Researching Makers: Hackerspaces, Repair, and Civic Hacking

Today, Ricarose Roque and I attended a panel on “Making Cultures” at CSCW, the ACM’s conference on computer supported cooperative work. Here are our notes.

Daniela Rosner starts out by setting the scene: Over the past decade, thousands of programmers, designers, and engineers have gathered at hacker spaces, co-labs, and makerspaces to rethink and recreate technologies in collaboration. They share beliefs about what technology should be designed to do, discussing how information should be shared, and how to design the worlds we want. Researchers are now starting to study these movements, asking what these spaces look like, what ways do their practices changes across these sites, and what values connect them with the wider world. This panel includes some of those researchers.

  • Ingrid Erickson is an assistant professor in the Rutgers department of library and information science. She created the Hive Learning Network in NYC.
  • Laura Forlano is a assistant professor of design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. She studies the role of information technology in supporting open innovation networks in urban environments.
  • Steven J Jackson is a professor in the information science department at Cornell university. Steven studies collaboration, technology policies, and governance. He also participates in maker culture himself.
  • Beth Kolko is a professor in the UW Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering. She’s also a fellow at the Berkman Center. Ethan Zuckerman blogged Beth’s talk on “hackademia” in 2012.
  • Andreea Gorbatai is an Assistant Professor in the Management of Organizations area at the Haas School of Business, at Berkeley.
  • Daniela K Rosner, moderator of our panel, is an assistant professor in the UW Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering.

What does Collaboration Mean in Making Cultures?

How is it that things come to be normal, asks Ingrid. She starts out with this idea of “civic hacking.” Ideas of civic tend to have a positive connotation, but many people consider hacking to be maybe a negative thing. How is civic hacking coming to be considered normal?

Ingrid tells us about the White House blog post calling for a National Day of Civic Hacking. This day occurred last year, on June 1-2, 2013. The event occurred across the US, and the rhetoric was about creation, collaboration, and the creation of publicly released data. Another big actor in this space was Intel, a company that gave it legitimacy.

Ingrid is working with Katie Shilton, a scholar who’s looking at the values that are espoused in media about it. Katie and Ingrid have scraped and downloaded data about the event, coding them according to action, models, and outcomes, looking at the words that are used to explain these things.

How are all these legitimating actors and action creating new ideas of citizenship and hacking? She quotes a blog post, “hacking is now hegemonic. Hacking open data is the path to good citizenship.” It’s these questions of how hacking is becoming legitimated that Ingrid and Kate are looking at.

Contesting Through Prototypes
Laura Furlano tells us a story from the Center for Social Innovation in Toronto. Hackerspaces, fab labs, and coworking communities are very much at the center of discussions about openness — drawing on broader conversations in industry. At the same time, they are carried out at the margins, including conversations about gender, identity, marginalization, and what it means to make things for good.

Some participants in the groups Laura has studied see collaboration as a creative conversation and critique together with other designers — helping people move through obstacles in a generative way. Laura talks about a tension between the critical stance of social science and the iterative approach of design. Either you critique and contribute to discourse, or you position yourself as future oriented and generative. Prototypes are ways to create conversations, allowing for conflicting voices, says Laura.

Laura points us to a Galey’s article on How a Prototype Argues, offering features that are contestable, defensible, and substantive?

Laura shows us one example of this, a “Data Octopus” that was made for a Berlin protest:

Laura puts forward a challenge to CSCW, asking, “How might the CSCW community design tools to support critique, conflict, and friction (rather than collaboration)?

Makerspaces as Symbiotic Places for Hobbyists and Entrepreneurs
Andrea Gorbatai, who’s a professor at a business school, previously looked at collaboration on Wikipedia and open source software. She’s now looking at the maker movement and makerspaces. She asks:

Under what conditions are makerspaces successful at fostering innovation? When do hobbyists and entrepreneurs coexist?

In her work she’s looked at past research in user innovation and ambidexterity. Ambidexterity how resources are allocated and how these are managed under constraints. In literature in user innovation research, user communities are able to come up to novel designs and how they collaborate to produce new products.

Andrea visited various makerspaces and spoke with founders, specifically focusing on spaces that are open to the public. One of the things she found interesting is that they have specific bins for certain materials, such as circuit boards and tools you can borrow. Some even have vending machines where you can buy kits and parts.

Andrea talked to 47 founders of makerspaces, interviewed maker movement stakeholders, and observed 4 makerspaces. She observed 5 patterns:

  1. Physical space is important for sharing tools, conversations, and designs
  2. Tools & Scraps offered opportunities to experiment with different materials and techniques, and to learn tacit knowledge
  3. It was important for people to spend time with smart people, to develop their reputation as a creative person.
  4. Sharing was important to people. Instead of being concerned about protecting their IP, they were more interested in executing on their ideas. The sharing culture in the makerspaces tended to value execution
  5. Fairness was an important value; people would be happy to explain things or lend a hand, but they wanted to be paid for what they considered to be work. When people were hired, they sometimes benefitted a project by lending their expertise to the creation process.

