First Monday

Challenging the commodification of public spheres: The hacker work ethic in a free media lab by Steven Corbett

This paper explores the hacker work ethic in a case study of Access Space, a free media lab in Sheffield, United Kingdom, which provides free access to information and communication technologies (ICTs). It is suggested that the hacker work ethic allows participants at Access Space to become socially and digitally included in an empowering way. This aspect of ICT culture is explored in the context of social and technological changes from a public sphere perspective (Habermas, 1989). Access Space is described as part of a hacker counter-public sphere that challenges the dominant trend towards the commodification of ICTs by engaging the principles of the hacker work ethic in social practice. With a move towards informationalism as the ideology of the techno-capitalist age (Castells, 1996; Kellner, 1989), adopting the hacker work ethic in wider social practice may promote empowerment, social and digital inclusion, and critical engagement with ICTs and wider society.


Public spheres, ICTs and the hacker work ethic
Case study: The free media lab
The hacker work ethic at Access Space
Analysis: Access Space and techno-capitalism




New contested areas are emerging in the broad socio-historical changes from industrial capitalism to a variant of capitalist development which places importance on digital technological development and global information networks (techno-capitalism) (Castells, 1996; Kellner, 1989). One of these contested areas is between the free sharing of knowledge via ICTs found in hacker culture and the control and regulation of ICTs as private commodities (commodification) by corporations and states. The conflict can be viewed through the frame of dominant public spheres (dominant publics) and counter-public spheres (counterpublics) (Habermas, 1989; Fraser, 1992). The dominant public spheres of the techno-capitalist age are characterised by the passive consumption of commodified ICT products. Alternatively, the counterpublic of hackers engage in an empowering culture based on the values of the hacker work ethic, which espouse passion, freedom, social worth, openness, activity, caring and creativity for autonomous ICT engagement (Himanen, 2001).

The power of corporations and states in appropriating and commodifying new technologies for the purposes of profit making, social control and the control of information is a significant threat to the hacker work ethic (Himanen, 2001; Fuchs, 2008). This can be understood as a dialectical conflict between dominant publics in which ICTs are commodities for passive consumption, and counterpublics that directly challenge this through free, open and creative uses of these technologies, which especially has roots in the historical development of the Internet. To assess the empowering nature of hacker culture, a free media lab — espousing the values of a hacker work ethic in opposition to commodified ICT culture — is explored in this paper.

Access Space is a media lab in Sheffield city centre that provides free access to free/libre and open source software (FLOSS) on re-used computers, ICT skills workshops, a social space and art exhibition spaces. This article suggests that Access Space is part of a wider hacker counterpublic that opposes commodification of ICTs directly in everyday life through putting the values of the hacker work ethic into social practice. These values are transferred through three free resources — a public space with ICT access, a shared knowledge network, and critical engagement. The only condition for free access to the resources is that each person be an active participant and contribute to the Access Space community in some way. This can be through sharing knowledge or materials, or just by helping others, an integral aspect of the hacker work ethic.

The first section introduces the concepts of dominant publics and counterpublics which are used to frame the case study (Habermas, 1989; Fraser, 1992). It describes the hacker work ethic with reference to the historical development of hacker culture, and how this forms a counterpublic that opposes the dominant uses of ICTs. The remaining sections explore the case study of Access Space and suggest the empowering possibilities that the hacker work ethic contains. Digital exclusion from access to commodified ICTs can be linked to social exclusion and inequality (Wessels, 2008). This article’s case study indicates that people can be socially and digitally empowered by the resources available at Access Space. In the final analysis, the values of the hacker work ethic in practice suggest possibilities for empowerment, creativity, and social and digital inclusion as ICTs become ever more central to human social relations.



