Hackerspaces are not hacklabs, the forgotten history

In the special issue of the Journal of Peer Production on the DIYBio/hardware movement and on the origins of the Hackerspaces, “Maxigas” recalls the suppressed hstory of their Hacklab forerunners.

On the difference between hackabs and Hackerspaces


“Hacklabs manifest some of the same traits as hackerspaces, and, indeed, many communities who are registered on hackerspaces.org identify themselves as “hacklabs” as well. Furthermore, some registered groups would not be considered to be a “real” hackerspace by most of the others. In fact, there is a rich spectrum of terms and places with a family resemblance such as “coworking spaces”, “innovation laboratories”, “media labs”, “fab labs”, “makerspaces”, and so on. Not all of these are even based on an existing community, but have been founded by actors of the formal educational system or commercial sector. It is impossible to clarify everything in the scope of a short article. I will therefore only consider community-led hacklabs and hackerspaces here.

Despite the fact that these spaces share the same cultural heritage, some of their ideological and historical roots are indeed different. This results in a slightly different adoption of technologies and a subtle divergence in their organisational models. Historically speaking, hacklabs started in the middle of the 1990s and became widespread in the first half of the 2000s. Hackerspaces started in the late 1990s and became widespread in the second half of the 2000s. Ideologically speaking, most hacklabs have been explicitly politicised as part of the broader anarchist/autonomist scene, while hackerspaces, developing in the libertarian sphere of influence around the Chaos Computer Club, are not necessarily defining themselves as overtly political. While practitioners in both scenes would consider their own activities as oriented towards the liberation of technological knowledge and related practices, the interpretations of what is meant by “liberty” diverges. One concrete example of how these historical and ideological divergences show up is to be found in the legal status of the spaces: while hacklabs are often located in squatted buildings, hackerspaces are generally rented.

This paper is comprised of three distinct sections. The first two sections draw up the historical and ideological genealogy of hacklabs and hackerspaces. The third section brings together these findings in order to reflect on the differences from a contemporary point of view. While the genealogical sections are descriptive, the evaluation in the last section is normative, asking how the differences identified in the paper play out strategically from the point of view of creating postcapitalist spaces, subjects and technologies.

Note that at the moment the terms “hacklab” and “hackerspace” are used largely synonymously. Contrary to prevailing categorisation, I use hacklabs in their older (1990s) historical sense, in order to highlight historical and ideological differences that result in a somewhat different approach to technology. This is not linguistic nitpicking but meant to allow a more nuanced understanding of the environments and practices under consideration. The evolving meaning of these terms, reflecting the social changes that have taken place, is recorded on Wikipedia. The Hacklab article was created in 2006 (Wikipedia contributors, 2010a), the Hackerspace article in 2008 (Wikipedia contributors, 2011). In 2010, the content of the Hacklab article was merged into the Hackerspaces article. This merger was based on the rationale given on the corresponding discussion page (Wikipedia contributors, 2010). A user by the name “Anarkitekt” wrote that “I’ve never heard or read anything implying that there is an ideological difference between the terms hackerspace and hacklab” (Wikipedia contributors, 2010b). Thus the treatment of the topic by Wikipedians supports my claim that the proliferation of hackerspaces went hand in hand with a forgetting of the history that I am setting out to recapitulate here.” (http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-2/peer-reviewed-papers/hacklabs-and-hackerspaces/)

The ‘left’ genealogy of the Hacklabs

““Hacklabs are, mostly, voluntary-run spaces providing free public access to computers and internet. They generally make use of reclaimed and recycled machines running GNU/Linux, and alongside providing computer access, most hacklabs run workshops in a range of topics from basic computer use and installing GNU/Linux software, to programming, electronics, and independent (or pirate) radio broadcast. The first hacklabs developed in Europe, often coming out of the traditions of squatted social centres and community media labs. In Italy they have been connected with the autonomist social centres, and in Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands with anarchist squatting movements.”

