that at the moment the terms “hacklab” and “hackerspace” are used largely synonymously. Contrary to prevailing categorisation, I use hacklabs in their older (1990s) historical sense, in order to highlight historical and ideological differences that result in a somewhat different approach to technology. This is not linguistic nitpicking but meant to allow a more nuanced understanding of the environments and practices under consideration. The evolving meaning of these terms, reflecting the social changes that have taken place, is recorded on Wikipedia. The Hacklab article was created in 2006 (Wikipedia contributors, 2010a), the Hackerspace article in 2008 (Wikipedia contributors, 2011). In 2010, the content of the Hacklab article was merged into the Hackerspaces article. This merger was based on the rationale given on the corresponding discussion page (Wikipedia contributors, 2010). A user by the name “Anarkitekt” wrote that “I’ve never heard or read anything implying that there is an ideological difference between the terms hackerspace and hacklab” (Wikipedia contributors, 2010b). Thus the treatment of the topic by Wikipedians supports my claim that the proliferation of hackerspaces went hand in hand with a forgetting of the history that I am setting out to recapitulate here.

Figure 1. Survey of domain registrations of the hacklabs list from

2. Hacklabs

The surge of hacklabs can be attributed to a number of factors. In order to sketch out their genealogy, two contexts will be expanded on here: the autonomous movement and media activism. A shortened and simplified account of these two histories are given that emphasises elements that are important from the point of view of the emergence of hacklabs. The hacker culture, of no less importance, will be treated in the next section in more detail. A definition from a seminal article by Simon Yuill highlights the basic rationales behind these initiatives (2008):

“Hacklabs are, mostly, voluntary-run spaces providing free public access to computers and internet. They generally make use of reclaimed and recycled machines running GNU/Linux, and alongside providing computer access, most hacklabs run workshops in a range of topics from basic computer use and installing GNU/Linux software, to programming, electronics, and independent (or pirate) radio broadcast. The first hacklabs developed in Europe, often coming out of the traditions of squatted social centres and community media labs. In Italy they have been connected with the autonomist social centres, and in Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands with anarchist squatting movements.”

The autonomous movement grew out of the “cultural shock” (Wallerstein, 2004) of 1968 which included a new wave of contestations against capitalism, both in its welfare state form and in its Eastern manifestation as “bureaucratic capitalism” (Debord [1970], 1977). It was concurrently linked to the rise of youth subcultures. It was mainly oriented towards mass direct action and the establishment of initiatives that sought to provide an alternative to the institutions operated by state and capital. Its crucial formal characteristic was self-organisation emphasising the horizontal distribution of power. In the 1970s, the autonomous movement played a role in the politics of Italy, Germany and France (in order of importance) and to a lesser extent in other European countries like Greece (Wright, 2002). The theoretical basis is that the working class (and later the oppressed in general) can be an independent historical actor in the face of state and capital, building its own power structures through self-valorisation and appropriation. It drew from orthodox Marxism, left-communism and anarchism, both in theoretical terms and in terms of a historical continuity and direct contact between these other movements. The rise and fall of left wing terrorist organisations, which emerged from a similar milieu (like the RAF in Germany or the Red Brigade in Italy), has marked a break in the history of the autonomous movements. Afterwards they became less coherent and more heterogenous. Two specific practices that were established by autonomists are squatting and media activism (Lotringer Marazzi, 2007).

The reappropriation of physical places and real estate has a much longer history than the autonomous movement. Sometimes, as in the case of the pirate settlements described by Hakim Bey (1995,, 2003), these places have evolved into sites for alternative “forms of life” (Agamben, 1998). The housing shortage after the Second World War resulted in a wave of occupations in the United Kingdom (Hinton, 1988) which necessarily took on a political character and produced community experiences. However, the specificity of squatting lay in the strategy of taking occupied houses as a point of departure for the reinvention of all spheres of life while confronting authorities and the “establishment” more generally conceived. While many houses served as private homes, concentrating on experimenting with alternative life styles or simply satisfying basic needs, others opted to play a public role in urban life. The latter are called “social centres”. A social centre would provide space for initiatives that sought to establish an alternative to official institutions. For example, the infoshop would be an alternative information desk, library and archive, while the bicycle kitchen would be an alternative to bike shops and bike repair shops. These two examples show that among the various institutions to be replaced, both those operated by state and capital were included. On the other hand, both temporary and more or less permanently occupied spaces served as bases, and sometimes as front lines, of an array of protest activities.

With the onset of neoliberalism (Harvey, 2005; 2007), squatters had to fight hard for their territory, resulting in the “squat wars” of the 90s. The stake of these clashes that often saw whole streets under blockade was to force the state and capital to recognise squatting as a more or less legitimate social practice. While trespassing and breaking in to private property remained illegal, occupiers received at least temporary legal protection and disputes had to be resolved in court, often taking a long time to conclude. Squatting proliferated in the resulting ”grey area”. Enforcement practices, squatting laws and frameworks were established in the UK, Catalonia, Netherlands and Germany. Some of the more powerful occupied social centres (like the EKH in Vienna) and a handful of strong scenes in certain cities (like Barcelona) managed to secure their existence into the first decade of the 21st twenty first century. Recent years saw a series of crackdowns on the last remaining popular squatting locations such as the abolishment of laws protecting squatters in the Netherlands (Usher,, 2010) and discussion of the same in the UK (House of Commons,, 2010).

