In short, my PhD is aimed at supporting Communication in Hacker and Maker Communities through ethnomethodologically-informed (Design) Ethnography. But let's unpack what all this means:
Ethnography is the study of societies and cultures. It is done in order to understand how societies and cultures different from our own function by going there and seeing it as it happens, to then take this understanding “home” and communicate it to others. In its beginnings, it was done to study societies that were different relative to the European and Western societies, but then later on to investigate subcultures within our own – to the point where we now study our own lives and actions in an effort to see them, in Harold Garfinkel’s words, as ”anthropologically strange” – by attempting to rid ourselves from what we already know and taking a fresh look at the human world and its phenomena.
Now, Ethnomethodology in turn looks at how we humans create and shape everyday reality and position ourselves within it. It allows us to take another, deep look at how we ourselves do and create these things called “society” and “culture” – because it is us who create and make these, in every day, every second, and involving every one of us. We do this in a way that is sequential (step by step) and orderly. And just because it is something we do, and something we can observe others doing, we can look at it in close detail and unpack what actions really are taken to make society happen. In our everyday lives we usually don’t need to go into such detailed analysis of what we do, because we do it “automatically”. We don’t have to reflect on how something is done because we are part of these machineries of interaction, we simply go about our business and act.
Technology (and the way it is designed) however, changes this day-to-day business. It interferes with the way we got things done until that particular technology came into our lives, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtle. Are you reading the newspaper in the morning? Or are you picking up the tablet to get to know what’s happening? Do you set regular dates and times to meet your friends and keep in touch, do you call them on their mobile phones, or do you just check Facebook to keep in touch with those further afield? Technology has impact on our lives, every day. And once we understand what our lives are, what actions our life consists of and what day-to-day problems we really face, we can start to try and design technology that really helps with what we do and how we do it. Technology designed with this in mind can give us what we actually need, as opposed to just what we think we want.
These are then the three areas of my interdisciplinary PhD research. The study of people and societies (Ethnography), a specific way of looking at what those people do (Ethnomethodology), which will then allow me to create and mould technology capable of supporting these particular societies by knowing what is actually being done within them.
This approach (amongst many others in existence), is what is called ethnomethodologically-informed (Design) Ethnography, and the first item I’d like to highlight in my research. The second will be the place where I’m doing this, and the third will illuminate the plan I follow in doing this, and where I currently stand.
Hacker and Maker spaces are places by and for communities of people who enjoy creative play with and around technology both new and old. In general, they are host to a variety of subcultures – Software and Hardware Hackers, Crafters, Knitters, Makers of Music and their Instruments, and many, many more. They provide their members with shared access to a variety of production and rapid prototyping tools ranging from Laser Cutters to 3D printers, woodworking tools to metal lathes. They are operated and run by their members, (usually volunteers), enabling them to practice, learn and develop their craft; to pursue their interests and pick up new ones.
At this point my studies and scoping work have focussed on two distinct but successful examples I will briefly introduce below: the Nottingham Hackspace in the UK and the open technology labs OTELO in Austria.
Nottinghack (www.nottinghack.org), the Nottingham Hackspace, as such was the field of my initial scoping work, where I was looking for the work practice of Innovation in the digital economy. Its community consists largely of makers – people who enjoy creating new things and pushing and sharing their existing knowledge and skills. At the time of writing it had around 300 members, making it one of the largest UK Maker Communities (apart from London Hackspace). It is driven and sustained by its members, seven of which are elected to be trustees for a period of two years. New tools and equipment are financed through a community-crowdfunding mechanism called pledge drives, where members pledge amounts of money willing to spend on a certain piece of equipment. Once the buying threshold has been reached, it is then bought and placed in the space and (depending on the type of device) integrated into the greater booking and billing infrastructure – all of this is done by members on a largely voluntary basis. Successful examples would be the purchase of a A0 format laser cutter or 3D printers. This type of crowdfunding also serves as a feedback mechanism to those responsible for the finances of the space – if a project doesn’t reach its funding threshold, it is seen as a lack of community interest for having this tool. Materials and consumables are sometimes donated by members or beneficiaries, and it is common practice to leave spare and unused materials in designated areas for others to use and experiment with. This is, in theory, true for all items in the space not marked with “do not hack” signs, as long as that use doesn’t violate the organisational rules laid out in the Hackspaces Wiki – most salient of which is rule 1 – to “not be a contemptible fellow”.
The open technology labs OTELO (www.otelo.or.at) in Austria are similar in spirit, but very different in nature. They are geographically spread around towns in the rural areas of Austria and its creators aim is to provide citizens in those towns with access to tools, opportunities and networks necessary to play, learn, and ultimately innovate. Its spread over different and distant towns makes Communication a key challenge in creating and sustaining and enabling groups of common interest to band together. Its common rules are constituted in a Charta available on their website, and so far it has enabled the creation of not only two successful enterprises, but also different models of entrepreneurship – these so called OTELO co-operatives ease some of the hardships would-be entrepreneurs could potentially be facing in Austria, by providing a framework, network and entrepreneurial community that provides a safety net for both its customers and members. OTELO, through the provision of its space to the general public also actively enables people to play with rapid prototyping equipment such as 3D printers, with low to no external pressure.
Both of these communities don’t necessarily drive, but certainly enable Innovation, and in both of them Communication is one of the central ways in which this is done. This is therefore what my future research will concentrate on enabling further. The research questions I am therefore pushing to answer at this time are as follows:
I have been a member and participant in both the open technology labs OTELO (since 2012) and Nottingham Hackspace (since early 2014). Following an action-research approach I have done scoping work in both settings; this will allow me to iteratively design and deploy technology to support Communication (and, in turn, Innovation) within these. My findings will contribute to the body of research knowledge in the fields of the Design of Interactive Systems (DIS), Computer Supported Collaborative Work (CSCW), and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI/CHI), where Hacker and Maker Culture have increasingly become a focal point of research interest through their potential impact on future cultures of innovation, education and production.
This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (RCUK Grant No. EP/G037574/1) and by the RCUK’s Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute (RCUK Grant No. EP/G065802/1).