Moscow hackerspace: from Invention to Business

In 1980s the free software and open-source movement emerged as an alternative model of programmers’ cooperation for development of software. Driven by earlier hackers culture they wanted to create, use, share and improve code that was open and modifiable by everyone (Turner 2006; Stallman 2009; Levy 2010; Kelty 2008; Coleman 2012).

More recently, the idea of sharing and common creativity, driven forward by the earlier Web and Internet as well as DIY intention and accelerated by the development of new technologies of fast prototyping (3D printers, cutter lasers etc.), created the basis for a new hacker culture that is often called a “maker culture” (Anderson2012). Formerly isolated individuals now became part of a maker communities of equal inventors that called their studios “makerspace” or “hackerspace”.

Hackerspacesare typically studios where engineers, programmers, and designers (called hackers for their passion for technology), share facilities and equipment, and collaborate in order to produce or experiment with new technologies (Hamm 2003; Grenzfurthner and Schneider 2009; Farr 2009; Aron 2011; Henry 2012; Maxigas 2012). In my work I focus on the Moscow hackerspace Neuron and explore the emergence of a new hackers culture in Russia. I describe how hackerspace communities operate inside new places of technological creativity.  I further suggest what a study of hackerspace community could tell us about the interdependence between identity, collectivity, space and technology.

This work is based on ethnographic research I have carried out at the Neuron hackerspace over the past year. I have observed the day-to-day routines of the hackerspace, and have conducted formal and informal interviews with around 30 members. These formal interviews were augmented by informal conversations with a wide range of people at the hackerspace and other related events. I focus on one case because Moscow’s Neuron is the first and the most well known hackerspace in Russia.  Though it is only loosely connected with other Moscow hackerspaces that emerged later, I found out that most of them used Neuron as a model for creating their studios. In turn, Neuron was inspired by German hackerspaces and Silicon Valley, where it learned how these premises operate.  It therefore represents the mixture of a global concept of places for tinkering and experimentation with Russian pecularities that adapted the foreign model to local conditions and culture.

I treat the hackerspace a as system that functions as a coherent socio-technological entity whose functioning cannot be fully understood in terms of its component parts (Auang, 1999; Oshry, 2008). The question for me was how can we describe the hackerspace as a whole and analyze its particular features without losing the joint context. Even though the personal qualities and achievements of each member of a hackerspace are important, the inner rules and “common context” of the hackerspace enables the community operate as a single entity.

I first visited the Moscow hackerspace Neuron in November 2013 with the goal of finding out who created it, who currently worked there, and how these people functioned together.  I posed these questions to the founder of ‘Neuron’, and while he was thinking how to answer, one of the other members interjected.  A prominent member of the hackerspace and the founder of a start-up company called Lab3DPrint, this participant asserted that a hackerspace was one big family, and that the other members would agree with this characterization. In the beginning I thought that this metaphor could be employed to illuminate the collective life of the community. Further interviews and observations at Neuron, however, revealed so may different interpretations of the metaphor of "family" that they tended to blur relations within the community rather that fix the roles, responsibilities and hierarchies.  Members tend to speak about a "family" from divergent points of view: they agree on the notion of "family", but hardly agreed on a common meaning of this metaphor. "Family" seems to appeal to everyone because of its semantic ambiguity rather that its clarity.

Nevertheless, I explore the function of the "family" metaphor and its significance for the hackerspace community. By focusing on different approaches to the notion of "family" as a metaphor that I found in research about corporations, mafias, and different kinds of brotherhoods and communal living  arrangements, I draw a portrait of the hacker "family," its rules and rituals, as well as its approaches toward technology and the creation of digital products.