For most of us, the term hacker implies a lonely geek, physically plugged into a computer, causing all-manner of havoc with online systems, secret documents, and/or bank accounts. We've all seen what happens to corporate files, diplomatic cables and Sandra Bullock when hackers have been irked.
The hackers we met at Crash Space in Culver City, however, are of an entirely different ilk. No one at Crash Space wants extreme corporate comeuppance or a frustrated Bullock, or anything else negative for that matter. They just want to see what makes things tick, then maybe make some of those things tick better. These fix-it geniuses even get downright artistic with their tinkering. As one member said, “We want to take [the word] 'hacker' back!”
“Oh no, the reporter's going to think we're a bunch of nerds!” Someone in the room shouts out sarcastically. That's exactly why were here, actually — nerds are hip these days, don't you know? The comment comes as the Crash Spacers have just finished reviewing a Spock photo meme at the conclusion of one of their meetings. Truth be told, it's hard not to feel steeped in nerdery here — we're surrounded by computer components and mechanical odds and ends.
For clarification sake — the term “hacker” actually has a variety of meanings within the computing community — all under some contention. But they can generally be broken-down in to two camps — the malicious sort, the ones you usually hear about, and then the one you don't, the enthusiastically mischievous / hobbyists. The malicious ones operate exclusively within networks and work with data, where the mischievous / hobbyist types work with all sorts of gadgets, and not necessarily computers. Crash Space solely represents the latter.
Mike Outmesguine, who co-founded Crash Space two years ago, gave us a tour of their clubhouse. The group fills a former house-slash-office space in Culver City that might as well be the batcave of the DIY Superfriends. There's a laser cutter, a 3D printer and every tool you've ever heard of…and some you probably haven't, like something called a Maker Bot.
Outmesguine explains, “My grandfather made his own automatic sprinkler system in the '50s. He made it from parts that he had hacked together when there wasn't anything else like it around.” Most of his fellow members are carrying on that same tradition. He sums it up as, “Basically, we find things and we make them do what we want them to.” And mostly, they do so for the sake of useful and creative problem-solving. Hackerspaces, as part of the hackerspace movement are all non-profit collaborative spaces for technical knowledge-sharing.
As we talk, Mike and another member begin to digressively geek-out about military radar systems that they'd both worked on in their past lives. It makes sense that technical trades and former engineering jobs back up most of the Crash Spacers hobby skills. But, as Mike points out, “We're really trying to bring a bigger population of artists into the space.”
Wendy Marvel and Mark Arnon Rosen are exactly those artists. Together, working on a piece called Waltz they've synthesized hackerspace ethos, visual anthropology and pure artistic sensibility. Waltz, one of several pieces relying on the proto-film work of 1800s photographer Eadweard Muybridge (who was, himself a bit of a hacker), is more or less a re-purposed clock. The clock motor flips individual frames of Muybridge's motion photography, allowing the dancers to, well, waltz.
“I'm working basically with 19th century technology,” Mark explains. When asked what it's like being surrounded by techie nerds, Wendy admits an initial feeling of intimidation. “Mark told me to come…and I thought it was going to be all programmers and stuff.” She was then surprised when she found a lot of support for her work and enthusiastic help for her projects. “Now we're in here all the time — especially late at night,” she says.
We caught up with another one of Crash Space's co-founders, Carlyn Maw to get a better sense of Crash Space's purpose and goings-on. “We're here to facilitate knowledge through self-discovery,” she says. She's not kidding — the space's event roster includes neuroscience forums, “mega take-aparts,” wiring classes, advanced bike mechanics and decoration — and something Vonnegut-esque-sounding called a Global Synchronous Hackathon. “Membership sustains more activities, and we're really hoping to use funds to get more cool stuff to use,” she says.
Maw speaks enthusiastically about the group's extramural activities, especially Maker Faire, which is more of a conference than a fair(e). “It's basically a big parade,” Maw says, “where people basically make stuff.”
Curiosity is really the dominant paradigm at Crash Space. After talking to quite a few more of the space's members, we got a lot more questions than we expected. What were we up to? What fascinates us? Are we doing anything specifically creative at the moment?
All told, we couldn't help thinking that these tinkerers, makers, creators and re-purposers are exactly the types of folks you want to team up with in any type post-apocalyptic scenario. At the twilight of civilization, this is your all-star team. You can be sure they'll know exactly how to turn the detritus of society into rigged-up running water, robotic whatevers and probably an automatic zombie-marauder-repeller, if need be. They have the tools and they have the know-how. We have no doubt that they've been practicing — many of the Crash Space hackers are ardent Burning Man fanatics.