Public spheres, ICTs and the hacker work ethic

In The structural transformation of the public sphere, Habermas (1989) describes how the initial development of a democratic space for public discourse in modern societies came to be colonised by the interests of businesses and states. The public sphere is defined as a discursive arena separate from states and economies which in principle is free, open and equal for anyone to take part (Habermas, 1989). Habermas contends that the ideal of the public sphere developed out of independent association between groups outside of both states and markets in coffee house societies and the early free press, and is of normative importance for the health of democratic societies. It is in this public space that individuals can collectively form public opinion by engaging in critical discourse based upon the strength of reasoned arguments weighed openly and fairly against others.

For Habermas, this ideal was only partially realised in practice in the nineteenth century. But today, the interests of states and the capitalist economy dominate the public sphere. This involves the public relations and marketing industries, bureaucratic structures of organisation, state intervention, campaigns by political elites for votes and the increasingly public role played by private corporations. In this context, the public sphere is viewed as a space for the manipulation of public opinion through mass media, political and commercial advertising and pseudo-debate. Habermas (1989) refers to this change as the ‘refeudalisation’ of the public sphere.

Fraser (1992) accepts the basic premise of Habermas’s claim that the existing public sphere in practice does not reflect the democratic ideal. But, rather than a singular public sphere, Fraser [1] (sees society as also characterised by multiple counter public spheres such as feminist, nationalist and working-class publics. They are subject to inequalities of power, and attempt to challenge dominant discourses. In a society stratified by vast social and economic inequalities, public spheres tend towards the benefit of dominant groups at the expense of subordinates. This distinguishes the tension between dominant publics and counterpublics.

Dominant publics correspond with commodified culture in contemporary capitalist societies. With private ownership of mainstream communications media by economic elites for ideological and profitable ends, subordinated social groups lack equal access to neutral information as consumers, and to material resources as participants in society [2]. It is therefore advantageous for subordinated social groups to form counterpublics to challenge the dominant logic of commodification.

Counterpublics are “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests and needs” [3]. They are defined in relation to dominant discourses and exist in a dialectical relationship with dominant publics. They circulate counterdiscourses that draw attention to the exclusionary, discriminatory and oppressive characteristics of wider society.

To avoid becoming enclaves, counterpublics must have a ‘publicist orientation’ [4]. This requires that they engage with dominant publics directly for meaningful participation in society, and emancipation from their subordinate role:

On the one hand, [counterpublics] function as spaces of withdrawal and regroupment; on the other hand, they also function as bases and training grounds for agitational activities directed towards wider publics. [the dialectic between these two functions contains emancipatory potential and allows] ... counterpublics partially to offset, although not wholly eradicate, the unjust participatory privileges enjoyed by members of dominant social groups. [5]

ICT culture can be assessed through this framework of dominant publics and counterpublics. ICTs are not neutral technologies that impact upon society, but are socio-cultural forms that have been historically shaped by social forces; from scientific researchers and the U.S. military, to hackers, to capitalist industries and states (Wessels, 2010). ICTs are therefore subject to often conflicting interpretations and use according to the different social and cultural values of the actors who shape them (Wessels, 2010).

Central to the development of ICTs, the Internet has its origins in an unlikely alliance between scientific researchers, the military and the counterculture [6]. In the 1960s, scientific researchers funded by the U.S. military developed the frameworks that became the Internet. Key to the initial development of the Internet was the lack of profit-orientated business interests involved (Castells, 2001). This was apparent in the interacting communities of computer scientists and hackers that emerged in the early 1970s. The latter were influenced by countercultural movements in the U.S. which helped to permeate the academic atmosphere with “the values of individual freedom, of independent thinking, and of sharing and cooperation with their peers” [7]; an early expression of the values that make up the hacker work ethic.

By the 1990s however, privatisation increased the availability of the Internet, but corporations, hitherto uninvolved in the development of the Internet and its culture, were able to establish a proprietary stranglehold over ICTs (Winston, 1998). One prominent hacker, Richard Stallman (2010), derided the claim to proprietary ownership of software as characteristic of trends in wider society towards protecting the wealth of the few against the interests of the many in the pursuit of profit. In the view of hackers such as Stallman, proprietary software has produced a commodified, restricted, individualised and passive culture of mainstream ICT use.