Media activism developed along similar lines, building on a long tradition of independent publishing. Adrian Jones (2009) argues for a structural but also historical continuity in the pirate radio practices of the 1960s and contemporary copyright conflicts epitomised by the Pirate Bay. On the strictly activist front, one important early contribution was Radio Alice (est., 1976) which emerged from the the autonomist scene of Bologna (Berardi Mecchia, 2007). Pirate radio and its reformist counterparts, community radio stations, flourished ever since. Reclaiming the radio frequency was only the first step, however. As Dee Dee Halleck explains, media activists soon made use of the consumer electronic products such as camcorders that became available on the market from the late 80s onwards. They organised production in collectives such as Paper Tiger Television and distribution in grassroots initiatives such as Deep Dish TV which focused on satellite air time (Halleck, 1998). The next logical step was information and communication technologies such as the personal computer — appearing on the market at the same time. It was different from the camcorder in the sense that it was a general purpose information processing tool. With the combination of commercially available Internet access, it changed the landscape of political advocacy and organising practices. At the forefront of developing theory and practice around the new communication technologies was the Critical Art Ensemble. It started with video works in 1986, but then moved on to the use of other emerging technologies (Critical Art Ensemble, 2000). Although they have published exclusively Internet-based works like Diseases of the Consciousness (1997), their tactical media approach emphasises the use of the right tool for the right job. In 2002 they organised a workshop in New York’s Eyebeam, which belongs to the wider hackerspace scene. New media activists played an integral part in the emergence of the alterglobalisation movement, establishing the Indymedia network. Indymedia is comprised of local Independent Media Centres and a global infrastructure holding it together (Morris 2004 gives a fair description). Focusing on open publishing as an editorial principle, the initiative quickly united and involved so many activists that it became one of the most recognised brands of the alterglobalisation movement, only slowly falling into irrelevance around the end of the decade. More or less in parallel with this development, the telestreet movement was spearheaded by Franco Berardi, also known as Bifo, who was also involved in Radio Alice, mentioned above. OrfeoTv was started in 2002 and used modified consumer-grade television receivers for pirate television broadcast (see Telestreet, the Italian Media Jacking Movement, 2005). Although the telestreet initiative happened on a much smaller scale than the other developments outlined above, it is noteworthy because telestreet operators reverse-engineered mass products in the same manner as hardware hackers do.

Taking a cue from Situationism with its principal idea of making interventions in the communication flow as its point of departure, the media activists sought to expand what they called “culture jamming” into a popular practice by emphasising a folkloristic element (Critical Art Ensemble, 2001). Similarly to the proletarian educational initiatives of the classical workers’ movements (for example Burgmann 2005:8 on Proletarian Schools), such an approach brought to the fore issues of access, frequency regulations, popular education, editorial policies and mass creativity, all of which pointed in the direction of lowering the barriers of participation for cultural and technological production in tandem with establishing a distributed communication infrastructure for anticapitalist organising. Many media activists adhered to some version of Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, taking the stand that cultural and educational work is as important as directly challenging property relations. Indeed, this work was seen as in continuation with overturning those property relations in the area of media, culture and technology. This tendency to stress the importance of information for the mechanism of social change was further strengthened by claims popularised by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri that immaterial and linguistic labour are the hegemonic mode of production in the contemporary configuration of capitalism (2002, 2004). At the extreme end of this spectrum, some argued that decisive elements of politics depend on a performance of representation, often technologically mediated, placing media activism at the centre of the struggle against state and capitalism. Irrespectivly of these ideological beliefs, however, what distinguished the media practitioners in terms of identity is that they did not see themselves simply as outsiders or service providers, but as an integral part of a social movement. As Söderberg demonstrates (2011), political convictions of a user community can be an often overlooked enabler of technological creativity.

These two intertwined tendencies came together in the creation of hacklabs. Squats, on the one hand, closely embedded in the urban flows of life, had to use communication infrastructures such as Internet access and public access to terminals. Media activists, on the other hand, who are more often than not also grounded in a a local community, needed venues to convene, produce, teach and learn. As Marion Hamm observes when discussing how physical and virtual spaces enmeshed due to the activists’ use of electronic media communication: “This practice is not a virtual reality as it was imagined in the eighties as a graphical simulation of reality. It takes place at the keyboard just as much as in the technicians’ workshops, on the streets and in the temporary media centres, in tents, in socio-cultural centres and squatted houses.” (Translated by Aileen Derieg,, 2003). One example of how these lines converge is the Ultralab in Forte Prenestino, an occupied fortress in Rome which is also renowned for its autonomous politics in Italy. The Ultralab is declared to be an “emergent pattern” on its website (, 2005), bringing together various technological needs of the communities supported by the Forte. The users of the social centre have a shared need for a local area computer network that connects the various spaces in the squat, for hosting server computers with the websites and mailing lists of the local groups, for installing and maintaining public access terminals, for having office space for the graphics and press teams, and finally for having a gathering space for the sharing of knowledge. The point of departure for this development was the server room of AvANa, which started as a bulletin board system (BBS), that is, a dial-in message board in 1994 (Bazichelli 2008:80-81). As video activist Agnese Trocchi remembers,

