The hacker ethos starts at home

About a week ago, Adrian McEwen—IoT guru and co-founder of Liverpool’s first makerspace—wrote a blog post about what he called the “DoES Liverpool Ethos.”

It’s worth a read, if only for the examples of how DoES Liverpool (the aforementioned makerspace) has used bits and bobs of kit, and a few hours of volunteered time, to make natty, useful, real-world systems you simply couldn’t buy off a shelf.

Like their DoorBot that plays a personal theme tune when you clock into the hotdesking space. Or their Weeknotes script that trawls Twitter for mentions of @DoESLiverpool and #weeknotes, and posts a digest on the DoESLiverpool blog every Monday morning.

The organisation [DoES Liverpool] has an internalised sense of the malleability of the world that software and digital fabrication brings.

Maker Night at DoES Liverpool

Adrian being Adrian, he also takes two swipes at design agencies.1

But after that, he gets to the nub of the discussion: That we need this—for want of a better word—hacker ethos to spread outside of geeky introverted hackspaces, and into wider industry.

Adopting this culture of […] making know-how would give a company an advantage over any of its competitors who haven’t yet realised how the world is changing.

Because the world is changing. Fast, cheap, omnipresent networking. Fast, cheap, Arduinos and Raspberry Pis. Next day electronics deliveries. Stack Overflow… More and more is now possible with less and less.

Francis Irving holding an Arduino-powered kite at an Awesome Liverpool gift night

What previously could only have been achieved by engaging a large electronics manufacturer, crafting bespoke a system they’d hope to re-sell to cover their costs, or contracting the Crapitas of this world, with all the pain that brings – what previously was out of the reach of small to medium enterprises is now in their grasp.

…If they think to grasp it.

I’d say barely 1% of the UK’s businesses have realised the opportunity presented by low-cost embedded software and digital fabrication.

But then it took many businesses easily two decades to realise that the web would open them up to new markets, new products, and new customers. And we’re only just reaching the point where there’s enough demand to sustain businesses like Squarespace, that bring cheap, off-the-shelf business websites to the masses.

Make Do And Mend poster from the 1940s

It sort of reminds me of the “make do and mend” attitude of the second World War. With supplies tight, and time at a premium, people were forced to find innovative, malleable solutions to their problems. Companies, too, became a little more malleable, a little less traditional. They took on a female workforce, adjusted hours, brought in new technology, re-purposed existing tools for new jobs, and found innovative new markets for byproducts. When the shit hit the fan, industry adopted just a little of what Adrian might call the DoES Liverpool ethos.

How can we take that ethos, and help it permeate into standard business practice? Just as the “make do and mend” attitude spread from the country cottages and urban tenements of 1930s Britain into every aspect of the wartime economy?

Women working in a WWII munitions factory

I can’t help feeling that this movement has to start at home.

A few years ago, corporate sysadmins sat smugly atop mountains of locked-down Blackberry handsets. There was almost no flexibility, no innovation in business IT provision. Then came the iPhone and the iPad. Suddenly everyone—from the janitor, to the CEO—was bringing their own devices to work, and expecting the system to cope. The sysadmins thought they could stem the tide, ban personal devices, but eventually even they realised they had to go with the change. The industry shifted in the face of new technology, and new expectations from its employees.

Outside the office, the same happened in the air. We are in the middle of a huge about-face by the aviation industry. After decades of requiring passengers to switch off all electronic devices—for absolutely no good reason—the sheer weight of customers who simply expected to be able to use their kit on a plane has forced the operators—slowly, ever so slowly—to change their stance. The industry shifted in the face of new technology, and new expectations from its customers.

We are just a little sooner along that curve with the hacker ethos. Some businesses will jump on board as early adopters – they’ll hire innovative freelancers like Adrian and Paul. But, for others, it will take a shift in culture.

With each new generation of employees, and each new generation of customers, it will become harder and harder for industries to resist change.

When you’ve been brought up on a childhood of “hacking” systems—customising Minecraft worlds with Python code, not purchase orders, or pasting JavaScript into your browser URL bar to extract content from a webpage—you simply won’t stand for antequated, inflexible, wasteful business practices at work.

Schoolkids participating in a Raspberry Pi Codejam

That’s why I have such respect for people like Alan O’Donohoe, Code Club, and the Raspberry Pi movement. We should be teaching everyone to hack. Not because it’ll help them get jobs (though it will). Not because we want them to become cyber criminals or privacy extremists (though some inevitably will). But because a generation of hackers and makers will force an imperceptible but unstoppable shake-up of British business.

This is the sort of shake-up you can’t affect via regulation. You can’t promise it in a manifesto pledge, and it doesn’t neatly fit into a campaign trail soundbyte. But it’s what this country really needs if we’re ever going to realise the potential of the truly democratising technology at our fingertips.

There is a hacker ethos – or DoES Liverpool ethos, or whatever you want to call it. But if you ask me, before it changes the world, it all has to start at home.

  1. He argues agencies take too long to effect change over-use use pre-existing “one-size-fits-all” components to minimise effort. I’m not convinced: Both are simply symptoms of poor management or poor design, and both are just as likely to happen to a freelance maker as to an established agency.