The revolution in ICTs is part of wider changes within the logic of capitalist production. Castells (1996) argues that the development of the Internet took place within the context of the rise of informationalism as a new mode of development which displaced industrialism in the late twentieth century. Informationalism mainly involves the reorganisation of labour into flexible information-based work practices, but also, an increase in the dominance of capital over labour, the deregulation of markets and welfare, and increased global economic competition (Castells, 1996). With the privatisation of the Internet in the 1990s as a part of this shift, proprietary ownership has emerged as the dominant socio-cultural form of ICT. It constitutes a dominant public which includes the private consumption of ICTs, rising inequality, social and digital exclusion. For Fuchs [8], this grants giant corporations such as Microsoft or Google “the power to define what people consider as correct and valuable views of reality and as truth”.

Along with the adoption of informationalism, continuities with the industrial capitalist era remain and have become further entrenched, such as mass consumerism, the culture and public relations industries, social inequalities, and state and corporate power. Kellner (1989) posits that this consolidation of capitalist power can be described as ‘techno-capitalism’, in which features of industrial capitalism in the late twentieth century onwards have been refined, and have incorporated the principles of informationalism and networked modes of development. Kellner [9] defines this new configuration as “a phase of capitalist development that incorporates knowledge, information, computerisation and automation into the production process ... in order to enhance capitalist profitability, power and social control”.

Robins and Webster (1999) develop this point further by interpreting techno-capitalism as ideologically manifested in the cultural and social forces of the new technologies. Through techno-culture, humans use and make sense of ICTs in ways that shape and guide their everyday lives. Consequently, in light of techno-capitalism, all aspects of life, including work, leisure, consumption, communication and education are potentially subject to the logic of commodification.

It is in this context that counterpublics, such as those found within hacker culture, can contest the dominant tendencies towards commodification. Despite the dominance of commodified ICT culture in the 1990s, the free software movement developed free/libre and open source software (FLOSS) such as the Linux operating system. Linux relies on the combined efforts of hackers across the globe to improve it (Raymond, 2001). This requires the free availability of source code, a decentralisation of brain power and working time across the network of hackers, and the frequent release of new versions for the community to de-bug (Raymond, 2001).

The global community of hackers comprises of well over 3,000 participants, in over 90 countries (Söderberg, 2002). Although, critical of utopian interpretations of hacker culture, Miller [10] posits that the main development of FLOSS is actually made by a “tightly woven network of experts and professionals”. However, as FLOSS development accepts new innovations that seem to work, hacker culture is seen as genuinely open and meritocratic, as opposed to closed proprietary models of software development (Miller, 2003). Nevertheless, by 2006 Microsoft retained a 96.9 percent share of the market in operating systems, compared with 2.47 percent for Apple and 0.36 percent for Linux (Fuchs, 2008).

This alternative ICT culture is a counterpublic because it is based on fundamentally opposed values with regards to the flow of information and knowledge. The hacker work ethic is described by Himanen (2001) as the underlying spirit of the information age. It directly opposes the profit orientated, alienating, exclusionary and passive aspects of dominant ICT publics and seeks to challenge them.

The hacker work ethic is based on seven interconnected values: passion, freedom, social worth, openness, activity, caring and creativity (Himanen, 2001). Passion and freedom refer to the hacker preference for solving interesting problems on the individual’s own terms. Social worth and openness refer to reflexive engagement within the hacker community: “hackers want to realise their passion together with others, and they want to create something valuable to the community and be recognised for that by their peers” [11]. Activity and caring relate to engagement with technology and a disposition towards sharing knowledge with the wider hacker community. The final value is creativity as an end in itself: “the imaginative use of one’s own abilities, the surprising continuous surpassing of oneself, and the giving to the world of a genuinely valuable new contribution” [12]. These seven values, inherent in the historical development of the Internet, challenge the dominant ICT culture.

