"Hackerspace." At first, that term might bring to mind an image of rows of Internet wizzes staring intently into their screens, coding illegally. But there is more to the term "hacker" than its unfortunate computer-criminal stereotype. A hacker is actually anyone who takes things apart and re-purposes them in cool new ways: that includes programmers and computer-science experts, but also people who turn old printer motors into DIY musical instruments, computer engines into robot parts, strings of recycled Christmas lights into public-art pieces. The hackerspace movement — which has been prevalent in Europe since the mid-'90s and began cropping up more often in the US over the past five years or so — exists at the intersections of technology and electronic art, science and experimental media.
Hackerspaces are the quirky, informal multi-media labs and creative co-working spaces where hackers meet. Imagine a collective woodshop or metalworking shop of the past, updated to meet the tools and technology of the present. In these shared spaces, hackers pool knowledge and resources, and collaborate on ideas. A handful have evolved in Boston in recent years: two are hidden in industrial Somerville buildings (Artisan's Asylum, P.irateship) while others exist at universities (BUILDS at BU, MITERS at MIT). It's hard to say how many hackerspaces exist in Boston, since the term is used loosely — spaces like Fringe and Sprout (both in Somerville) could also be called hackerspaces.
Wandering around a hackerspace is a sensory overload: at any given time, there may be some folks working on a half-constructed leg of a robot-in-progress, some blue-haired dude fumbling around on his laptop, while a few feet away a group of folks are drinking beers and shooting the shit. Hackerspaces are also social, and have long existed as such in Europe, within infoshops and social centers. In America — a country that lacks a culture surrounding social centers — they're a particularly groundbreaking concept.
On a recent Tuesday morning, I'm walking along a back alley off of Somerville Avenue, a few steps away from Market Basket, searching for an unmarked warehouse. I eventually find the building, 438R, which houses the workshop of an organ-maker, the practice space of a professional clown, as well as an electronics-and-music co-working space: "P.irateship."
Inside, 10 workspaces are packed to the brim with tools, books, amplifiers, bikes, a tone-wheel organ, plants, DJ boards, distortion pedals. The space holds a couple of couches, a fridge, plus random electronic sculptures, blinky timer circuits, art projects and boxes of records and instruments laying around — guitars, keyboards, and vintage '80s synths; a Roland Juno 106 and Yamaha DX7, to be precise. A large bird-shaped kite hangs from the ceiling.
P.irateship is shared by a fluctuating group of engineers, scientists, artists, musicians, and computer programmers — tech visionaries and experimental media enthusiasts. It's hard to keep track of exact names. "There are a couple of members who appear to be drifting across the country [right now] but are still members," says Mark van Middlesworth, an MIT graduate student and P.irateship member.