Anyone with the right skills set can get along with these things. And the skills are not hard to learn
One of the first things you notice that sets it apart from other shops and services is the RFID (radio-frequency identification) card reader that grants access to the space. “When we moved from above an archery range to here, we went from having access to the space two nights a week to 24 hours a day,” says Billy Smith, a long term member of Hackspace. “We were sitting there thinking ‘how are we going to give access to people wandering in and out?’ then one of the guys got hold of an RFID card reader and hooked it up to an automated door opening system. Problem solved. Oyster cards work well.”
Many of the systems and gadgets in Hackspace are practical solutions to everyday problems; others serve no purpose at all other than to entertain. “Ben had the bright idea of making the doorbot talk. So they spent an hour writing scripts to attach audio samples to each RFID, then they ran the entire membership through a text to speech synthesizer, and then ran that through an audio filter which is how you get GLADOS speaking to you when you arrive.” The effect is impressive; the doorbot not only recognises members but welcomes them by name in the robotic voice of GLADOS, the malevolent robotic antagonist from the Portal video game series.
Inside, the London Hackspace looks like a mixture between a squat and a post-apocalyptic electronics workshop with all manner of equipment lying around, donated and found, some bearing ‘DO NOT HACK’ stickers and a reconstructed vending machine modified to distribute electrical components. There is even a bicycle converted into a turbine for generating electricity on a balcony overlooking the new East London Line.
Hackspace is open to anyone, but if you use the space regularly you have the option of becoming a member. “Member run, member organised, member funded. No external funding, no external strings. Sure it means things don’t happen as quickly as we like, but we don’t have to deal with any external funding bodies because it’s all run through member subscriptions.” Smith says. “The one time we did have a funding shortfall when we opened up a new workshop and we didn’t have enough members to cover the rent for the space, a bunch of us chipped in to make it happen. It works alright.”
The space is divided into the ‘clean’ workspace where members work on their laptops and tinker with electronics and the ‘dirty’ workshop that houses the power-tools and workbenches for carpentry, metal casting and even a small bio-hacking lab. After you cross the threshold a laser counter beeps counting everyone in and out. Just as much time is spent trying to ’game’ or trick the laser counter as is spent on getting it working. There is also a quiet workspace, set up as a reprieve to the more noisy projects; when we arrived there were a group hacking an automatic Nerf machine-gun, re-drilling the cartridges to increase speed and range, and over-clocking the motor to increase the fire-rate.
Hackspace was founded in 2009 as the result of a swivel chair breaking. “Russ was complaining because a swivel chair died. He was annoyed because he knew if he had a lathe he could fix it.” says Smith. The founding members, Russ and Jonty, were inspired by already existing Hackspaces around the world and set about acquiring a space for a communal workshop to spread the cost of pricey bits of kit like a lathe. It has grown steadily since but there is no leader, owner or spokesperson other than the members themselves.
The London Hackspace is just one of many Hackspaces, not necessarily directly affiliated but connected by the shared principles of Hacker ethics; namely collaboration, sharing and openness with a dedication to open sourced software and a mistrust of authority. A driving force for many of the hackers is just pure curiosity; a faulty industrial 3D printer was donated and is routinely repaired using components made from scratch using their kiln and lathes. Chris, one of their members is currently working on a 3D scanner, just to see if he can.
Workshops for members and the public are routinely run and as a result the place is surprisingly social. A centrifuge being acquired has enabled bio-hacking; some of the members are working on a routine DNA test for gender using cheek cells and household products. Interestingly, none of the members involved have a background in biology.
Like any of the skills you learn here, with power comes responsibility. The same skills that are used for computer security are abused by cyber-criminals
Another weekly workshop that is run is mind-hacking; talking about and practising hypnosis and NLP. “Like any of the skills you learn here, with power comes responsibility. The same skills that are used for computer security are abused by cyber-criminals,” says Hackspace member Matt Peperell. “We call them White Hats and Black Hats. But if anyone came here with bad intentions they would get kicked out.” There is a procedure for banning members but they’ve never had to use it. The only common theme to the disparate workshops and projects is curiosity about how things work and a desire to learn.
A small workshop based in two commercial units in east london seems an unlikely staging-post in the war for the internet and feels a million miles from The Pirate Bay, Anonymous and the patent wars currently occupying the attention of the global media. Indeed, the London Hackspace is not directly involved in any of these disputes, but is revolutionary in its modus operandi and principals, fostering the ideas of collaboration and shared knowledge – the very traits being suppressed by governments and record industries around the world as this article is being written.
There is also something of the old ration-book philosophy of ‘mend and make do,’ a communal efficiency and solidarity brought about by the hardships of the Second World War and all but lost in today’s hyper consumerist society. “Anyone with the right skills set can get along with these things. And the skills are not hard to learn.” says Billy Smith. The Hackspace movement empowers ordinary people to learn new skills and democratises innovation in a way that is not just refreshing but completely necessary in our current consumerist culture.