Jesiek (2003) sees the concept of the hacker work ethic as being too broad and encompassing to be of much empirical use. While the seven values may be idealistic, the following case study describes the empirical validity of the hacker work ethic employed in a social context outside of the narrow hacker community. This point has resonance; Raymond (2001) asserts that the hacker work ethic is not solely the preserve of computer programmers, but is also available to all people involved in creative and open uses of ICTs. This indicates that there are possibilities for wider application of hacker values in society, for which the following evidence of practices at Access Space may be crucial.



Case study: The free media lab

Access Space is based in Sheffield, U.K., a city which was once heavily reliant on the manufacturing industry. Cities such as Sheffield have acutely felt the negative consequences of the transition from industrial capitalism to techno-capitalism, and the associated moves towards flexible labour markets and information based work (Taylor, et al., 1996; Kellner, 1989). Sheffield’s economy, based historically on the production of cutlery and steel, collapsed in the latter years of the twentieth century. The percentage of the total workforce employed in the steel industry declined from 16 percent in 1971 to 2.2 percent in 1993 (Taylor, et al., 1996). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the manufacturing industry as a whole in Sheffield continued to decline, with jobs in the sector falling from 42,120 in 1995 to 27,100 in 2008 (Office for National Statistics, 2011).

In this period Sheffield has become subject to high levels of deprivation and social exclusion and has received European Union financial support for renovation of the local economy (Wessels, 2008). The need to engage with ICTs in the context of structural changes to the capitalist economy is prescient. Sheffield and the wider region of South Yorkshire currently have low levels of ICT take-up (Wessels, 2008). In South Yorkshire, “local communities are struggling through economic change because of the decline of traditional industry” and it is suggested that “if ICT is developed within an information society it can support regional regeneration to enrich local people’s lives” [13].

In a study of social and economic change in the twentieth century, Taylor, et al. (1996) argue that Sheffielders have a ‘local structure of feeling’ for the city’s industrial past and forms of collective association. In light of this, the City Council has attempted, with varying degrees of success, to pursue projects which avoid “urban life built around privatised and competitive individualism” in the information age [14]. Access Space is an alternative example of a community-based approach to ICT engagement.

Access Space provides access to ICTs and the Internet, has ‘facilitators’ that help people to pursue their projects and to learn how to rebuild computers (which can be kept for free), and hosts arts exhibitions. In existence for 12 years, Access Space is funded through a variety of bodies, which currently includes the Arts Council. It is located in an area that formerly consisted of cutlery factories, which has now become the Cultural Industries Quarter (Roush, ca. 2005). The free media lab has 15 computers, each running Linux-based operating systems with Internet access and a wide variety of FLOSS applications, a meeting space, and an area for refurbishing computers.

The concept of Access Space developed from a media art group called the Redundant Technology Initiative (RTI). RTI is premised on the principle that it is possible to be creative with technology without paying for it (see This does not mean using illegal software, but rather is a commitment to using only FLOSS, and to building computers made from parts that have been discarded, salvaged from skips and donated junk technology.

Using trash technology adheres to the principles of the Lowtech Manifesto, which was written by the founder of RTI and Access Space (Wallbank, 1999). The Lowtech Manifesto rejects the consumerist cycle of constantly upgrading computer hardware, and derides the co-option of creativity by the IT industry for profit. Much digital art, for example, is seen as advertising for the IT industry masquerading as art. Instead, “high technology doesn’t mean high creativity ... sometimes the restrictions of a medium lead to the most creative solutions” (Wallbank, 1999). Like the hacker work ethic, the manifesto emphasises creativity as an end in itself, rather than as a means for generating profit, which contributes to the hacker counter-discourse.