The autonomous movement grew out of the “cultural shock” (Wallerstein, 2004) of 1968 which included a new wave of contestations against capitalism, both in its welfare state form and in its Eastern manifestation as “bureaucratic capitalism” (Debord [1970], 1977). It was concurrently linked to the rise of youth subcultures. It was mainly oriented towards mass direct action and the establishment of initiatives that sought to provide an alternative to the institutions operated by state and capital. Its crucial formal characteristic was self-organisation emphasising the horizontal distribution of power. In the 1970s, the autonomous movement played a role in the politics of Italy, Germany and France (in order of importance) and to a lesser extent in other European countries like Greece (Wright, 2002). The theoretical basis is that the working class (and later the oppressed in general) can be an independent historical actor in the face of state and capital, building its own power structures through self-valorisation and appropriation. It drew from orthodox Marxism, left-communism and anarchism, both in theoretical terms and in terms of a historical continuity and direct contact between these other movements. The rise and fall of left wing terrorist organisations, which emerged from a similar milieu (like the RAF in Germany or the Red Brigade in Italy), has marked a break in the history of the autonomous movements. Afterwards they became less coherent and more heterogenous. Two specific practices that were established by autonomists are squatting and media activism (Lotringer Marazzi, 2007).

The reappropriation of physical places and real estate has a much longer history than the autonomous movement. Sometimes, as in the case of the pirate settlements described by Hakim Bey (1995,, 2003), these places have evolved into sites for alternative “forms of life” (Agamben, 1998). The housing shortage after the Second World War resulted in a wave of occupations in the United Kingdom (Hinton, 1988) which necessarily took on a political character and produced community experiences. However, the specificity of squatting lay in the strategy of taking occupied houses as a point of departure for the reinvention of all spheres of life while confronting authorities and the “establishment” more generally conceived. While many houses served as private homes, concentrating on experimenting with alternative life styles or simply satisfying basic needs, others opted to play a public role in urban life. The latter are called “social centres”. A social centre would provide space for initiatives that sought to establish an alternative to official institutions. For example, the infoshop would be an alternative information desk, library and archive, while the bicycle kitchen would be an alternative to bike shops and bike repair shops. These two examples show that among the various institutions to be replaced, both those operated by state and capital were included. On the other hand, both temporary and more or less permanently occupied spaces served as bases, and sometimes as front lines, of an array of protest activities.

With the onset of neoliberalism (Harvey, 2005; 2007), squatters had to fight hard for their territory, resulting in the “squat wars” of the 90s. The stake of these clashes that often saw whole streets under blockade was to force the state and capital to recognise squatting as a more or less legitimate social practice. While trespassing and breaking in to private property remained illegal, occupiers received at least temporary legal protection and disputes had to be resolved in court, often taking a long time to conclude. Squatting proliferated in the resulting ”grey area”. Enforcement practices, squatting laws and frameworks were established in the UK, Catalonia, Netherlands and Germany. Some of the more powerful occupied social centres (like the EKH in Vienna) and a handful of strong scenes in certain cities (like Barcelona) managed to secure their existence into the first decade of the 21st twenty first century. Recent years saw a series of crackdowns on the last remaining popular squatting locations such as the abolishment of laws protecting squatters in the Netherlands (Usher,, 2010) and discussion of the same in the UK (House of Commons,, 2010).

Media activism developed along similar lines, building on a long tradition of independent publishing. Adrian Jones (2009) argues for a structural but also historical continuity in the pirate radio practices of the 1960s and contemporary copyright conflicts epitomised by the Pirate Bay. On the strictly activist front, one important early contribution was Radio Alice (est., 1976) which emerged from the the autonomist scene of Bologna (Berardi Mecchia, 2007). Pirate radio and its reformist counterparts, community radio stations, flourished ever since. Reclaiming the radio frequency was only the first step, however. As Dee Dee Halleck explains, media activists soon made use of the consumer electronic products such as camcorders that became available on the market from the late 80s onwards. They organised production in collectives such as Paper Tiger Television and distribution in grassroots initiatives such as Deep Dish TV which focused on satellite air time (Halleck, 1998). The next logical step was information and communication technologies such as the personal computer — appearing on the market at the same time. It was different from the camcorder in the sense that it was a general purpose information processing tool. With the combination of commercially available Internet access, it changed the landscape of political advocacy and organising practices. At the forefront of developing theory and practice around the new communication technologies was the Critical Art Ensemble. It started with video works in 1986, but then moved on to the use of other emerging technologies (Critical Art Ensemble, 2000). Although they have published exclusively Internet-based works like Diseases of the Consciousness (1997), their tactical media approach emphasises the use of the right tool for the right job. In 2002 they organised a workshop in New York’s Eyebeam, which belongs to the wider hackerspace scene. New media activists played an integral part in the emergence of the alterglobalisation movement, establishing the Indymedia network. Indymedia is comprised of local Independent Media Centres and a global infrastructure holding it together (Morris 2004 gives a fair description). Focusing on open publishing as an editorial principle, the initiative quickly united and involved so many activists that it became one of the most recognised brands of the alterglobalisation movement, only slowly falling into irrelevance around the end of the decade. More or less in parallel with this development, the telestreet movement was spearheaded by Franco Berardi, also known as Bifo, who was also involved in Radio Alice, mentioned above. OrfeoTv was started in 2002 and used modified consumer-grade television receivers for pirate television broadcast (see Telestreet, the Italian Media Jacking Movement, 2005). Although the telestreet initiative happened on a much smaller scale than the other developments outlined above, it is noteworthy because telestreet operators reverse-engineered mass products in the same manner as hardware hackers do.