Repair: Creative Material Engagements in the Global South
Steven Jackson does research on repair and fixing communities. They have some structural parallels to other groups– people gathering with a civic motivation to carry out collective acts of fixing. He thinks there’s a broader philosophical change going on. The idea of repair radically changes our relationships with objects, he argues.

Steven tells us about work with Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed, who’s been doing ethnographies of repair in Bangladesh. He’s been apprenticing and working in a market, doing mobile phone repair.

Steven points out that acts of creative material engagement — repair, maker movements, and hacker movements — live within a global, political economy of production. We need to ask what and who flows and what and who remain fixed in place. Repair and making are simultaneously local and global acts — done in local and often underground places, and yet sharing information across global Internet chat forums, as they look for schematics online. For examlpe, Bangladashi repairers have recently been challenged by cheap Chinese phones to the point where it’s more expensive to repair phones than fix them.

Learning and knowledge sharing tends to occur through apprenticeship. Syed is working as an apprentice, studying apprentice relations, and he’s also an apprentice ethnographer. Steven points us to Jean Lave’s Apprenticeship in Critical Ethnographic Practice.

It’s important to call repair market activity innovation, just as what happens in Silicon Valley is innovation, Steven tells us. He directs us to values that exist within repair culture, important aspects of human object relations that are constituted through acts of material engagement– whenever we make or fix an object. These values go much further than the instrumental goal of getting it to work again.


Beth tells us about Hackademia, a project and a place. It’s setting out to build a replicable, scalable cohort of interdisciplinary problem solvers that can tackle societal questions that require collaboration. You don’t have to be an expert to be an innovator.

Beth came to this intervention around 2006, where she was doing a lot of international travel, looking at patterns of technology adoption in a variety of low resource settings. In her personal life, she started hanging out with hackers, doing things like launch balloons into space and reading and writing circuit schematics. She kept them separate for many years and eventually they collided. She started looking at the challenges that people faced in everyday life and saw how they were using technology to solve those challenges. She realized that non-experts were innovators.

Beth points out that expertise is terrific in solving certain kinds of problems, but not every kind. The problems she’s really motivated to solve are the ones where you have to cross silos; Beth wants to help people solve them.

Beth asks, How do nontechnical adults acquire technical skills? Also, how does power play in these settings, across expertise? She wants to reach other people in the world to help them see themselves as capable of taking on issues in their lives, rather than trying to make more engineers.

Questions & Discussion
How widespread are makerspaces in the world? a participant asks. Andreea about 250 in the United States and there are a number of spaces that are in various stages of development, such as looking for resources or funding. Historically, around 2006, it started with a couple of spaces in California, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin. It evolved and there tend to be hackerspaces in the west and east coast whereas spaces in the middle of country tended to be makerspaces. She thinks that in the iddle of the country people tended to have more tranditionally making such as carpentry where as places like the Silicon valley had software.

I asked the speakers: How do you navigate the fact that makerspaces and hackerspaces are an emerging phenomenon with major amounts of funding and power associated with them? In my case, I’m very much in favor of growing interest in creativity, planning, and contestation as an important part of civic life. When researchers publish articles about this movement, it directly that work. Within that, I’m also interested in applying the lens of a researcher to these questions — which Willow Brugh and I are doing for our upcoming talk at Theorizing the Web this year. How do the panelists navigate these issues?

Ingrid says that she has purposely framed her work loosely and open. She’s accepted being unsure for some time, but challenged herself to being open to practices that emerge and being reflexive enough–to remind herself what she’s not seeing. Look for the new, she says, but don’t get enamored by the new, and critically look at what new patterns or power are emerging.

Andreea offered fascinating comments on the issue of co-option. Often when money and profit enter a community, it’s easy for that community to lose its values, as idealistic people shift to more practical concerns or are replaced by profit interests. She believes that the makerfaires are an effective technique for re-affirming the values of the maker movement. Although making cultures are including more and more commercial activity, events like Maker Faire reaffirm community values.

Beth discusses her discomfort at being a “researched” person, and experiencing the differences of power that this creates between researched and researcher. Uncomfortable about being an object of research, she hasn’t figured out how to do this. Beth challlenged me and Willow to instead write about our involvement in civic hacking as critical participants, capturing elements of our experience that social scientists are simply unable to write about.

Daniel shares how repair cultures have been feeling alienated with the hacker and maker frames because of the focus on newness. He encourages us to widen our view to acknowledge these parallel movements. In some ways, he says, repair and remix communities are far more effective at embodying the kind of long-term, engaged sustainability that civic technologists are often unable to achieve. Andrea also points out that some groups of info-sec “hackers” are disdainful of these movements and consider themselves to be outsiders to maker movements.

These were thoughtful, amazing responses, and I’m very eager to continue further responses with the panelists on these issues.