Setting up Access Space represented a shift in the approach of RTI from producing art works to being a community ICT organisation in the public domain (Roush, ca. 2005). Distinct from a commercial Internet café, Access Space promotes critical and active engagement with technology, rather than passive consumption of commodified ICTs. The onus is on the visitor to Access Space to be a participant in creative actions rather than a user of the facilities.

Access Space has also established links with local and international businesses, charities, arts organisations and community groups. Amongst these links are the Zero Dollar Laptop project, which provides workshops that enable homeless people to learn the skills to install and run Linux on donated laptops, and Grow Your Own Media Lab, which helps other organisations to adopt the Access Space approach to ICTs.

People are encouraged, in exchange for free use of ICT resources, to pursue a creative project that they are interested in, and to contribute in some way to the media lab. This can be through sharing information, knowledge or skills, or simply by washing up or making coffee. The following case study shows that this ethos of empowered participation has transferred the principles of the hacker work ethic into the wider community of Access Space participants.



The hacker work ethic at Access Space

This case study is based on interviews with Access Space staff and Access Space participants, along with participant observation by the researcher. The Access Space community can be described as an example of the hacker work ethic in social practice. The social functions that Access Space performs are an important aspect of conceptualising it as part of the hacker counterpublic, as few of the participants are actually hackers. Access Space addresses issues of social and digital exclusion by providing the resources for individuals to access ICTs, to get involved in a community and to develop skills. It is also a forum for the empowerment of individuals and the development of capacities for critically engaging with society. The case study findings suggest that these processes contain emancipatory potential.

This is not to take a technological determinist position, but rather to emphasise how both ICTs and the social relationships that exist through and alongside them are shaped by the agency of participants. As the founder, James, puts it:

... we ask people that come in to engage in their own self-directed activity. They may recruit other people into the activity, they may ask others for help with it, they may integrate that activity with other things going on. The second thing we ask people to do is to be willing to share. We are demanding that people in some way make their activity open to other people.

This section describes how three interrelated resources at Access Space facilitate empowerment. They are the free public space and free access to ICTs, the free knowledge network, and the opportunity for critical engagement with ICTs and wider society.

Free public space and free access to ICTs

The privatisation of public spaces in capitalist society is associated with the displacement of social problems and ‘undesirable’ people (Smith, 1996; Atkinson, 2003). Access Space benefits not only those who are socially excluded, unemployed, or without Internet access, but also those who want to meet like minds in a creative and public place where there is no financial cost to be there.

Michael, a participant, states that “a public space you don’t have to pay to be in is really important as part of our society, otherwise people without much money will just be in their house or on the streets”. In providing a free public space for the community of participants, three key aspects are addressed; social and digital inclusion, and personal freedom.

Jane describes importance of social inclusion at Access Space for her: “sometimes it becomes my only place for human contact”. Sandra points out how a free public space can help combat social exclusion:

We’ve got a couple of people who come in with depression ... sitting at home all day is doing nothing for them and they’re not in a fit state to work at the moment. So even if they just pop in for an hour a day, that interaction with people is finally getting them back on their feet.

The opportunity to engage with ICTs at Access Space provides the conditions for creative outcomes. Dan, a staff member, points out that “being skint forces people to do things in an efficient and better way”. By providing a free public space for ICT use and facilitating a community of participants, Access Space allows those who are most vulnerable in society to access ICTs and to establish social relationships.

Related to social and digital inclusion is a greater sense of personal freedom. This in turn encourages the agency for engagement in self-directed activity; a key aspect of empowerment. Many participants and staff at Access Space value their personal freedom. For example, Mila reflects the hacker work ethic when she speaks about only wanting to use computers on her own terms, and Dan expresses a dislike for bureaucracy and a preference for the freedom to do interesting and creative work at Access Space.

Brian, a participant who volunteers at Access Space, feels that hacker principles allow for a greater personal freedom for people with the support of the hacker community:

There is definitely a liberation but not so much [that] this software is free, it’s more that all this software is documented and you can get support from people ... it is a liberating thing that you can look up a help question and you will get 50 other people who have had that problem ... and you can learn from them.