Taking a cue from Situationism with its principal idea of making interventions in the communication flow as its point of departure, the media activists sought to expand what they called “culture jamming” into a popular practice by emphasising a folkloristic element (Critical Art Ensemble, 2001). Similarly to the proletarian educational initiatives of the classical workers’ movements (for example Burgmann 2005:8 on Proletarian Schools), such an approach brought to the fore issues of access, frequency regulations, popular education, editorial policies and mass creativity, all of which pointed in the direction of lowering the barriers of participation for cultural and technological production in tandem with establishing a distributed communication infrastructure for anticapitalist organising. Many media activists adhered to some version of Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, taking the stand that cultural and educational work is as important as directly challenging property relations. Indeed, this work was seen as in continuation with overturning those property relations in the area of media, culture and technology. This tendency to stress the importance of information for the mechanism of social change was further strengthened by claims popularised by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri that immaterial and linguistic labour are the hegemonic mode of production in the contemporary configuration of capitalism (2002, 2004). At the extreme end of this spectrum, some argued that decisive elements of politics depend on a performance of representation, often technologically mediated, placing media activism at the centre of the struggle against state and capitalism. Irrespectivly of these ideological beliefs, however, what distinguished the media practitioners in terms of identity is that they did not see themselves simply as outsiders or service providers, but as an integral part of a social movement. As Söderberg demonstrates (2011), political convictions of a user community can be an often overlooked enabler of technological creativity.

These two intertwined tendencies came together in the creation of hacklabs. Squats, on the one hand, closely embedded in the urban flows of life, had to use communication infrastructures such as Internet access and public access to terminals. Media activists, on the other hand, who are more often than not also grounded in a a local community, needed venues to convene, produce, teach and learn. As Marion Hamm observes when discussing how physical and virtual spaces enmeshed due to the activists’ use of electronic media communication: “This practice is not a virtual reality as it was imagined in the eighties as a graphical simulation of reality. It takes place at the keyboard just as much as in the technicians’ workshops, on the streets and in the temporary media centres, in tents, in socio-cultural centres and squatted houses.” (Translated by Aileen Derieg,, 2003). One example of how these lines converge is the Ultralab in Forte Prenestino, an occupied fortress in Rome which is also renowned for its autonomous politics in Italy. The Ultralab is declared to be an “emergent pattern” on its website (AvANa.net, 2005), bringing together various technological needs of the communities supported by the Forte. The users of the social centre have a shared need for a local area computer network that connects the various spaces in the squat, for hosting server computers with the websites and mailing lists of the local groups, for installing and maintaining public access terminals, for having office space for the graphics and press teams, and finally for having a gathering space for the sharing of knowledge. The point of departure for this development was the server room of AvANa, which started as a bulletin board system (BBS), that is, a dial-in message board in 1994 (Bazichelli 2008:80-81). As video activist Agnese Trocchi remembers,

“AvANa BBS was spreading the concept of Subversive Thelematic: right to anonymity, access for all and digital democracy. AvANa BBs was physically located in Forte Prenestino the older and bigger squatted space in Rome. So at the end of the 1990’s I found myself working with technology and the imaginative space that it was opening in the young and angry minds of communities of squatters, activist and ravers.” (quoted in Willemsen, 2006)

AvANa and Forte Prenestino connected to the European Counter Network (now at ecn.org), which linked several occupied social centres in Italy, providing secure communication channels and resilient electronic public presence to antifascist groups, the Disobbedienti movement, and other groups affiliated with the autonomous and squatting scenes. Locating the nodes inside squats had their own drawbacks, but also provided a certain level of physical and political protection from the authorities.

