Hacking Metro Detroit

Nick Britsky is inspecting a rough spot on the tire well of a cupcake-shaped car, hoisted wrapper-side up onto a worktable. The accordion-shaped spray-painted steel was cut by hand, and a few jagged edges still need to be filed down.

Britsky is converting the one-man car into something that could roam indoors. "I'd like to make a fleet of them," Britsky says. "Maybe four or eight."

Britsky is a member of i3Detroit, a group-operated hackerspace, recently moved to Ferndale from Royal Oak. Above Britsky is another member project -- a hand-carved wooden canoe hanging from the ceiling; beside him are two motorized 'bots that resemble small moon cars, and in the corner is a stack of arcade game parts that look like they could be used as spares for Centipede or Donkey Kong. One room over, an antiquey-looking player piano that plays music it downloads and prints from the Internet is pushed against the wall.
It's all the work of i3 members, affectionately called "hackers." Far from gangly cyber-punks hacking their way into your credit card information, hackerspaces are about like-minded tinkerers, crafters, artists, and self-titled geeks gathering to work individually or collectively on projects. One such example is i3Detroit's mentoring of Clawson and Oak Park High School students in robotics, with the moon cars the result of the venture.

And they're not alone. Worldwide, there are nearly 350 self-described hackerspaces, with more than 150 in the U.S., including a handful in Michigan, according to hackerspaces.org.

"There's a lot of interesting stuff happening," says Dale Dougherty, publisher and editor of MAKE Magazine, which showcases DIY projects and their makers. "There's always been a group of enthusiasts who love to play with technology, are curious and want to learn ... but the power today from the Internet is that it can connect people to each other more easily to share ideas and projects."

Got hack?

In Metro Detroit, the idea is taking hold. i3Detroit got its start from meetings at an area coffee shop last April, moved into a sparse Royal Oak loft in September and by the following April  landed in an 8,000-square-foot former industrial space in Ferndale.  Ann Arbor-based hackerspace All Hands Active was started last September, and another yet-to-be-named group is growing in Detroit's Eastern Market --the brainchild of former New York City Resistor member Jeff Sturges and Detroit- based artist Bethany Shorb (founder of Cyberoptix) .

"As soon as we talk to one, they have other people we should talk to. It's really organic," Shorb says.

MAKE Magazine's July 31 - August 1 Maker Faire, the tech-boosted Woodstock for the DIY and hacker set is in Detroit this year, appropriately taking place at The Henry Ford.

"The plan this year was to have it in New York," Dougherty explains. "We're still going to do that, but we thought that this was a place where this could really matter. ... This is a region with a lot of people who make things, are inventive and creative. There's a lot going on [in Detroit] -- a strong crafting community, emerging hackerspaces like i3Detroit and several other initiatives. We're trying to connect people together."

At the core of the movement is the notion that building is best done as a shared venture. Along with a spike in interest in do-it-yourself projects and crafting in the vein of an edgy, punk-rock Martha Stewart, hackerspaces are informed by open-sourcing; or sharing source materials, information, and parts with other members and other hackerspaces.

i3Detroit's guiding anthem, says its president and founding member, Russ Wolfe, is advice from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, "Be excellent to each other."

"The open-source movement and the hackerspace movement go hand in hand," says Bilal Ghalib, founder of All Hands Active. Ghalib last summer toured the country interviewing hackerspace members for a self-made documentary. He's now learning film editing to hammer it together.

A weekly hackerspace teleconference connects hackers worldwide, Wolfe says. Hackerspaces.org collects information about existing and developing communities. And a network to connect them all while offering things like online storage and international chatting is undergoing beta testing, Wolfe says. "One of the most important things is documentation," he explains, "all of these places have wikis -- what worked, what didn't. With hackerspaces, it's not a top-down approach, it's run by the membership; we call it a 'do-acracy.'"

Most are collectively run. i3Detroit has about 30 members split between $39 a month regulars and about 13 core group members paying $89 apiece. Core members vote in regular meetings on the group's direction.

Most of the tools used are donated or shared, and reflect the eclectic array of i3 Detroit member interests including: a band saw, router table, function generators, soldering equipment, a silk-screening machine and a vinyl cutter, as well as a stocked "safe" chemistry lab and a mixing board.

"One of our goals is to get the big tools that people wouldn't have in their garage to do things like laser etching," Wolfe says. "Most people don't have the opportunity to work with tools like that."

"As we get resources, we can send files and will build parts and can send globally," Britsky adds. "Every space has different tools."

Hacking for the greater good

Infusing hackerspaces in Metro Detroit is the earnest belief in the power of collective brainstorming. If one could be used to build cupcake cars, vinyl cows with space helmets, and pirate ships (an upcoming i3Detroit project), the thinking goes, it can also be a space to engage entrenched societal problems.

New York City transplant Jeff Sturges is working to build a Detroit-based fab lab. It's an idea inspired from the work he did with a Sustainable South Bronx and MIT program aimed at teaching "digital fabrication" to solve community problems.

"Once I got involved in the FabLab and hackerspace, I thought it would be awesome for Detroit. I've had that dream since 2004," he says. Sturges studied architecture from 2003 to 2005 at the Cranbrook Academy of Art before going back to New York.

Outside of Detroit, efforts are underway to make brainstorming big problems a global hacker endeavor. Eric Michaud, founder of Chicago's Pumping Station: One and a serial hackerspace developer, says that a monthly global hackathon has started to gain followers, and is working its way towards engaging "bigger, grander goals and projects."

"What I'd love to see is what if we work on a project for 24 hours? For one week?" he poses. "Grab this collective expertise and let's give them a goal: Something that can eradicate malaria, for example, cheaply. ... We got to the moon with that kind of focus; a lot of technology came out of that."

Part of the brainstorm, Wolfe says, is what he calls the social experiment of hackerspaces. "What happens when we bring all these people together and get them to open up?"

And while start-up businesses do come out of hackerspaces – Perhaps the best known is San Francisco-based uber-hacker Mitch Altman's TV-B-Gone, a keychain that turns off TVs in public places-- it's not the purpose, they explain. Saying the words "business incubator" in most hackerspaces will earn you pariah status, Michaud says.

"It's not a competitive thing," Ghalib adds. "It's a sharing and growing thing. That's why I think it's a good thing to step out of the garage and into the public. People are retooling and teaching themselves what they're most passionate about. Once people find that, it doesn't matter if they start a business."

Michelle Martinez is a freelance writer and editor who has reported on Metro Detroit businesses and issues for five years. Her previous article was Back For (and To Do) Good.

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All Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography

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I3 Detroit Team goofing off with their robot

In the cupcake car, Russ Wolfe Founder/President of i3 Detroit

Detroit- based artist Bethany Shorb (founder of Cyberoptix)

Mixing Board

Jeff Sturges

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