Hacker culture allows for greater freedom when using software, but there is also a strong sense of community. The values of personal freedom to pursue self-directed activity and social and digital inclusion are connected to the Access Space community and the free sharing of information.

Free knowledge network

The second resource becomes apparent through active participation at the media lab and relates to the relationship between the individual and the collective. Engagement with this second resource transforms the user of free ICTs into a participant in peer learning. Dan, a participant who has become a staff member, posits that the organisation is “a learning resource, it’s the people. Access Space hasn’t taught me anything really, it’s the people” who come to the free media lab.

The free knowledge network transfers the hacker principle that each participant freely shares something with the others into a community resource. Often this relates purely to knowledge about a given issue, resource, or technology, but it can also be by donating computer hardware or general helping out by making tea or washing up. The free knowledge network requires that participants engage in a spirit of openness and that they get involved with peer learning.

Dan makes the point that the hacker culture at Access Space is “not just openness of the [source] code it’s an actual spirit of openness in general”. This is explained further by Sandra, who describes the concept of openness at Access Space as “openness with people, letting people know what they’re doing, and also being willing to share their skills and knowledge ... the whole centre is all about people interacting with each other”. Kevin, a staff member, offers this explanation:

We’re about creativity with technology which means that we’ve got to be open to peoples’ ideas, and the first thing that we say to people is ‘what are your ideas?’, we don’t say to them ‘this is your place, how do you want to shape it?’ but that’s effectively what it is.

Peer learning is a key resource at Access Space and is integral to transferring the hacker work ethic into social practice. Peer learning changes the teacher/student relationship so that each participant and facilitator is both teacher and learner. The network-only functions well because of the diversity of individuals involved at Access Space. James states that “if you get a diverse peer learning network, with people from all different walks of life, people with all sorts of different skill sets [then] collectively you will be more intelligent”.

Peer learning is enhanced by the changing make up of the Access Space community. The skill sets in the knowledge network are constantly changing as new people come to the media lab and others leave. The Access Space community comprises of men and women, people with disabilities, children, young adults, older people, gay people and refugees, who are a mix of unemployed people, students, academics, artists, creatives, computer geeks, and so on. With people involved from different backgrounds and with different knowledge bases and skills, Access Space is a flexible networked organisation.

Links are established between people by email contacts and through face-to-face interaction at the media lab daily, or at events and art exhibitions. This flexible learning network increases social and digital inclusion, as Michael, a participant, states:

people that don’t do well in formal education do a lot better here. Everyone’s got knowledge and experience to share and something to learn. You might end up learning something here that you didn’t really think you’d be interested in. I didn’t know how to do a website, [and] I’ve learnt a lot about [the value of] free spaces.

An environment where people freely share knowledge with others reflects the hacker work ethic values of caring and social worth. Peter, a participant, explains that the wide variety of interests that members of the Access Space community have helps to empower people with the confidence to pursue their personal interests:

If you have an idea that doesn’t fit in with the mainstream, you can quite often be isolated. So by meeting people on a face-to-face basis, you’re not just exchanging information; you’re actually interacting with that human being’s enthusiasm.

This considered, as a facilitator, Dan often finds that people sometimes lapse back into the teacher/student relationship by only asking staff members for help. He also adds that there is much more peer learning going on that is not visible where participants forge social relationships and organise activities outside of Access Space.

Critical engagement

A critical awareness of the role that ICTs can play in the changing social relations of contemporary capitalism is a key part of Access Space. John, a staff member, points out:

The peer [learning] thing is about a dialogue that goes on between [people, and it’s also an] internal dialogue between people and the technology that they’re using too. Because they know that they’re using free software, and they know that they’re using recycled, re-used technology, they’re having a critical dialogue with the technology; they’re having a dialogue with each other; having a dialogue with members of staff.

