Core Hackerspace & Makerspace Ethos

This is a copy-pasted and edited rant that was originally a series of chat messages but seemed worthwhile to save. HeatSync Labs is the hackerspace I helped co-found in 2009. Champions are HSL’s name for chief board executives, and HYH or Hack Your Hackerspace is the regular member meeting where shop business is discussed and voted upon, and shop maintenance or projects are undertaken, with the goal of members self-governing rather than the Board issuing many top-down edicts or directly running many day-to-day programs.

HeatSync has survived for 13 years due to certain aspects of its self-sufficiency, altruism, and cooperativeness. One of the core jobs of the Champions is to attract and inspire people who want to give money, give time/energy, or both… to a ragtag bunch of tinkerers and underserved demographics like kids, low-income or underprivileged people, etc. So when we advertise and put calls for members or volunteers into the world, we try make it attract the right people. One of the fastest ways to kill a makerspace would be to be on the front page of a newspaper and have a thousand people show up at the front door thinking that this is a literal “build-a-bear” for 3d printing, or a daycare, because that’s likely not what volunteers signed up for. The difference between the two is in the language and concepts used to advertise.

We’ve looked at having big sponsors, but nobody seems to have $5,000,000 laying around to help tinkerers tinker without strings attached. I don’t think there’s money in hackerspaces for the same reasons that there’s no money in libraries or rec centers: the instant that you monetize it and turn it into a book store or a gym you lose something important.

The most valuable thing I know for an individual to do isn’t hunting for big sponsors or setting up a grantwriting infrastructure, but just to inspire lots of other people to donate $50/mo: inspiring through your energy and actions.

But for sake of argument let’s game out a big sponsorship for a second because I think it’s a good idea, it just has a lot of fundamental questions and assumptions and hangups. So let’s say we call Intel or the City and they say “we absolutely want to give you $5m per year because we absolutely believe in you and we don’t want to change a thing, we believe in your 501c3 model and have money to burn in educating the next generation of makers and scientists. Here’s a $5m check and a contract guaranteeing you $5m/yr for the next 10 years.” (To be clear this never happens and isn’t how nonprofit fundraising goes down but we’re pretending the best possible case.)

So tomorrow what do you have to do? Well even though we somehow managed to secure funding without promising a thing, it’s obvious they have reasons for funding us, and if we want to keep that funding we should probably be aware of why. (Generally, realistically, when you’re applying for funding you promise a bunch of stuff you’ll do to justify the money and show off the highlight reel of what you’ve done.) Most likely they’ll expect the continuation of educational programs, expansion of accessibility to the public, etc, presuming they don’t have tons of strings attached like “all your equipment has to be from us” or “you have to let our people use your tools for free” or whatever which cause their own issues in a place run by volunteers who want the freedom to tinker without bureaucracy.

So here’s the problem, HeatSync has never really been able to force anyone to teach consistent classes/programs or hold outreach events consistently or even keep the doors open during consistent “business hours.” It’s a co-op, not a retail business or school. We could change our business model to account for large amounts of generous funding which finance employees who are forced to do such stuff, but here’s the rub:

Not only would that be a huge leap into something we’ve never really done (classes are generally held by people passionate about the topic for free or near minimum wage, open hours are a shared responsibility that could sure be staffed but at great expense and relatively low return compared to expecting it of members) but it would completely blow up the current co-op self-sufficient volunteerism business model. Raise your hand if you would want to volunteer, or attend a HYH where you’re expected to mop the floors, or even feel particularly motivated to stay 30 minutes past your ideal time to do an extra deep clean after your project, if you knew that HSL made $5m a year and paid people good salaries to do stuff, but not take care of the basics of keeping a shop running and clean. It’s hard enough keeping a shared space nice and usable when we can sincerely look someone in the eye and say if we don’t do it nobody else will because this is a shared responsibility: if we all knew that there was supposedly money for a janitor and a shop manager and a receptionist, the morale would go through the floor.

