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Why I'm not a Hackspace member anymore.

17-11-2019

edit: Since initially posting this a few folks on Twitter pointed out that things have changed at Nottinghack and that the financial situation is not as grave as I've pointed out here, nor is there a plan to close (though it's not off the cards either). See this post here for more.

Things change. The rate, direction(s), how much, why and by whom are some of the questions we can ask about this inevitability. In this case, I'd like to write a little about Hackspaces and some of the events that have happened recently. It's a somewhat personal post, inspired by this excellent writeup by Dominic Morrow.

So Nottingham Hackspace is closing it's doors. Dominic says this is the way he'd want the Hackspace to end, rather than it dragging on with a more 'cancerous death'. In many ways I find myself agreeing with him, because I believe I've seen the same thing occur with my former haunt - the London Hackspace. That's a bit of an exaggeration but I've seen many people burned out by their involvement with the space and after having visited recently, I feel it's a place that I can't go back to.

Nottinghack's Barbot
One of the earliest Barbots I came across for sure, and still one of the best! Nottinghack's BarBot!

I regret not visiting the Nottingham Hackspace in it's prime. They were responsible for some of the coolest projects at EMF such as the best barbot!. They seemed pro-active and tight knit; getting on with making things happen. I suppose this decisive nature is one factor in their plan to close.

Spaces around the world

I have however, been fortunate enough to visit several other hackspaces in my time, across the world. Brussels, Hac D.C, Noisebridge, DenHac, Portland Hackspace, NYC resistor, to name just a few. I've noticed some interesting decisions and cultures in each hackspace, some might lead to success, some to failure.

HacDC in Washington D.C suffers from being too small, both in terms of members and physical space. They expanded at one point but due to high rental prices and a (comparatively) low membership fee, they retreated back to their smaller space. When I was there they were keen to grow but seemed to be having real trouble managing it. One thing in their favour though - they had a diverse group of people at all levels, probably due to the fact their membership fees were cheap and a vetting process was in place. Turn up to enough evenings, then be voted in as a member at a committee meeting.

Noisebridge. I mean what more can be said about Noisebridge? When I was there last time, I felt a little bit out of place, thanks mainly to the 'helpful' advice painted on the walls, reminding me not to harass people, and that touching without consent is a crime. I get the feeling that if you need to write that in indelible paint on a wall, something is up. I suppose Jacob Appelbaum was involved at one point mind. Noisebridge is in a rough part of San Francisco and it suffers a bit from all the valley-ness that surrounds it.

NYC Resistor then? Of all the spaces, it was the fanciest, in terms of being cool. Beer taps mounted in a fridge, gorgeous light fittings and art on the walls. All in a trendy warehouse conversion in Brooklyn. I guess this is what a $100+ monthly fee gets you! Outrageous in my opinion! Free-time is already a rare commodity these days, but add a huge fee on top, it begins to get silly. By having such a high membership fee, you restrict the membership to these who can afford (but that's fine in an ultra capitalist society right?). Really pretty space though.

DenHac was lovely, but it struck me as being a bit 'men-only'. Men-sheds exist and do good work, but I don't think DenHac had set itself up that way. To be fair though, they had to move to a smaller place, possibly loosing some members in the process. Why? Because all industrial units are raising their prices because marijuana growers are buying them up! Yep! Weed becoming legal has had a negative effect on hackspaces.

UCL's Institute of Making isn't really a hackspace. It's a place to do a little DIY and maybe have a go at something like ring making, or wood carving. It's a place to start on a journey but you won't stay there long. It is over-burdened with rules and regulations and isn't really a space that one can experiment and play in. I'm not sure what UCL wants to achieve with that space. Things might change a bit once they move out to Here:East where there is a bit more room.

Recently, Limehouse Labs has opened up. They have a policy of invite only with an anonymous veto. I get that members might like the veto idea because 'no-one wants to be that guy'. However, speaking to other folks about this, the consensus seems to be that this is the fastest way to exclude whole groups of people. In the past this has led to members clubs that exclude women for example. It's one approach to keeping out toxic folks I suppose, but I think the price is too high.

Dundee Hackspace is quite lovely, and one of the best I've been to in recent years. They have a good community that seems committed and tight. They are keen to expand though, getting new members in to cover costs and various upgrades. It seems like a lot of work for their committee members.