“AvANa BBS was spreading the concept of Subversive Thelematic: right to anonymity, access for all and digital democracy. AvANa BBs was physically located in Forte Prenestino the older and bigger squatted space in Rome. So at the end of the 1990’s I found myself working with technology and the imaginative space that it was opening in the young and angry minds of communities of squatters, activist and ravers.” (quoted in Willemsen, 2006)

AvANa and Forte Prenestino connected to the European Counter Network (now at, which linked several occupied social centres in Italy, providing secure communication channels and resilient electronic public presence to antifascist groups, the Disobbedienti movement, and other groups affiliated with the autonomous and squatting scenes. Locating the nodes inside squats had their own drawbacks, but also provided a certain level of physical and political protection from the authorities.

Another, more recent example is the short lived Hackney Crack House, a hacklab located on 195 Mare Street in London. This squat situated in an early Georgian house was comprised of a theatre building, a bar, two stores of living spaces and a basement that housed a bicycle workshop and a studio space (see Foti, 2010). The hacklab provided a local area network and a media server for the house, and served as a tinkering space for the technologically inclined. During events like the Free School, participants, including both absolute beginners and more dedicated hobbyists, could learn to use free and open source technologies, network security and penetration testing. Everyday activities ranged from fixing broken electronics through building large-scale mixed media installations to playing computer games.

The descriptions given above serve to indicate how hacklabs grew out of the needs and aspirations of squatters and media activists. This history comes with a number of consequences. Firstly, that the hacklabs fitted organically into the anti-institutional ethos cultivated by people in the autonomous spaces. Secondly, they were embedded in the political regime of these spaces, and were subject to the same forms of frail political sovereignty that such projects develop. Both Forte Prenestino and Mare Street had written and unwritten conducts of behaviour which users were expected to follow. The latter squat had an actively advertised Safer Places Policy, stating for instance that people who exhibit sexist, racist, or authoritive behaviour should expect to be challenged and, if necessary, excluded. Thirdly, the politicised logic of squatting, and more specifically the ideology behind appropriative anarchism, had its consequences too. A social centre is designated to be a public institution whose legitimacy rests on serving its audience and neighbourhood, if possibly better than the local authorities do, by which the risk of eviction is somewhat reduced . Lastly, the state of occupation fosters a milieu of complicity. Consequently, certain forms of illegality are seen as at least necessary, or sometimes even as desirable. These factors are crucial for understanding the differences between hacklabs and hackerspaces, to be discussed in Section 3.

A rudimentary survey based on website registrations (see Figure 1. in the appendix), desktop research and interviews shows that the first hacklabs were established in the decade around the turn of the millennium (1995-2005). Their concentration to South Europe has been underlined by the organisation of yearly Hackmeetings in Italy, starting in 1998. The Hackmeeting is a gathering where practitioners can exchange knowledge, present their work, and enjoy the company of each other. In North Europe plug’n’politix, hosted first by Egocity (a squatted Internet cafe in Zurich, Switzerland) provided a meeting point for like-minded projects in 2001. A network by the same name was established and a second meeting followed in 2004 in Barcelona. In the meantime, (defunct since, 2006) was set up in 2002 to maintain a list of hacklabs, dead or alive, and provide news and basic information about the movement. A review of the advertised activities of hacklabs show workshops organised around topics like free software development, security and anonymity, electronic art and media production.

The activities of Print, a hacklab located in a squat in Dijon which is called Les Tanneries, show the kinds of contributions that came out of these places. People active in Print have maintained a computer lab with free Internet access for visitors to the social centre, and a collection of old hardware parts that individuals could use to build their own computers. They have organised events of various sizes (from a couple of people to a thousand) related to free software, like a party for fixing the last bugs in the upcoming release of the Debian GNU/Linux operating system. Furthermore, they have provided network support and distributed computers with Internet access at a European gathering of Peoples’ Global Action, a world-wide gathering of grassroots activists connected to the alterglobalisation movement. In a similar vein, they have staged various protests in the city calling attention to issues related to state surveillance and copyright legislations. These actions have built on a tradition of setting up artistic installations in various places in and around the building, the most striking example being the huge graffiti on the firewall spelling out “apt-get install anarchism”. It is a practical joke on how programs are set up on Debian systems, so practical that it actually works.

Another example from South Europe is Riereta in Barcelona, a hacklab occupying a separate building that hosts a radio studio ran by women. The activities there gravitate around the three axes of free software, technology, and artistic creativity. However, as a testimony of the influence from media activism, most projects and events are concentrated on media production, such as real time audio and video processing, broadcasting and campaigning against copyright and other restrictions to free distribution of information. The list of examples could easily be made longer, demonstrating that most hacklabs share similar ideas and practicesand maintains links with alterglobalisation politics, occupied spaces and (new) media activism.