And this is the fundamental question over HeatSync’s (and every makerspace’s) soul. I don’t have the answer, when I quit the board it was because it was time for someone else to figure out this question of economics and human nature for themselves, once you’re burnt out around year 2-5 you lose all objectivity. But the fact it’s survived this long without paying for “a nanny” (community manager) tells me that my gut is right and that TechShop’s failure underscores it: there does not exist a fountain of money big enough to clean up after and manage and inspire and mediate a group of tinkerers and learners, unless it’s absorbed into a restrictive or authoritarian or exploitative bureaucracy (like library makerspaces or school/university labs/shops.) If we want the freedom to tinker and learn and be part of a thriving community on our own terms, I (and the other founders) have come to believe that it necessarily involves cultivating the inspiration and motivation to fund, staff, and maintain the place internally. External funding and partnership is a great thing to look for, and has served us well many times in the past, but “by the people for the people” has a vitality that can’t be emulated and is easily damaged. Many of us come from schools or businesses which do have all these amazing tools but put so many barriers on that we can’t really use them: the hacker movement is a reaction against that to create something more free and community based, and in the process we encounter a new set of rules and restrictions… hopefully less onerous and artificial than what we had before, hopefully stuff like finding internal motivation and solving disputes productively ourselves and rustling up resources as a “tribe”… and hopefully those skills are more useful in the “real world” than conforming to whatever a university or employer or the library is requiring of you. (I have no hate for the library, I personally see the endgame of makerspaces as being absorbed into a library / parks & rec type structure, but the current implementations seem to have a lot of rules attached. You can’t exactly be wild and free when you’re the government, your responsibilities and liabilities are too great.)

It also boils down to what kind of world do you want to live in, what kind of tinkering space do you want to hang out in with what kind of people. I for one want to surround myself with multidisciplinary creative oddballs and precocious learners who spend the bulk of their free time talking about scanning electron microscopes and messing with Arduinos, but who also have the pragmatism and maturity to lead a balanced life that involves meeting new people and cleaning up after ourselves and observing proper shop protocols. I have near zero interest in cultivating and hanging out with a group of people who mostly do grant writing and marketing, and doing such stuff myself is like pulling teeth. So it’s great if someone organically says they want to help with marketing but I don’t think cultivating an organization of people who want to follow a framework for calling sponsors and applying for grants is going to be very successful, in the same way that makerspaces struggle to find people who want to do bookkeeping and accounting for free. Accountants just generally don’t tend to mess with oxyacetylene torches for fun, for some reason.

So it’s a great idea, I get where it comes from, but it’s just huuuugely expensive to, basically, pay a number of people to do such stuff for us, versus organically being an attractive place that people tell their friends about and invite others to tinker at who end up wanting to pitch in money and/or time to. (Which ultimately is the best form of marketing anyway, word of mouth and referrals.)

Regarding “competitive analysis” to solve our problems: Our major corporate-sponsored competitor, TechShop, went bankrupt because the money-value proposition was inverted: they had no community outside of self-centeredness, and no amount of money replaces grassroots volunteerism especially when you’re talking about cleaning up after yourself and being nice to newbies. All other remaining competitors have a generally similar business model: I’ve been to hackerspaces from Berlin to New York to San Francisco to Tokyo, corporate and government sponsorships are few and far between. The easy conclusion here is that being >75% self-sufficient works and multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals actually creates significant struggles.

I ran a makerspace in Dale Dougherty’s backyard and saw firsthand the bankruptcy of Make LLC (the folks behind Make Magazine and Makerfaire) and the overall “maker industry.” There’s simply no money in it. People come to makerspaces because they don’t have tons of money, they’re inspired to tinker in order to do more with less and create experimental not-for-profit technology, and they don’t otherwise have access to large amounts of space and tools. The closest similar industries I can think of are knitting, sewing, blacksmithing, and other at-home mending type activities. Yes there are a few materials suppliers and even local class-oriented shops, but the industry just doesn’t support large million-dollar facilities in every locale outside of actual for-profit industry who maintains such facilities for its singular, private, for-profit production. (Hosting knitting and sewing classes, by the way, is a great function and partnership: they’re the original Makers in a very literal sense.)

