From the Keyboard to the Drawing Board: How Hacker Spaces can Generate Inspiration to Create and Develop Digital Technology

The readings for the October 26 Digital History class included a 2009 article from Wired about ‘Hacker Spaces’.  At first glance the word ‘hacker’ conjures up images of naughty, nerdy boys with no better way to show off their computer genius than to hack into main frames for fun. However this is not what is meant by this term…quite the contrary. Rather than infiltrating someone’s digital space and liberating them from their data, the term Hacker in this circumstance refers to a supportive environment that provides a creative outlet for transforming retired technological objects into something useful once again. Hacker Spaces or collectives as they are called in the article started in Germany but are growing worldwide. They seem to attract people from all areas of arts and technology but appeal specifically to those who lack either group collaboration in their digital work or perhaps yearn for a more ‘hands on approach’ to problem solving. The question is what’s the big deal about taking old bits of circuit boards, wires and CDs and making something out of them? Is this just another way of expressing an environmentally friendly option to biffing junk and adding to already overcrowded land fill sites? What does this eclectic mix of arts and technology geeks have to do with the digital world?

It would seem that Hacker Spaces provide an environment where the lone digital worker can collaborate with others who share a particular interest. I agree that working solo can create a sense of isolation that can dampen a creative flow, but apart from providing a social arena for the exchange of ideas, what else can a Hacker Space provide? After all, one could argue that we do collaborate and share knowledge everyday on the internet. What about the myriad of social networking sites that encourage the interchange of ideas? How is this different?  According to this article, a Hacker Space represents the opposite of digital social networking. Apart from offering a hiatus from sitting in front of the monitor all day, using only our fingers as physical connection to our work, it allows us to return to a time when ‘work’ was physical and often provided a sense of accomplishment. I think back to my father who worked as a tradesman all his life, who laboured as a HVAC specialist on large industrial plants. He was considered the ‘top gun’ of sheet metal. He expressed to me on many occasions how he longed to put away his tools and work from the office, supervising and inspecting the work of other tradesman. Yet when the time came that Dad was promoted to an administrative job, it wasn’t long before he returned to the field as he felt “something was lacking”. I suppose it had something to do with that sense of accomplishment he had been used to, after working for over 35 years in ‘hands on’ labour.

This, I feel, is the essence behind the attraction to Hacker Spaces. The environment provides a satisfying prospect of working through digital challenges.  Hacker Spaces act as a proponent of problem solving by utilizing the age old method of hands on labour. This allows the individual to work through their problem or develop their creations by using whatever bits and pieces they have in front of them, collaborating with others on the same page and most satisfying, to watching it all take physical shape. They become part of the solution through the physical process of seeing and feeling something tangible and then take that knowledge and apply it to the digital domain.  As a Master’s student in History, I understand the need to find solutions to the expanding realm of digital history and the pros and cons that surround the digitization archival materials. As a visual artist working with paint and canvas as my media, I understand the desire, the need and the satisfaction of creating something tangible.

          

Funny enough, I seem to have applied a ‘Hacker Space’ ideology to my art practice in the past without even realizing it. One way of breaking free of conformity and freeing one’s creative inhibitions is to explore various ways to apply a medium. I attempted this by creating a ‘fifth appendage’ to hold paintbrushes, or drawing media while I sketched or painted. I found this experiment challenging in that I had to leave behind any preconceived methods of making art. The process was awkward and at times frustrating but it forced me to work out of my comfort zone and eventually I created something that demonstrated a raw emotion devoid of reliance upon skill or experience. This back to the basics type exercise helped me find solutions to problems I encountered in my visual art practice as a painter and a teacher. I feel that the Hacker Space attempts to provide the same experience that can also be utilized in the digital field. In closing, I find my curiosity has peaked as I intend to investigate a local Hacker Space. Hopefully the environment will help me connect these two separate realms in which I work and to find solutions to the digital challenges I face each day.

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