20 Feb

What is a hacker?

Posted By polity_admin_user

There are times when hackers – and hacking – seem to be everywhere. The last few weeks, for instance, have seen whistleblower Edward Snowden (once described by President Obama as a “29 year old hacker”) have his leave to remain in Russia extended, while the hacker collective Anonymous has promised to make the newly inaugurated President Trump ‘regret’ the next four years. Hackers are politically active, powerful, mysterious.

Or at least some hackers are. Hacking also has a more friendly face, from the practice of IKEA hacking to MAKE magazine (which was provisionally titled ‘Hacks Magazine’). Many of these streams come together in hacker and makerspaces, physical workshops which welcome anyone who wants to hack or make. There are hackerspaces all over the world, and they host activities as diverse as yoghurt making (also known as food hacking), robot-building, and coding.

What are hackerspaces like? They can be anything from vast, echoey ex-factory spaces to small and cluttered basements. They all have their own smell and feel (some scents from spaces I have visited: burning plastic, nappies, fresh cut wood, beer). San Francisco space Noisebridge is famous for its anarchistic ethos, while Hacker Dojo is known as the home of startups such as Pinterest. Some spaces – such as Biologigaragen in Copenhagen – focus on DIY biology, whether that’s in the form of fermenting food or sequencing DNA. All, however, promote a spirit of learning, sharing and doing.

1478: Laser cutters are a key technology for many hacker and makerspaces.

1478: Laser cutters are a key technology for many hacker and makerspaces. Author provided.

My research (which is now published as a book, Hackerspaces) has explored hacker and makerspaces and the people who use them. According to the hackers and makers I spoke to, being a hacker isn’t about computers, or being technically skillful, or even believing that information should be free. Rather it involves a lifestyle in which one takes pleasure in curiosity and learning and in which community – hackerspace community – is key. It’s a kind of spirit, one that promotes doing and making and sharing and tweaking. This, for instance, is what hacker Clare had to say about hacking:

“To me, the term hacking is you’re wanting to find out how something works and maybe make it better; or to change it in some way that just makes it more useful to you. It’s not nefarious, it’s not, I’m going to steal your credit cards. It’s taking things and making things better and finding out how they work.”

Hackers were clear that hacking wasn’t necessarily computer-based or illegal or political (in fact, many explicitly disavowed doing politics). It was any kind of practice where you were “taking things and making things better and finding out how they work”. Hackerspaces promote a lifestyle of curiosity and active engagement with the world. Maybe that’s expressed in white hat computer hacking – testing the limits of security systems – but maybe it means stitching together clothes that light up in the dark, testing the DNA of your sushi, or building a 3D printer. As Clare also says, it’s about what is useful (or just plain pleasurable) to you.

What’s striking is how broad this understanding of hacking is. Hacking isn’t just for computer whizzes. If you’ve ever mended furniture with duct tape, invented new recipes, hacked together a fancy dress costume from old clothes, or tinkered with code – then maybe you’re a hacker too.

1288: Books, screens and other equipment line the walls of one hackerspace.

1288: Books, screens and other equipment line the walls of one hackerspace. Author provided.

Sarah R. Davies is Assistant Professor in the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication at the University of Copenhagen.

Her book, Hackerspaces: Making the Maker Movement , is now available from Polity.