Hacklabs: from digital to analog

This text is a translation from an article by suburbia written on 10 September 2003, translated 06 June 2004

The history of the hacklabs goes back to 1999, the year of the second edition of the Italian hackmeeting [http://www.ecn.org/hackit99/]. This took place in Milan, where the need for a big jump into digital communications became apparent, together with the creation of physical links between the people interested in using the new technologies for political purposes.

But let’s start from the beginning… What is a hackmeeting?… Hackmeetings first appear in Italy in 1998. The manifest of the Italian hackmeeting in 2003 [http://www.hackmeeting.org/] stresses that it is a “gathering within the digital community and alter-culture”, proposing “to view hacking as an attitude not exclusively related to computing”. Our being “a hacker”- the manifest says – shows itself in everyday life even when we don’t use computers. It shows when we fight to change what we don’t like, like false and made-up information, the over-commercialisation and the restrictions imposed in the division of information and knowledge, when we use technology to defend dignity and freedom.

Hackmeetings are called yearly and they usually last for 3 days. Worksops, talks and lectures relating to liberated telematics, Free Software, cyberights, cryptography, and hacking in general are organised. Above all, they are put forward with a strong union nexus with social collectives who use the net as a space for communication, publication and struggle for their causes.

It is soon noticed, however, that apart from the annual gathering and keeping in touch via internet, it is necessary to create permanent physical spaces. These spaces should make it possible to experiment, create and learn together with other people with similar interests. So the first hacklab or LOA hacklab [http://loa.hacklab.it/web/main.html] is created.

Other people will tell you that the first hacklab in Italy was the FreakNet in Catania, which existed as far back as 1996 as a “medialab” with much of a hacker attitude – a hacklab in concept, as it was later defined.

At the time of writing this translation (2004) FreakNet [http://freaknet.org] still exists, but it had to abandon the old place in the Auro squat in Catania. FreakNet is one of the most productive hacklabs in Italy. Its members are developing various free software projects and there is an active schedule of free workshops every year.

The virus starts to spread and and spaces begin to open up all over the Italian geography, and beyond. Hacklabs (hackers’ laboratories) [http://www.hacklabs.org/] proliferate especially in big cities: “… because it is hardly useful, it is even sad, to experiment alone while you can do it with others so easily; because we don’t want to isolate ourselves at all from the world that surrounds us; because each one’s room is too small to set up computer networks; because “the digital” does not substitute “the organic”; because it is joyful to learn and do things together”. This is stressed in one of the Madrid hacklabs: WH2001, aka “Cielito Lindo”.

It is no coincidence that this initiative starts off in this Mediterranean country, with a large background and presence of social movements and free radios. In those times very important telematic autonomous collectives already existed. They offered net services for the net-presence needs of all sorts of civil organisations. Groups like Autistici[http://www.autistici.org/], Isolle Nella Rete[http://www.ecn.org/], internet communication experiments like Radio Blackout[http://www.ecn.org/blackout/], Strano Network[http://www.strano.net/]…

Later, and repeating the Italian adventure, in Spain, during the Hackmeeting of Leioa in Bilbao[http://www.sindominio.net/hmleioa01/], the first hacklab is introduced: Kernel Panic[http://www.sindominio.net/kernelpanic/], a place opened in the CSOA (autonomous occupied social centre) “Les Naus” in Barcelona. Later WH2001 [http://www.sindominio.net/wh2001/] is born (named Wau Holland 2001 after the founder of Chaos Computer Club, recently deceased), then Metabolik BioHacklab [http://www.sindominio.net/metabolik/] in Bilbao, Downgrade in Zaragoza, Cuca Albina in Alicante, VkLab in the barrio of Retiro in Madrid, the hacklab of the Casa Encantada” (enchanted house) in Santiago de Compostela in Galiza… and more in the process of being created in other towns and cities (see www.hacklabs.org for more)

The paths to open a hacklab are many and varied. The search for autonomy and independence is especially valued. The most frequent options are to rent the premises or to use a space inside a CSOA. They are all self-managed, therefore decisions are made in regular meetings or assemblies where any participant in the hacklab can decide and give an opinion about any issue. The objective is not to fall in any pyramidal organisation and try a horizontal decision making process following a model of cooperation without leadership.

An key element is the self-sufficiency. To maintain this capacity, hacklabs finance themselves by selling t-shirts, distributing free software, selling drinks, parties, and with individual donations by every member of the project, in a symbolic fee according to personal circumstances. Council grants for associations are frequently dismissed as they could mean the loss of functioning independence.

All hacklabs have a local network with ADSL Internet connection. Free connectivity is offered to every person who wishes to use the premises.

Recycled or rescued computers are usually utilised rubbish and as promotion of Free Software main objectives, all of them run under free systems like *BSD and GNU/Linux.

Hacklabs offer a wide range of possibilities and initiatives which are open for any one who wants to collaborate in the collective. It doesn’t matter if you are an experienced “hacker” or some one who never knew how to access email… you only need to enter these “magic” spaces with the enthusiasm and the positivism of creating and learning from others.

With the perspective of changing things for the better and supporting the free software movement and distribution of knowledge, hacklabs offer workshops and classes related to the wide range that new technologies offer: networks, programming, graphic design, etc… all of them, of course, using free systems. Promoting the use of free software is a non-negotiable objective of the hacklabs.

