Interview with a Hackerspace organizer
Finally, to complement my own thinking on this topic, I reached out to Jeff Crews, current President of Splat Space, and posed a few questions about hackerspaces to him. Here is his take on hackerspaces:
Q. What is your definition of a hackerspace?
A. A hackerspace is a social group or organization, with or without a fixed physical location, made up of people who are interested in the inner workings of "things." Hacking involves the willingness to take physical or virtual objects and processes apart, find out how they work, and reassemble and recombine them (hopefully with improvements!).
The attitude of getting under the hood and fussing with the guts in order to learn and innovate is the key here, not the presence or absence of a given kind of technology. A knitting circle following premade patterns is not a hackerspace, nor is an "electronics club" that only builds prepackaged kits. A knitting circle that pushes the boundaries of their art, incorporates new materials, creates new techniques, and uses "knitting tech" in ways that have not been attempted before is a hackerspace even if nary an IC chip is found in their supply cabinet.
Q. How would you define success for a hackerspace?
A. Success initially means having regular meetings and paying the rent/keeping the lights on (if you're renting a space). Success over time is growing, developing more and more of a local and online presence, becoming known for innovation, sharing of knowledge, and outreach to those who could benefit.
Q. How does a hackerspace fail?
A. A hackerspace fails by being too exclusive, too centered on one thing, too cliquish and secretive, or openly hostile to outsiders and "the wrong kind of people." Territoriality is for chimps.
Q. How can we encourage more women to participate in hackerspaces?
A. Stop being a**holes. It's that simple, but I'll expand on it. The ownership of breasts, ovaries, and/or uterus is irrelevant to the ability to think logically, plan a project, present ideas clearly, use mathematics, code, solder, fabricate, or do anything else that might be going on in a hackerspace. (It becomes relevant only if and when a female member decides to do some bio-gyno-hacking on herself so that she can bear a genetically engineered baby-superweapon. That isn't an issue yet.) It is as irrelevant to hacking as is the social construct of "race" or someone's genetic makeup/ethnic background.
Women, like everyone else, want a welcoming and comfortable environment. An African-American potential member would probably look askance at a hackerspace that flew the Confederate battle flag. Likewise, a weekly rape joke competition would create what is known as a "hostile environment" for potential female members.
It's a delicate issue, especially since hackerspaces are often home to people who espouse various libertarian/Objectivist/anarchist/radical honesty philosophies, who see this as an assault on free speech. What those people don't realize is that those philosophies and the willingness to employ them usually come from a position of enormous privilege and safety that not everyone shares. Curbing one's tongue to make others feel more comfortable isn't censorship, it's courtesy. It's also good business for any organization.
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