By making participants aware of how the technology at Access Space is re-used, encouraging them to learn how to re-build computers, and embodying the hacker culture principles of freely sharing knowledge and material resources, participants can think critically and engage in the hacker counter-discourse. For Peter, a participant, this influences how he thinks about society more broadly:

Access Space is trying to coax you into using technology, and to use it how you want. You learn at your own pace, and it makes you think about the whole thing for yourself: what use is it to me? What use is it to society?

Critical engagement with ICTs and society invokes the key aspects of non-alienated labour and empowerment. Non-alienated labour, or praxis, is seen as creative work as an end in itself (Marković, 1974). Creativity as an end in itself is the central value of the hacker work ethic. Praxis is reflexive because:

... in praxis self-realisation is one of the essential moments that, while involving self-affirmation, it also satisfies a need of other human beings. In the process of praxis [humans are] immediately aware that, through [their] activity and/or its product [they enrich] the lives of others and indirectly [become] a part of them. [15]

The hacker principles of social worth, caring, passion, freedom, openness and activity are all tied up with creativity, or praxis. This creative atmosphere is integral to Access Space. Jane, a participant, describes how it feels to take part at Access Space; “it does tend to change my mood coming here. I get slightly more inventive: a bit more likely to want to bend the rules”. In explaining his role as facilitator, Dan highlights the possibilities for reflexive praxis:

There’s a massive grey area while I’m working between work and fun. For instance, there’s a guy, about 18. I’ll have a game of chess with him when he comes in. And that’s actually work because on the one hand, I’m enjoying the game of chess, but on the other hand, I’m getting an 18-year old lad who’s unemployed more involved in Access Space and socialising.

At Access Space, people are empowered to undertake projects with more confidence. For example, Brian states that:

There’s stuff that I want to do, it’s like musical, acting things. I want to do that and its building that confidence and this place does it. You get some confidence in one area and you go ‘ah, I want to do this as well or animations or film making or sound workshops’.

This confidence transfers into the wider social interactions that Brian has: “I don’t take much crap from people in powerful positions because I’m more aware now. I can go round for the council tax rebate. I’m more assertive”.

Empowerment is derived from the hacker work ethic values of social worth and creativity by engaging critically with ICTs and society. John states that:

If you come from a family background or a peer group, where doing stuff isn’t encouraged, or in fact it’s discouraged, for whatever reason, then walking in here and just being given the opportunity can help you change your life. The project itself isn’t about technology, it’s not about free software in the end, it’s about people, empowering the people. [People] are empowered to do more stuff, maybe to find a job; to be able to generally improve their lives.

The three free resources of public space and ICTs, a knowledge network, and critical engagement are apparent in the accounts provided by the research participants. They are interrelated; the free public space and free ICT access provides a physical space for the individual to participate in the knowledge network that exists within the collective, and interaction within this community promotes a critical engagement with ICTs and society. The values that constitute the Access Space community are those of the hacker work ethic in social practice. This enables Access Space to disseminate the hacker work ethic beyond the hacker counterpublic in opposition to dominant ICT publics.



Analysis: Access Space and techno-capitalism

The findings from the case study suggest that the Access Space community is a part of a wider hacker counterpublic to the dominant public spheres of commodified ICT culture. They suggest that ICTs can be used in a free, empowered, active, creative and inclusionary way that is an alternative to the trend towards disempowerment, passivity, alienation and exclusion.

While the majority of participants at Access Space are not hackers, the principles of the hacker work ethic, and its associated counter-discourse is apparent in this networked community. Through engagement with ICTs, Access Space translates the hacker work ethic into wider social practice. This allows participants at Access Space, who might otherwise be socially and digitally excluded, to creatively and freely engage with the tools of the information age. This is principally achieved through the key resources of free access to ICTs and a free public space, the free knowledge network and critical engagement with ICTs and society.