It is in this context of personal and collective self-development where a social and political commitment is born. But let’s not be confused… we are not talking about party politics or partisan ideologies. It is about the need for improving the individual and collective quality of life that everyone, for promoting community values and for a real and active democracy.

From the union of the words “activism” and “hackers” sets out “hacktivism”, a new proposal for civilian struggle.

The harassment to which we are subjected by decisions taken in the offices of big corporations supported by governments makes us become more able to react against them in unity. All sorts of initiatives are born in order to fight for what we consider legitimate and for the common good, discussing them and organising ourslves in known territory. One of the main tools that we use to communicate is the mailing list to which we encourage you to participate.

Various initiatives have been created in and around the hacklabs; for instance, campaigns against polemic laws like the infamous LSSI or the INFO XXI plan. Hacklabs also support campaigns already initiated by groups like Kriptopolis, give talks in universities, associations, etc… in order to raise awareness about the trimming of liberties that these laws mean, and also collect of signatures to try and have them dismissed.

Many of these actions might be seen as insignificant and ineffective, but it is no doubt worse to simply stay at home and do nothing to change things. If we promote civilian response in a creative and original way, we are convinced that we can turn things around in many aspects.

With this logic, hacklabs are not closed to anyone who comes with new ideas and good proposals. That is why it is natural for members of other collectives to participate in the premises. Wireless network communites like Guadawireless.net or Zaragozawireless, associations dedicated to the boost of free software like GNUes, HispaLinux [http://www.hispalinux.es/] and other GNU/Linux communities
that exist in all cities and provinces, groups that defend cyber-rights, like CPSR-ES,
pro-feminist collectives like Heterodoxia and Mujeres en Red (Networked Women), who use the net as a tool for communication and mobilisation; Telematic projects like sinDominio and the different Indymedias; Hacktivist groups like RunLevelzero/Hacktivist/Spain, and groups that move around in more underground terms like LineNoise and DtfZine
They are all in this environment, and many of them participate actively in the hacklabs.

There are many initiatives and actions that have been developed so far: The “Wireless conferences”, celebrated in the month of july for the meeting, debate and to share the aspect of view of diverse comunities of spain convoked and organized from the hacklabs of Metabolik
and VKlab.

The Hacklab Kernel-Panic reinvented the street actions of Reclaim the Streets in “Hacking the Streets“. This action has been adopted by many other hacklabs. The objective is to squat streets or squares with computers… Parties are organised, talks are given, Free software is distributed, Free Software is showed in action in the creation of civilian wireless networks, patents are explained, etc. They are a good opportunity to communicate and interrelate for hacklabbers and passers-by.

Metabolik took on the gates of It4all, a congress of big corporations of the IT industry. In this action a hacktivist disguised like a friendly penguin (the symbol of the Linux movement) distributed leaflets to the people attending the congress, while another group invited them to connect freely to the internet trough wireless in computers running on Debian GNU/Linux.

This action was named Money4them and with it showed that other kinds of technology are possible, being these created by members of the public as a response to the economic and political interest of the big corporations.

The first wireless community in Spain, madridwireless.net, was born from the Wh2001 hacklab. This important group that promotes the creation of citizens wireless networks actively participates in the dynamics of the various hacklabs. Wh2001 has then turned into a meeting point where to teach how to build antennas, the creation of wireless nodes, etc and discuss about the organisation of the metropolitan network that is growing bit by bit. When a person makes contact with madridwireless, discovers not only the technical and social possibilities of wifi.. but also that all that network is born from the free cooperation between the people, Free software as a point of reference.

After the conferences against intellectual property organised in March 2003 in Madrid, the need of creating a copycenter with all Copyleft material was gathered. The copycenter has been created in Wh2001 and it offers the posibility to copy and to distribute all kinds of copyleft material: music, video, literature, technic stuff, magazines, software and so on. The proposal is a practical example of the initiatives that an be taken against coppyright and patents. The path that is been initiated against the free flow of information and data (like the
recent reports on P2P users), is making governments attempt against privacy and freedom, pressured by groups of interest. Opposite to that, the promotion of free licences like LGPL,BSD,GPL,etc, is a path to take as a legal tool and so to avoid being putin the “sack of intellectual piracy”

The creation of the Live-cd X-evian distribution by Metabolik, a “distro” that makes GNU/Linux system work without the need for installation in the hard drive, is a bet to make it possible for every one (even those who don’t dare because of lack of knowledge or fear) to use Free Software.

Built from Knoppix,
it has an added value as it can be used in not-so-powerful old computers like a Pentium 100 with 32Mb, allowing to use lots of multimedia tools and programming.

Some activities are the active participation in the hackmeeting or the conferences of copyright, in conferences like Richard Stallman in Zaragoza, creating an independent centre of information to promote the response of civilian against the participation of Spain in the Iraq war trough streaming via wireless using free software, the creation inside them like radio-pwd
and the Ezine Suburbia

The hacklabs reintroduce the hacker philosophy, the free information “The information wants to be free” and responding with activism in positive to the stereotyped image and negative created around the “hacker” like a social danger. Creation, fight for freedoms and promotion of knowledge are premises inside this community, trying to recover the essence of the first hackers from MIT… the thirst from curiosity and the creation like a way of initiative and protest from the social perspective like a bet of change to something better in this “dark” times of nowadays.

By Nómada and Montserrat Boix (Suburbia:[Telemacktical MediaZine]) in collaboration with Mentes Inquietas.Originally published in said space.

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