Hackers seek physical space in a virtual world

The Irish Times, April 4 2009 Dublin will soon be home to a space for hackers to congregate and get creative, write Lenny Antonelli and Jason Walsh

It's not a word that's used much in polite company – mention the term hacker and it conjures up nothing but negative images. In today's wired world of interconnected computer networks, email, SMS messages, social networking and online banking the stereotype of the computer hacker hasn't kept-up with the times.

At best the outdated image of the 1983 film War Games comes to mind: intelligent kids getting into serious trouble while attempting mischievous pranks. At worst, hackers are only a step away from terrorists, intent on destroying important computer networks and collecting enough personal data to make Google blush.

The reality is, as always, rather different. The personal computer as we know it today would not exist without the work of hackers – mainframe computers share less DNA with a typical PC or Mac than a pocket calculator does and, famously, Apple Computer was founded by a pair of hackers, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, in a Californian garage.  More recently, the Linux operating system currently revolutionising the business world is entirely the work of hackers. So much for tabloid visions of "cyber crime".

Dublin will soon be home to a permanent space for computer hackers to congregate and get creative. Named Tóg, Irish for build, this new space will be Ireland's contribution to the growing international movement of "hackerspaces".

Sat in the elegant, if incongruous, surroundings of Dubin's Westlin hotel explaining their plans to the Irish Times, Tóg's Jeff Rowe and Robert Fitzsimons emphasise that hacking is about curiosity: the desire to understand how technology works and the creative urge to build and modify gadgets. The only legal issue at stake here is the rather prosaic one of voiding warranties.

Fitzsimons is perfectly comfortable with the word hacker: "I'll use "hacker" and somebody else will use it and there'll be a completely different interpretation," he said. "My hacking is out in the open. I have the 2600.ie domain – If anybody wants to find out who the hackers in Ireland are, my name is plastered on the site."

Hacking, Fitzsimons says, is a form of self-education in a fast-moving world: "It's about learning things about the electronic environment we live in."

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the omnipresence of technology today, talk among the group does turns to political issues. Hackers, as a group, tend opposed to technology for technology's sake if it doesn't bring anything to the table. E-voting, for example, has been roundly rejected by hackers as needlessly complex and fundamentally unsafe: "The thing that gets me about e-voting is that these computers are essentially black boxes, but a vote isn't a black box. Physical voting is a very transparent process – with electronic devices it's a bit of magnetism somewhere, it's a bit, a 1 or a 0 somewhere," said Rowe.

Speaking to the Irish Times, technology consultant Colin Sweetman explained the term hackers needs to be approached with caution: "The prehistory of even some Microsoft products shows there were developed by hackers working for fun in garages and then bought-out," he said. "A lot of the actual malicious "hacking" is done by what are called "script kiddies" messing around with software they didn't write and don't really understand."

Sweetman also poses an interesting question about the source of malicious computer viruses and scams: "Nobody knows how many "black-hat" hackers in former Soviet states and in China are actually, at least tacitly, supported by their governments," he said.

Scams, industrial espionage and schemes for geopolitical domination are a world away from the reality of computer hacking as practiced in Ireland. Tóg's Jeff Rowe, who spends his days researching devices for the visually-impaired at Dublin City University, is a walking, talking example of the kind of self-motivated learning and playing that hackers engage in. Rowe's work is useful, interesting, technical and difficult. His play may be less important but it shares all of the other characteristics: he is currently designing an exact replica of a 1980s arcade machine in order to play old video games. "I want it to look and feel authentic," he said. "There's no point in just having a desktop unit. Half of the fun is two people standing up against the unit."

An avid cyclist, Fitzsimons, perhaps unsurprisingly a computer programmer by profession, is working on various gadgets for his bike: "Because I cycle and there's potholes everywhere, I'm interested in putting sensors on my bike so you can measure the road surface and how closely cars overtake you," he said.

Fitzsimons and Rowe are among 16 technology enthusiasts, many of them supporters of 2600 magazine, the technology underground's premier periodical, planning to open the Tóg hackerspace in Dublin – a home for hackers to work on projects, collaborate and socialise.

As unlikely as it sounds, similar spaces have sprung up across Europe and the US in recent years. For Fitzsimons, Rowe and the rest of the Irish group it was a trip to the 25th congress of Germany's Chaos Computer Club, one of the most influential hacker groups, that crystallised the idea.

"It really gave us the final push," said Rowe "We decided to get a group and start planning and get it in motion."

Fitzsimons sees the space being conducive to technological creativity and collaboration, but also a place for hackers to relax: "I'd like to see an area with couches and TVs and X-Boxes or whatever, and you wouldn't necessarily have computers in there. And then you'd have another room with computers; people [will] have somewhere to go and get away from computers."

In terms of technological projects, Rowe stresses it will be a learning curve for everyone. "Maybe just one or two people know how to do complex projects [so] it'll start off with making an LED display that flashes different lights and you can program different messages, and then it'll slowly build up and up."

Fitzsimons would also like to see woodwork and kitchen facilities in the space – allowing members to partake in other creative, hands-on activities unrelated to computers. "Some of us like cooking and some of the hacker spaces even have a Sunday dinner," Fitzsimons said, mentioning woodwork, paper-craft and baking as other possible activities. "I hope it wouldn't be the case where people would just hang out and play computer games and not actually participate in the idea of making something or doing something slightly creative with their time and space."

For now, the group will have to settle for "booting-up" in a single room – with 16 members paying €50 a month towards rent, the group is hoping to find a suitable space in central Dublin by May 1. Once the space is up and running the group will hold weekly public meetings for prospective members. "We're at the point where we feel that no new people are going to join until we actually have the space," Rowe said. Once the space is up and running, the group is confident it can quickly attract new members – and enough income to start looking for larger premises.

At a time when more and more communication is moving online, it is ironic that a group of technology enthusiasts would be so anxious to find a physical space to communicate in but Tóg has a rationale: "The highest bandwidth [mode of communication] is obviously fact to face," Rowe said. "It's all about the community. It's the community that drives all these sorts of things. We'd be nothing if it was just a space and there was no community, and no-one knew each other in the space."

Fitzsimons elaborates: "As Jeff was saying, it's about the community, and about that community building and making and creating. If that involves technology, brilliant. If it doesn't, brilliant."

If the information economy means anything at all it requires motivated, intelligent and creative players, just what Tóg and the hackerspaces movement are intent on creating.