To summarise, due to their historical situatedness in anticapitalist movements and the barriers of access to the contemporary communication infrastructure, hacklabs tended to focus on the adoption of computer networks and media technologies for political uses, spreading access to dispossesed and championing folk creativity.

3. Hackerspaces

It is probably safe to state that hackerspaces are at the height of their popularity at the moment. As mentioned in the introduction, many different institutions and initiatives are now calling themselves “hackerspaces”. At least in Europe, there is a core of more or less community-led projects that define themselves as hackerspaces. The case of hacklabs have already been described, but it is merely one example from the extreme end of the political spectrum. There are a number of more variations populating the world, such as fablabs, makerlabs, telecottages, medialabs, innovation labs and co-working spaces. What distinguishes the last two from the others (and possibly also from fablabs) is that they are set up in the context of an institution, be that a university, a company or a foundation. More often than not , their mission is to foster innovation. Such spaces tend to focus on concrete results like research projects or commercial products. Telecottages and telehouses occupy the middle of the range- They are typically seeded from development funds to improve local social and economic conditions through ICTs. Even makerlabs are sometimes commercial ventures (like Fablab in Budapest, not to be confused with the Hungarian Autonomous Centre for Knowledge mentioned above), based on the idea of providing access to tools for companies and individuals as a service. Fablabs may be the next generation of the hackerspace evolution, focusing on manufacturing of custom built objects. It is framed as a re-imagining of the factory with inspiration from the peer production model (MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, 2007). What sets hackerspaces apart — along with most fablabs — is that they are set up by hackers for hackers with the principal mission of supporting hacking.

This is therefore the right point in the paper to dwelve on the social and historical phenomena of hacking. This is not to say that hacklabs — as is indicated by their name — would be less involved in and inspired by the hacker tradition. A separate study could be devoted to these two movements’ embeddedness in the free software movement. However, since both movements are contributing to an equal extent but in different ways, this aspect will not be elaborated here at length as the contrast would be more difficult to tease out. It is hence assumed that much of what is said here about hacker culture and its influence on the hackerspace movement applies equally to hacklabs.

The beginnings of the hacker subculture are well-documented. Interestingly, it also starts in the 1960s and spreads out in the 1970s, much like the history of the autonomous movement. Indeed, in a sense it can be considered as one of the youth subcultures which Wallerstein attributes to the “cultural shock” of 1968 (2004). In order not to be lost in the mythology, the story will be kept brief and schematic. One hotbed seems to have been the university culture epitomised by the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and cultivated in half a dozen other research institutes around the USA. Another one was the phreaker scene that found its expression in the Yippie spinoff magazine TAP. While the former were working on engineering breakthroughs such as early computers and operating systems, as well as on networks precursoring the Internet, the latter were doing the opposite: reverse-engineering information and communication technologies, which mainly meant telephone networks at the time. In 1984 ATT was broken into smaller companies — the Baby Bells, but not before important parts of the network had been shut down by phreakers (Slatalla Quittner 1995, Sterling, 1992). The same year saw the last issue of TAP and the first issue of the still active 2600 magazine. The university culture was preserved in the Jargon File in 1975 which is still maintained (Steele Raymond, 1996). It was the inventor of cyberpunk, William Gibson, popularised the term cyberspace in his novel Neuromancer. He thus inspired the cyberpunk subculture which gave a complete — if not “real” — Weltanschauung to hacker culture. The idea of a dark future where freedom is found on the fringes and corporations rule the world spoke to both the university hackers and the phreakers. The stars of the phreaking underground had been persecuted by law authorities for their pranks on the communication giants, while Richard Stallman — “the last of the [first generation of] true hackers” (Levy [1984], 2001) — invented free software in 1983 and set out to fight the increasing privatisation of knowledge by corporations, as could then be seen in the expansion of copyright claims to software, the spread of non-disclosure agreements, and the mushrooming of start-up companies.

The history of the hacker movement in Europe has been less well documented. An important instance is the Chaos Computer Club which was founded in 1981 by Wau Holland and others sitting in the editorial room of the taz paper in the building of Kommune I., a famous autonomous squat (Anon, 2008:85). The Chaos Computer Club entered into the limelight in 1984. Hackers belonging to the club had wired themselves 134,000 Deutsche Marks through the national videotex system, called Bildschirmtext or BTX. The Post Office had practical monopoly on the market with this obsolete product, and claimed to maintain a secure network even after it had been notified about the exploit. The money was returned the next day in front of the press. This began the Club’s tumultuous relationship with the German government that lasts until today.

