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Design Justice - "Design Sites: Hackerspaces, Fablabs, Hackathons, and DiscoTechs"

Design Justice - "Design Sites: Hackerspaces, Fablabs, Hackathons, and DiscoTechs"

Chapter 4 Review

In chapter four of the book Design Justice, Sasha Costanza-Chock provides a historical framework of co-design spaces such as hackerspaces originally designed to be inclusive and linked to bottom-up social movements. She includes modern variations of hackerspace and hackathons and tracks how far they have veered from their founding ideology, asking the reader to consider what would a design site look like today that applies design justice principles. The author then provides several examples and guidelines of design events and places that are deliberately linked to social movements and their transformative potential.

Costanza-Chock begins the chapter by painting a vivid picture of an early hackathon incarnation that first appeared in Detroit called Discovering Technology community fairs, or DiscoTechs. They served as neighborhood workshop fairs that welcomed all ages, from hip hop artists to technologists. They offered a variety of activities such as electronics workshops, film screenings and collaboration stations. This created an environment where attendees could learn and practice technology-focused skills. It was such a success that the model was shared and replicated in cities worldwide. They soon expanded into design-focused DiscoTechs and co-op DiscoTechs focusing on technology strengthening worker-owned cooperatives. These “third spaces” were where people often lived, worked, and played together. They originally opposed capitalism and authoritarian communism and were influenced by social justice networks that did not shy away from their political viewpoints.

Then Costanza-Chock deftly contrasts these community events with their sanitized counterparts that can be seen today as innovation labs incorporated into universities and city headquarters, maintaining the power structures that benefit the elite. They offer a start-up culture focused on individual technical mastery. 

The author has the unique perspective of one who helped organize earlier DiscoTechs so they are able to provide rich insight and details of the actual events and stakeholders themselves, but the chapter’s real value is provided when other grassroots design sites are equally positioned. That is those of communities whose stories are often marginalized such as car culture, turntable technology, or domestic hacks. She also mentions creative camps in Central America and hacking organizations in Brazil, other global initiatives that are also left out of the cultural anthropology narrative. They received neither resources nor recognition, but Costanza-Chock notes the growing interest in highlighting these examples as, “sociotechnical innovation from the margins (p. 141).”

For broadening our definition and concept of innovative maker spaces, the chapter serves as a unique contribution, but Costanza-Chock does not stop there. They also offer specific solutions: “create new, radically inclusive design sites…transform existing sites, and…explicitly relink hacklabs, hackerspaces, and hackathons to social movements (p. 166)”. 

Fablabs, or fabrication laboratories, offered workshops for digital fabrication on the personal scale and created community groups within the university and resulted in the proliferation of 3-D printing. One of the co-creators of the fablab model, Neil Gershenfeld,  cowrote a book serving as a guide using language that speaks of the democratization of tools and access, but open initiatives are not enough. Open hardware, open software and open calls for participation all fall short without addressing (non) equitable and (non) inclusive distribution of affordances and what values guide the making and use of these technology-based tools. The author posits that documentation needs to specifically address race, class, gender and/or disability, including the codes of conduct and event facilitation guides.

Costanza-Chock gives the example in Amsterdam, of deWar who appropriated the fablab model and opened a grassroots fablab without permission. DeWar’s version  is focused on sustainability and inclusivity, hacking consumption and production. This example of hacking the fablab model exemplifies all three of Costanza-Chock’s calls for action: creating a new design site that transforms an existing model purposefully (re)linked to a social movement. 

By the end of the chapter, they make a compelling argument that design spaces indeed have the potential to incorporate design justice principles, such as including communities affected by the technology to organize the events, producing localized plurality, and even using inclusivity as a pushback to the depersonalization seen in innovation labs or hackathons, that view citizens as users/numbers, or worse, as free labor. The strong narrative element and rich details make this chapter an enjoyable read, and it would be well-suited for digital historians, cultural anthropologists, or any organization looking to create spaces more aligned to their political vision.


1 comment

Thanks for this useful, perceptive review!