Back to London

Finally, London Hackspace. I've been a member for a long time but rescinded it very recently. Speaking to a few former members, former trustees and founders, the place became too large, too toxic and too much like hard-work. Echoing Dominic's thoughts, no-one wants to be a parent, cleaner, councillor or policeman in their spare-time. I found myself going from hero to villain. In the early days I did things like painting, running courses to raise money for the space, helping move to the new building and all the other things good members do. Why? Because I felt connected to something. The other members were my comrades and we all knew what we needed to do, and just did it. However, after the move from Cremer Street to the Hackney Road site, the rot began to set in. I became disillusioned, many folks I knew stopped turning up and I started taking advantage of the place, taking more than I gave. I got angry, upset and eventually, stopped going. My payments went down to the minimum and eventually I left.

Die a hero or live long enough to become the villain
You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain! Feels like that with some Hackspaces.

I rejoined briefly after I returned to the UK and decided I'd go and visit the new space over in Wembley. It took a long time to get there and what I found was similar to the space I'd left, complete with the same toxic folks and possibly more rules and regulations. One of best things about the Cremer Street hackspace was there were very few gatekeepers. Once I'd asked a friend about a machine they knew how to use I could just go ahead and play. Welding, lathing, plasma cutting, all these things weren't held behind locks, with keys in the hands of a small few. Now, very few, if any of my close friends go to the space anymore. They've all moved on and at least two have their own workshops.

One good thing I see coming out of LHS is the London Biohackspace. I've been a member of their online community for a while and I've found them to be very helpful, interesting and welcoming. It's a smaller group, with a more specific interest. I've yet to see another biohackspace to match it (there are very few as I understand), so maybe the future of LHS lies with biology?

Keeping positive with solutions

Things change. Hackspaces aren't new anymore. I'm not the same as I was back then. I had a great time during the golden years of London Hackspace and made some great friends who I still keep in touch with to this day.

I'd like to finish with a more positive note, maybe with a few suggestions. I think having rules, or ideals up-front is a good idea. Something a bit more similar to Extinction Rebellion where anyone can call themselves XR so long as they abide by a set of tenets (it could be argued that the Hackspace Foundation does this job already.).

Dunbar's Number gets mentioned a lot in talks about Hackspaces and groups generally and I believe there is something to it. Using XR as an example again, there were many unique, small groups that got together to protest in their own way, as the overall goal is easy to define; a positive result. Where this goes wrong is when folks stake out claims in order to gain power. I saw many small subgroups forming in the London Hackspace, complete with gatekeepers. These groups, I feel, forgot the grander vision.

A few of my friends have moved on to their own workshops; they seem pretty happy as a result. I too, have started building my own workshop in order to work my projects, some with other people. In these cases, Slack, IRC, Skype or meeting in person fills in for the shared space pretty well.

Working on a project seems to be the easiest way to skirt around a lot of these problems. When folks have a clearly defined goal and have something to offer, many of the issues around money, culture and time seem to go away. I'd argue it's easier to get folks together to build a specific thing than it is to run a more abstract community. It may not be ideal, but I've seen folks getting together to build projects for EMF. Shorter lived groups no-doubt, but no less valuable

If you haven't read either The Hero with a Thousand Faces or The Courage to be Disliked, I highly encourage you to do so. One point both of these books make independently is that an individual human can find happiness and identity by - paradoxically - being part of a group. The group helps define the individual and the individual helps define the group. This cycle is something I felt personally in the early and middle days of LHS. If you find a place where you feel you can contribute, feel defined and pro-active you are probably in the right place. Conversely, if you feel like it's not working out, it's probably a good idea to quit while you are ahead.

With rental prices going up almost everywhere, I suspect staying small isn't an option for most hackspaces, which is a shame. It could be argued a lot of these problems stem from property prices, availability of secondhand equipment and transport costs. I suspect that if these things were improved, we'd see a lot more hackspaces across the country. Obvious maybe, but perhaps it's not just the fault of the community members when a space fails.

I say fails, but that's not right. Everything has it's time and hopefully, that time was glorious. I think Nottingham Hackspace will be remembered as such.


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