In their study of the hacker culture, Gabriella Coleman and Alex Golub have argued that as far as it hangs together, this subculture manifests an innovative yet historically determined version of liberalism, while in its manifold trends it expresses and exploits some of the contradictions inherent to the same political tradition (2008). They concentrate on three currents of hacker practice: cryptofreedom, free and open source software, and the hacker underground. However, they do not claim that these categories would exhaust the richness of hacker culture. On the contrary, in a review article in the Atlantic, Coleman (2010) explicitly mentions that the information security scene has been underrepresented in the literature about hackers. The three tendencies identified in their text differ slightly from the classification I am suggesting here. Stallman’s legal invention and technical project cemented free software as one pillar of hackerdom for the coming decades. The exploits of the phreakers opened a way for the hacker underground where its initial playfulness developed in two directions, towards profit or politics.

In Europe, the stance of the Chaos Computer Club paved the way for independent information security research. Admittedly, all of those approaches concentrated on a specific interpretation of individual freedom, one which understands freedom as a question of knowledge. Moreover, this knowledge is understood to be produced and circulated in a network of humans and computers — in direct contrast to the version of liberalism associated with romantic individualism, as Coleman and Golub observes. Therefore, this is a technologically informed antihumanist liberalism. Hackers carve out different positions within these parameters that sometimes complement and sometimes contradict each other. The free software community sees the universal access to knowledge as the essential condition of freedom. The hacker underground wields knowledge to ensure the freedom of an individual or a faction. “Gray hat” information security experts see full disclosure as the best way to ensure the stability of the infrastructure, and thus the freedom of communication. Full disclosure refers to the practice of releasing information and tools revealing security flaws to the public. This idea goes back to the tradition of 19th century locksmiths, who maintained that the best locks are built on widely understood principles instead of secrets: the only secret, to be kept private, should be the key itself (Hobbs, Tomlinson Fenby [1853] 1868:2 cited in Blaze 2003 as well as Cheswick, Bellovin Rubin 2003:120). The idea that freedom depends on knowledge and, in turn, knowledge depends on freedom, is articulated in the hackers aphorism attributed to Stewart Brand: “Information wants to be free.” (Clarke, 2001).

During the course of the 1990s the hacker world saw the setting up of institutions that have been in place up until now. From all three sub-traditions mentioned above have grown distinct industries, catering to fully employed professionals, precarious workers, and enthusiasts alike. The Electronic Frontier Foundation was established in 1990 in the United States to defend and promote hacker values through legal support, policy work and specific educational and research projects. It occupies a position very different but comparable to the Chaos Computer Club in Europe. Early EFF discourse like John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace invokes the Western movie narrative of an indigenous territory prone to be occupied by the civilising East. It is littered withreferences to the Founding Fathers and the U.S. Constitution (1996). Conferences, gatherings and camps addressing the three tendencies above became extremely popular, similarly to how the film industry increasingly relied on festivals. The Chaos Communication Congress has run from 1984 and is now the most prominent event in Europe, while in the USA H.O.P.E. was organised in 1994 by the people around the 2600 magazine, and is still going strong. Hacker camping was initiated by a series of events in Netherlands running since 1989. These experiences solidified and popularised the hacker movement and the desire for permanent hacker spaces was part of this development.

As Nick Farr (2009) has pointed out, the first wave of pioneering hackerspaces were founded in the 1990s, just as were hacklabs. L0pht started in 1992 in the Boston area as a membership based club that offered shared physical and virtual infrastructure to select people. Some other places were started in those years in the USA based on this “covert” model. In Europe, C-base in Berlin started with a more public profile in 1995, promoting free access to the Internet and serving as a venue for various community groups. These second wave spaces “proved that hackers could be perfectly open about their work, organise officially, gain recognition from the government and respect from the public by living and applying the Hacker ethic in their efforts” (Farr, 2009). However, it is with the current, third wave that the number of hackerspaces begun to grow exponentially and it developed into a global movement of sorts. I argue that the term hackerspaces was not widely used before this point and the small number of hackerspaces that existed were less consistent and did not yet develop the characteristics of a movement. Notably, this is in constrast with narrative of the hacklabs presented earlier which appeared as a more consistent political movement.

Several accounts (for example Anon, 2008) highlight a series of talks in 2007 and 2008 that inspired, and continue to inspire, the foundation of new hackerspaces. Judging from registered hackerspaces, however, the proliferation seems to have started earlier. In 2007 Farr organised a project called Hackers on a Plane, which brought hackers from the USA to the Chaos Communication Congress, and included a tour of hackerspaces in the area. Ohlig and Weiler from the C4 hackerspace in Cologne gave a ground-braking talk on the conference entitled Building a Hackerspace (2007). The presentation defined the hackerspace design patterns, which are written in the form of a catechism and provide solutions to common problems that arise during the organisation of the hackerspace. More importantly, it has canonised the concept of hackerspaces and put the idea of setting up new ones all over the world on the agenda of the hacker movement. When the USA delegation returned home, they presented their experiences under the programmatic title Building Hacker Spaces Everywhere: Your Excuses are Invalid. They argued that “four people can start a sustainable hacker space”, and showed how to do it (Farr et al, 2008). The same year saw the launch of, in Europe with Building an international movement: (Pettis et al, 2008), and also in August at the North American HOPE (Anon, 2008). While the domain is registered since 2006, the Internet Archive saw the first website there in 2008 listing 72 hackerspaces. Since then the communication platforms provided by the portal became a vital element in the hackerspaces movement, sporting the slogan “build! unite! multiply!” (, 2011). A survey of the founding date of the 500 registered hackerspaces show a growing trend from 2008 (see Figure 2).