Another, more recent example is the short lived Hackney Crack House, a hacklab located on 195 Mare Street in London. This squat situated in an early Georgian house was comprised of a theatre building, a bar, two stores of living spaces and a basement that housed a bicycle workshop and a studio space (see Foti, 2010). The hacklab provided a local area network and a media server for the house, and served as a tinkering space for the technologically inclined. During events like the Free School, participants, including both absolute beginners and more dedicated hobbyists, could learn to use free and open source technologies, network security and penetration testing. Everyday activities ranged from fixing broken electronics through building large-scale mixed media installations to playing computer games.

The descriptions given above serve to indicate how hacklabs grew out of the needs and aspirations of squatters and media activists. This history comes with a number of consequences. Firstly, that the hacklabs fitted organically into the anti-institutional ethos cultivated by people in the autonomous spaces. Secondly, they were embedded in the political regime of these spaces, and were subject to the same forms of frail political sovereignty that such projects develop. Both Forte Prenestino and Mare Street had written and unwritten conducts of behaviour which users were expected to follow. The latter squat had an actively advertised Safer Places Policy, stating for instance that people who exhibit sexist, racist, or authoritive behaviour should expect to be challenged and, if necessary, excluded. Thirdly, the politicised logic of squatting, and more specifically the ideology behind appropriative anarchism, had its consequences too. A social centre is designated to be a public institution whose legitimacy rests on serving its audience and neighbourhood, if possibly better than the local authorities do, by which the risk of eviction is somewhat reduced . Lastly, the state of occupation fosters a milieu of complicity. Consequently, certain forms of illegality are seen as at least necessary, or sometimes even as desirable. These factors are crucial for understanding the differences between hacklabs and hackerspaces, to be discussed in Section 3.

A rudimentary survey based on website registrations (see Figure 1. in the appendix), desktop research and interviews shows that the first hacklabs were established in the decade around the turn of the millennium (1995-2005). Their concentration to South Europe has been underlined by the organisation of yearly Hackmeetings in Italy, starting in 1998. The Hackmeeting is a gathering where practitioners can exchange knowledge, present their work, and enjoy the company of each other. In North Europe plug’n’politix, hosted first by Egocity (a squatted Internet cafe in Zurich, Switzerland) provided a meeting point for like-minded projects in 2001. A network by the same name was established and a second meeting followed in 2004 in Barcelona. In the meantime, Hacklabs.org (defunct since, 2006) was set up in 2002 to maintain a list of hacklabs, dead or alive, and provide news and basic information about the movement. A review of the advertised activities of hacklabs show workshops organised around topics like free software development, security and anonymity, electronic art and media production.

The activities of Print, a hacklab located in a squat in Dijon which is called Les Tanneries, show the kinds of contributions that came out of these places. People active in Print have maintained a computer lab with free Internet access for visitors to the social centre, and a collection of old hardware parts that individuals could use to build their own computers. They have organised events of various sizes (from a couple of people to a thousand) related to free software, like a party for fixing the last bugs in the upcoming release of the Debian GNU/Linux operating system. Furthermore, they have provided network support and distributed computers with Internet access at a European gathering of Peoples’ Global Action, a world-wide gathering of grassroots activists connected to the alterglobalisation movement. In a similar vein, they have staged various protests in the city calling attention to issues related to state surveillance and copyright legislations. These actions have built on a tradition of setting up artistic installations in various places in and around the building, the most striking example being the huge graffiti on the firewall spelling out “apt-get install anarchism”. It is a practical joke on how programs are set up on Debian systems, so practical that it actually works.

Another example from South Europe is Riereta in Barcelona, a hacklab occupying a separate building that hosts a radio studio ran by women. The activities there gravitate around the three axes of free software, technology, and artistic creativity. However, as a testimony of the influence from media activism, most projects and events are concentrated on media production, such as real time audio and video processing, broadcasting and campaigning against copyright and other restrictions to free distribution of information. The list of examples could easily be made longer, demonstrating that most hacklabs share similar ideas and practicesand maintains links with alterglobalisation politics, occupied spaces and (new) media activism.

To summarise, due to their historical situatedness in anticapitalist movements and the barriers of access to the contemporary communication infrastructure, hacklabs tended to focus on the adoption of computer networks and media technologies for political uses, spreading access to dispossesed and championing folk creativity.”

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