The Free Software vs. Open Source debate and Hackerspaces

Tue, 28 Dec 2010 01:31:09 -0500

Tags: floss, hackerspaces


After some very interesting conversations at Foulab, I decided to put my thoughts on the issue of pragmatists vs idealists in a blog post.

The issue: what is the societal role of the hackerspace? As an association of citizens, the hackerspace is at an arms-length of political activity.

Now, I like to think the political role of hackerspaces is that of "self-determination through making", that is, empowering members of society to move beyond a passive consumer role (be it of products or even of political candidates) to one of active participation.

How does such role translates in day-to-day activities at a hackerspace? Well, it of course involves outreach, education, collaboration with other groups with similar goals and, of course, making awesome things and having lots of fun in the process.

It all sounds great, isn't it? Well, not quite. For many people, hearing the word "politics" is enough to make their teeth cringe. Moreover, hackerspaces attract people from a variety of positions within the political spectrum. (The whole concept of building things and using tools is a primeval instinct for the homo sapiens.) Therefore, activism can be regarded as a topic that will divide the hackerspace rather than strengthen it.

Interestingly, I see a very similar distinction in the free software world with respect to the Free Software movement and the Open Source proponents (see this article by the FSF for some canonical treatment on the subject or the recent talk Free as in what? A debate on open source vs. free software). Both parties agree on practical issues. Both want to have the best possible software, with complete source available. The Open Source people are content with stopping at that. The Free Software people want more. They want to society to change, to evolve into a freer society.

At the hackerspace level, we all seem to agree in the "self-determination through making" bit. We all want to hack cool stuff, share knowledge and become better makers. We want to own what we use beyond just having bought it. We want to solve our needs in a unique way that captures our distinctive self. But for many people, it all stops at that. I would like to call them the pure-makers. Driven by the desire and satisfaction of creation, they have little or no interest in the larger picture of how the hackerspace might fit into society and whether or not it has chances of changing society for the better.

Aside from the pure-makers, you can then have the maker-activists, people who want to share this newfound self-determination through making with a larger set of people. I like to think of myself as falling in that later group, although you can never be sure of course. Maybe being a maker-activist is more something to look forward to but that it can never be truly achieved.

To me, the parallels between pure-makers / maker-activists and Open Source / Free Sofware are very striking. It is the eternal strife between pragmatists and idealists.

When it comes to free software, the two camps are large enough to have separate quarters, so to speak. At this stage in the life of the hackerspace movement, it might be too early to try to do that. Moreover, as hackerspaces are all about making, the differences between pragmatists and idealists is not so profound, as we are talking about quite hands-on idealists. In my experience, many of the best makers I have met in my life are very absorbed on their making activities and have no time to entertain more abstract ideas (such as the impact of their activities in society, as a departure from the accepted role of silent consumer). I do not think that missing out on having these people in a maker-activists-only hackerspace will be a good idea. Quite the opposite, as they clearly enrich the place.

Another problem of having a maker-activists-only hackerspace is that it might get polluted by non-maker-activists. People who just talk but have no interest in making things. That will be highly detrimental to a hackerspace but it will be difficult to weed out in a more activism-oriented hackerspace.

To summarize my views on the topic: in hybrid hackerspaces such as Foulab, the diversity brought by having pure-makers and maker-activists should be welcomed and embraced. Why? Because it helps strenghen the making aspect of the organization. However, it should be clear to both sides the truce-like aspect of the situation. The maker-activists should not try to hijack the name of the organization for their activism but they are welcomed to use the place as they see fit. The pure-makers have to show a level of respect to the activist agenda of their fellow hackerspace colleagues but they by no means have to spouse such ideals. In a nutshell, respect, communication and non-interference. Being an optimist person, I hope this can be achieved at least until the movement grows to the point of having separate spaces, even if I'm currently unsure whether that would actually be a good idea.


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