Notably, most of these developments focused on the formal characteristics of hackerspaces, for instance how to manage problems and grow a community. They emphasised an open membership model for maintaining a common workspace that functions as a cooperative socialising, learning and production environment. However, the content of the activities going on in hackerspaces also shows great consistency. The technologies used can be described as layers of sedimentation: newer technologies take their place alongside older ones without it becoming entirely obsolete. First of all, the fact that hackers collaborate in a physical space meant a resurgence of work on electronics, which conjoined with the established trend of tinkering with physical computers. A rough outline of connected research areas could be (in order of appearance): free software development, computer recycling, wireless mesh networking, microelectronics, open hardware, 3D printing, machine workshops and cooking.

From this rudimentary time line, it is evident that activities in hackerspaces have gravitated towards the physical. The individual trajectories of all these technology areas could be unfolded, but here the focus will be on microelectronics. This choice of focus is merited because microelectronics played a key role in kickstarting hackerspaces, as evidenced by the popularity of basic electronic classes and programmable microcontroller workshops in the programme of young hackerspaces. Physical computing was layed out by Igoe and O’Sullivan in Physical Computing: Sensing and Controlling the Physical World with Computers (2004), and had a great impact on the whole computing scene. This new framework of human-machine interaction stressed the way people behave in everyday situations using their whole body, and opened the way for exploratory research through the construction of intelligent appliances. The next year O’Reilly Media started to publish Make Magazine which focuses on do-it-yourself technology, including tutorials, recipes, and commentary. Among the authors one find many of the celebrities of the hacker subculture. “The first magazine devoted to digital projects, hardware hacks, and DIY inspiration. Kite aerial photography, video cam stabiliser, magnetic stripe card reader, and much more.” (Make Magazine, 2011) In Europe, Massimo Banzi and others started to work on the invention of Arduino, a programmable microcontroller board with an easy-to-use software interface. This amateur-friendly microcontroller system became the staple of hackerspaces and artists’ workshops and initiated a whole new generation into rapid prototyping and electronics work. To put it together, physical computing provided a theoretical area to be explored, and the Arduino became its killer application, while Make magazine and similar media facilitated the spread of research results. It is open to speculation how this trend fits into the bigger picture of what seems to be a shift in sensibilities in society at large. If the 1990s was marked by a preoccupation with discourses and languages, preeminence is now given to materialities and embodiedness.

The Hungarian Autonomous Center for Knowledge in Budapest is a fairly typical third wave hackerspace. It was founded in 2009 after a presentation at the local new tech meetup, itself inspired by the hackerspaces presentation in Berlin (Stef, 2009). The location is comprised of a workspace, kitchen, chill-out room and terrace in an inner city cultural centre which hosts ateliers for artists along with a pub and some shops. The rent is covered by membership fees and donations from individuals, companies and other organisations. Members are entitled to a key, while visitors can look up when the space is open thanks to a real time signal system called Hacksense. It displays the status of the lab on the website, the twitter account and a database. Thus, visitors are welcome any time, and especially at the announced events that happen a few times every month. These include meetings and community events, as well as practical workshops, presentations and courses. In line with the hackerspaces design patterns, orientating discussions happen weekly on Tuesdays, where decisions are made based on a rough consensus. Hackathons are special events where several people work on announced topics for six hours or a whole day. These events are sometimes synchronised internationally with other hackspaces. However, most of the activity happens on a more ad-hoc basis, depending on the schedule and the whim of the participants. For this reason, the online chat channel and the wiki website are heavily used for coordination, documentation and socialisation. Projects usually belong to one or more individual, but some projects are endorsed by almost everybody.

Among the projects housed at Hungarian Autonomous Center for Knowledge, some arepure software projects. A case in point isf33dme, a browser-based feed reader. f33dme is a popular project in the hackerspace and as more people adopt it for their needs, it gets more robust and more features are added over time. Although this is nothing new compared to the free software development model found elsewhere, the fact that there is an embodied user community has contributed to its success. There are also ‘hardware hacks’ like the SIDBox, which is built from the music chip from an old Commodore C64 computer, adding USB input and a mini-jack output. This enables the user to play music from a contemporary computer using the chip as an external sound card. An ever expanding ‘hardware corner’ with electronic parts, soldering iron and multimeters facilitates this kind of work. There is also a 3D printer and tools for physical work. The members are precarious ICT workers, researchers at computer security companies, and/or students in related fields. It is a significant aspect of the viability of the hackerspace that quite a few core members work flexible hours or work only occasionally, so at least during some periods they have time to dedicate to the hackerspace. Some of the activities have a direct political character, mostly concentrating on issues such as open data, transparency and privacy. Noteworthy are the collaboration with groups who campaign for information rights issues in the European Parliament and in European countries, or helping journalists to harvest datasets from publicly available databases. The hackerspace sends delegations which represents it atevents in the global hackerspace movement, such as the aforementioned Congress and the Chaos Communication Camp, and smaller ones such as the Stadtflucht sojourn organised by Metalab, a hackerspace in Vienna (Metalab, 2011).