The instant you have a bunch of money for a 3d printing lab or an Arduino lab, you get acquired by Stratasys or Intel and go private because why wouldn’t you. And Stratasys/Intel historically failed the hobbyist industry because they wanted a multi-million-dollar return on their 1960s technology. We use Ender and Arduino because it’s manufactured for rock bottom prices and looks like a hobbyist put it together. In my mind after seeing all this play out, the act of making something have a significant return on investment is in itself the act of guaranteeing its obsolescence, from Myspace and Tumblr and Flickr, to TechShop and Make LLC and Radio Shack. The alternative, pouring money and time into a shared effort that nobody outside your town will likely ever even know exists and whose only ROI is a healthy neighborhood and community and next generation of self-sufficient community-integrated learners, is surprisingly resilient and powerful.
Again I’m all for motivated people looking for sponsors and doing advertising, just with a different mindset and end goal and methodology.

In fact, to circle back to the ineffable difference between a rec center and a gym, or a library and a bookstore: the difference between a makerspace and a school or shop or artist studio is that makerspaces formed out of a desire to be able to do things ourselves, with the help of a community, and not just what large institutions want us to be able to do and not just because we have a bunch of money or power or education. So fundamental to every hackerspace I know, their reason for existing, is telling newcomers “you can Do It Yourself, we’ll help you.” the most powerful realization of that ethos is when the hackerspace itself, in fact, does it itself, together.
I probably write a whole essay on the pedagogical differences between school teachers and hackerspace learning and how it’s fundamental to the difference between paid institutional teachers and lightly-or-not-compensated volunteers.

In the end, I think there’s truth to the old adage, “once there’s money involved, your stops being fun and starts being a job.”

What on planet earth is more empowering than learning that to create something you might have to roll up your own sleeves? That your (let’s be honest, relatively paltry) money doesn’t buy much here? Many many many people leave schools and even sometimes libraries/gyms feeling disempowered. That oh, if only they spend $59.99 then they can purchase satisfaction only to realize that it was just advertising fluff? Hackerspaces are making a statement by existing, they’re saying “this way of living is better, this ethos makes for a more satisfactory life, you too can accomplish your dreams if you follow these steps” and I think we do a service to people when those steps are self-reliance and organic community support, and a disservice when that step has a certain price tag and someone (under)paid to do things for you.
Imagine if McDonald’s taught you how to cook your own delicious burgers? We’d live in a very different world. In fact one of my favorite restaurants of all time sells you raw meat, seasonings, and a flat top and you cook it how you like with minimal supervision. I dream of it regularly and I only ate there once when I was like 12.
I’m unsure — it’s truly an open question for me — whether or not you can replicate the vitality of volunteers and community members learning and teaching each other together side by side, in a situation where the adult helper is being paid by the hour. At the very least it doesn’t result in the cultivation of a grassroots community of mutual support and learning: it’s immediately divided into the people who know and are paid, and everyone else. And the people being paid are likely not being paid enough: hackerspace members can and probably should deserve $50-100/hr for their expertise, but wouldn’t accept much money for it because they either already have a day job, don’t want to deal with taxes, are retired, or are simply doing it altruistically and want to break even more than anything. If we paid what we could afford for a full-time person, we’d probably get inexperienced people and lose the vitality of having industry experts in those roles. If you’re learning from someone who’s never done the thing “in real life,” or if you’re learning a way of doing stuff that doesn’t include behaving safely and cleaning up after yourself, what are you really learning? I think it’s far better to learn not from an instructor paid by the hour but from a fully integrated member of your community who organically has a bit of time and energy to spare, because if and when it happens it’s magical, and it’s real.

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