The ethics of military funding for hackerspaces, the maker movement, and learning

Excerpted from Open Buddha, this relates to Make magazine accepting DARPA (U.S. DoD military research funding) money for educational projects. The original article has a lot of background links.

“We have school programs being funded through the Department of Defense, of which DARPA is a member, rather than the Department of Education. As a parent of a 16 year old girl, I understand the need for science and engineering education. I helped start a hackerspace in part because I saw this very need, not just for myself, but for others in my community. I believe in “practical hands-on experience with new technologies and innovative processes to design and build projects.” That’s what we’re all about at Ace Monster Toys. The problem is that I really don’t want the military involved, no matter how indirectly, in the education of my child or that of other children. Money is a form of influence, even if done indirectly, and I feel a lot of aprehension at the idea of the Department of Defense having an ongoing channel of influence into the science and engineering programs at schools. We have a society with a strong and traditional separation between civilian life (including education) and the military and some very good reasons for this separation (look to history in certain regions).

Outside of this specific MENTOR program, there is also ongoing efforts by DARPA and willing hackerspaces to fund various effforts. Just this week, I received the news that the Hackerspaces Global Space Program had received DARPA funding (more docs are here and here with their mailing list archive here).

All of this together feels to me as if it serves as an opportunity to legitimize military involvement in our education institutions and also as a means for the possible co-opting of the hackerspace movement by the military. Hackerspaces have formed as a ground up phenomena, first starting in Europe and then spreading to America during the last few years (Mitch Altman played a key role in this effort, I should point out). No governmental entity or program created these workshops and educational spaces. We did it ourselves as a DIY movement. I fear the influence of government money (which is often called “free money” by folks) on our independence. There is also the issue that many of us, as individuals, have been supportive of anti-establishment movements like Occupy and one wonders how government backing would affect the kinds of activities and speech groups or people are willing to support.

At the end of the day, though, I’d like to see educational departments fund education, not military departments. While I understand the argument that it is our tax dollars and we should take education funding where we can get it, I do not believe that there is any such thing as “free money.” Money, or funding, always has implicit or explicit strings attached. There is a reason that people are giving it out, after all, and attached agendas. This doesn’t make DARPA or even Make bad actors in any sense but it does mean that we should think long and hard about these issues, especially when it comes to the funding of the education of children or the potentially changing effects on the organizations and movement that we have worked so hard to build.

I would use this as a call for more transparency and dialogue on DARPA and its grants to various organizations and individuals. Let’s get everyone talking, not simply flaming one another and drawing lines in the sand.”

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