To conclude, the emergence of hackerspaces is in line with a larger trajectory in the hacker movement, which gradually has gained more institutional structures. The turn towards the physical (mainly through utilising micro-controlers) marked the point when hackerspaces became widespread, since development and collaboration on such projects is greatly facilitated by having a shared space. While most discourse and innovation in the community was focused on the organisational form rather than the political content of hackerspaces, such less defined and more liberal-leaning political content allowed the movement to spread and forge connections in multiple directions without loosing its own thrust: from companies through civil society to a general audience.

Figure 3. The two previous figures superimposed for the sake of clarification.

4. Hacklabs and Hackerspaces

Having outlined the parallel genealogies of hacklabs and hackerspaces, it is now possible to contrast these ideal types with each other and make some comparative observations. For the sake of brevity, only a few points will be highlighted in this section. Hopefully, these will further clarify the differences between labs and spaces and provide some useful critierias for further research.

An interesting occasion presented itself in 2010 for making a direct comparison between the Hackney Crack House hacklab and the Hungarian Autonomous Center for Knowledge hackerspace. I then had first hand experience of the distinct ways in which the hacklab and the hackerspace developed and presented one and the same artifact. The artifact in question is called “Burnstation”. Even a brief sketch of the different directions in which Burnstation was developed can serve to illuminate some key points deriving from the conceptual and historical genealogies put forth above. The Burnstation is a physical “kiosk” that enables the user to browse, listen, select, burn to CD or copy to USB audio files from a music database (Rama Cosentino platoniq, 2003). The original Burnstation was invented in the riereta in Barcelona, which started as a hacklab with a media focus in 2001 and became institutionalised in 2005, when it received funding from the local authorities — which means it is more of a hackerspace nowadays. Underlying this transformation, it is also registered on The many variations of Burnstation have been displayed publicly in various exhibition contexts as well as being widely used in hacklabs and hackerspaces. Snapshots of what the original Burnstation and its two derivatives looked like at some point in its ongoing development process can be seen in Figure 4 (Rama et al), Figure 5 (HCH) and Figure 6 (H.A.C.K.).

The most striking difference between the two recent reimplementations of Burnstation is that in the version built by the hacklab people, the original concept was altered so that the music collection includes exclusively Creative Commons licensed material that can be freely distributed to an anything-goes library, including many files which are illegal to copy. The message was therefore changed radically from the consumption and celebration of the fruits of a new kind of production regime to one that emphasised piracy and transgression. The public display of the installation was a statement against the Digital Economy Act that just came into force in the United Kingdom. The act criminalised file sharing and threatened to suspend Internet access in cases where intellectual property rights were violated (Parliament of the United Kingdom, 2010). Thus the installation was promoting illegal activity in direct opposition to the existing state policies — which was not as controversial as it sounds since the venues and exhibitions where it was on show were themselves on a frail legal footing. In contrast, the Burnstation developed by the hackerspace appeared in an exhibition on the 300th birthday of copyright in a prestigious institution, showcasing the alternative practices and legislative frameworks to the traditional view of intellectual property rights.

Another aspect of the difference between the two installations was apparent in the solutions for user interaction. The hackerspace version was based on an updated version of the original software and hardware: a user-friendly web interface running behind a touch screen. The hacklab version, on the other hand, reimplemented the software in a text-only environment and had a painted keyboard, providing a more arcane navigation experience. Moreover, the exhibited installation was placed in a pirate-themed environment where the computer could only be approached through a paddling pool. The two different approaches correspond to the two broad trends in interface design: while one aims at a transparent and smooth experience, the other sets up barriers to emphasise the interface in a playful way. To conclude, the hackerspace members created an alternative experience that fitted in more smoothly into the hegemonic worldview of intellectual property and user-friendliness, while the hacklab crew challenged the same hegemonic notions, foregrounding freedom and desire. At the same time, it is plain to see that many factors tie the two projects together. Both groups carried out a collective project open for collaboration and built on existing results of similar initiatives, using low-tech and recycled components creatively. Ultimately, both projects marked a departure from preconfigured and consumerist relations with technology. In different ways, their interventions sought to put in question existing copyright law.

Figure 4. Burnstation (Rama Cosentino platoniq). Emerging Art Festival, 2011, Buenos Aires. Photo by Dianeth Medina.

Generally speaking, technological choices made in the two types of spaces described above seem to be conditioned by two factors: the historical lineage and the political-cultural surrounding. Since the hacklabs bloomed at a time when Internet access and even computers were a scarce resource and desktop computing with free software was not trivial, their contribution in the area of access and network technologies was crucial. Moreover, their contribution to technological development and political messages — for example in the case of the Indymedia network — fitted into the pattern of the alterglobalisation movement, while sharing some of the same defaults. Similarly, a few years later, hackerspaces pushed the limits of currently available technology by embracing and advancing microcontrollers and 3D printers. At the time of writing, they are the only spaces where a general public can freely access and learn about such devices, although it is not clear whether these will become as ubiquitous in daily life as computers and networks. The important difference is that the hackerspaces are not embedded and consciously committed to an overtly political project or idea. Of course this does not prevent political projects from being undertaken in hackerspacesIn the best of cases, the absence of an openly declared ideology will potentially lead to a wider diffusion of the project. In the worst case, however, the lack of a political conscioussness leads to the reproduction of dominant power structures orientated towards white middle class tech-savvy males, a claim to be investigated below.

A more abstract issue to address in order to highlight the structural differences between hacklabs and hackerspaces is their policy and practices towards inclusion and exclusion. On the one hand, the autonomous or anarchist orientation of hacklabscontrasts sharply with the liberal or libertarian orientation of most hackerspaces. On the other hand, since hacklabs are more integral to a wider political movement, non-technological aspects play a bigger role in how they are run. A concrete example is that while sexism and similarly offensivebehaviours are mostly seen as legitimate reasons for excluding an individual from hacklabs, in hackerspaces such issues are either highly controversial and discussed at length to no avail (as in Metalab) or simply a non-topic (as in H.A.C.K.). Still, a lecture and discussion at the latest Chaos Communication Camp found that although hacker culture is still overwhelmingly male-oriented, it has become more and more welcoming to women and sexual minorities in the last decade (Braybrooke, 2011).

The different priorities of hacklabs and hackerspaces can be demonstrated with their diverging policies on wheelchair accessibility. While the hacklab in London described above was not wheelchair accessible, a ramp has been built for the house itself to be so. Discussions about open training sessions included the issue, and a temporary computer room was planned on the ground floor. In a similar vein, the hackerspace called Metalab in Vienna was made wheelchair accessible, and even a wheelchair toilet was installed that a regular visitor was using. However, with time it was decided that the darkroom would take the place of the wheelchair toilet, practically excluding the person from the space. A similar change occurred with the shower, which was taken over by the expansion of the machine workshop (Anon, 2011). This affected a more or less homeless person who most often came to the hackerspace to play chess. These decisions show the reversal of an exceptionally inclusive social and spatial arrangement because of a prioritised focus on technology, coupled with the primacy assigned to collective interests over minority needs. Hacklabs, especially if they reside in occupied spaces, are less inclined to make such decisions, partly because of the ethos of the public space that often comes with occupations, and especially in social centres. However, it has to be notes that while accessibility and non-discriminations are legitimate grounds for debate in hacklabs but not necessarily in hackerspaces, as the above example shows even hacklabs have made little practical progress on the issue.

Figure 5. Piratepond installation from Hackney Crack House at the Temporary Autonomous Art exhibition in London, 2011, including a Burnstation. Photo in the public domain.

Finally I would like to make apoint about the political impact of these diverging constellations, and ask to what extent and in which ways they contribute to and support postcapitalist practices, movements and subjectivities. The hacklabs gave a technological advantage to grassroots political movements, pioneering access to information and communication technologies and innovative solutions in an era where access was not available to most people as a consumer service. On the downside, those initiatives often got stuck in what has could be called a “activist ghetto” or an “underground”, which meant that even the Burnstation project described above was only available to a limited social group. Through a process that Granzfurthner and Schneider describe as the capitalist co-optation of the fertile resistance inherent in such scenes ([2009]), the hackerspaces managed to go beyond these historical limits and forged important connections. The latter continue to have a lasting impact through the technological artifacts — both abstract and physical — that they create, as well as the innovation and most importantly the education that they practice. The case of 3D printers, which according to Jakob Rigi can revolutionise production processes and create the conditions for a society based on craftsmanship rather than factories, is but one case in point ([2011]). Moreover, thanks to their more open dynamics, hackerspaces can foster collaboration between a wide range of social actors. For the hacker culture that has managed to catapult itself to the front pages of international newspapers in the last few years, it is of immense significance to have acquired a global network of real workshop spaces that provide an infrastructure. In the current global political atmosphere dominated by an array of crises, this scene shows vitality and direction. However, as the superuser command says, “With great power comes great responsibility”.

The appreciation of history is not about passing judgement on the old and the dead, but it is there to inspire present efforts. As Théorie Communiste argues, each cycle of struggle brings something new based on what happened before, thereby expanding the historical limits of the struggle (Endnotes, 2008). Perhaps the political potential of hackerspaces lies precisely in the fact that they have not become a social movement and therefore not limited by the conventions of social movements. They stand at the intersection of the dystopian “geeky workshop paradises” (Granzfurthner and Schneider [2009]) and the utopian reality of genuinely contestant spaces that have wide impact. If more hackers can combine the technological productivity of the “hands-on imperative” (Levy [1968], 2001) and the wide possibilities of transversal cross-pollination of hackerspaces with the social critique of the hacklabs, there is a world to win.

Figure 6. Burnstation from Hungarian Autonomous Center for Knowledge, exhibited at KOPIRÁJT, OSA Archivum, 2010. Photo by eapo. License: CC BY-NC.

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