The hacker values of freedom, passion, social worth, openness, activity, caring and creativity that make up the hacker work ethic are embodied in the social relations of the Access Space community. To summarise, like hackers, participants at Access Space must have a passion for a particular project or activity. This could be to code a computer program, but it also includes art projects, setting up businesses, building Web sites, applying for jobs, learning new skills, engaging with like-minded people and so on.

The importance that people be passionate about a project or aim is coupled with the requirement to share skills, knowledge, information or other activity with other participants. This requires the personal freedom to self-direct activities by using the resources at Access Space. The spirit of openness and freely sharing knowledge through peer learning also emphasises the need to engage with ICTs in an active and creative way, which has social worth and produces cultural meaning for the participants in the community.

However, Miller’s (2003) concern with avoiding naive utopianism when describing hacker culture is pertinent here. The global hacker community relies on a small, densely networked core of programmers, along with charismatic leaders such as Richard Stallman, who have privileged roles in influencing hacker discourse. Despite the culture of active participation and sharing at Access Space, some choose neither to share knowledge, nor to have a creative project to engage with, but to passively consume Internet culture.

There is a core of participants who imbue the hacker work ethic more strongly than others, with a key role played by the staff members. Staff members act as facilitators, and encourage people to actively participate. In turn, the active membership aligns in a free knowledge network around the core group of facilitators, in which the founder takes a central and charismatic leadership role. On the periphery of this engaged public are other visitors to Access Space who participate a great deal less and are more likely to use the media lab for web browsing rather than engaging in projects.

A counterpublic requires a critical awareness on the part of some, but not necessarily all of its members. It is the critically engaged members that come to play a more prominent role in the dissemination of a counterdiscourse. While many of those who use Access Space are socially excluded or disempowered by commodified ICT culture, it is the counter-discourse of the hacker work ethic that circulates through the knowledge network and constitutes the core relationships at the free media lab.

The diverse community benefits from this counter-discourse, which is largely disseminated by the core group, but taken up by others who engage with the hacker work ethic in social practice. As a part of the hacker counterpublic, Access Space retains a publicist orientation, as it engages in a critical dialogue with the dominant ICT culture. This is apparent not only in the ways that participants use ICTs, but also, the Lowtech Manifesto and the Zero Dollar Laptop Manifesto are examples of direct political engagement with the dominant ICT culture that challenge dominant norms and values (Wallbank, 1999; 2009).

Critical engagement also relates to the notion that “[a] counterpublic maintains at some level, conscious or not, an awareness of its subordinate status. The cultural horizon against which it marks itself off is not just a general or wider public, but a dominant one” [16]. There is a paradoxical relationship between Access Space and the dominant public. It is that Access Space relies on throwaway consumer culture in order to recover and re-use junk computers for free. It feeds on the material and intellectual wastefulness of techno-capitalism and re-interprets this as a resource to digitally include and empower people. Thus, Access Space, like other counterpublics, cannot avoid being defined in relation to the dominant culture.

Therefore, the emancipatory potential of Access Space must be considered with caution. It is certainly true that Access Space incorporates innovative knowledge networks which provide opportunities for an inclusionary, empowered, active, creative, and diverse means for critical engagement with the information age. However, individuals can rarely act free from the constraints of the social, political, technological and historical context in which they find themselves.

Access Space does not exist outside of the unjust and dominating techno-capitalist order, but it does provide a public space for people and groups to utilise ICTs in an empowering way. It remains to be seen whether the principles of the hacker work ethic can be interpreted and used in other social, political and economic contexts, in order to challenge the logic of commodification and empower people in other areas of social life. For Himanen (2001) and Castells (1996), this may be the defining social challenge of the information age.




This study has considered the concepts of dominant publics and counterpublics with the development of ICTs, in the broader context of great social changes from industrial capitalism to techno-capitalism. ICTs are key to whether the increasingly networked basis of contemporary social relations are transcending the hierarchical and exploitative order of the industrial era, or whether they are becoming increasingly commodified in the broader transition to techno-capitalism (Kellner, 1989).

Contemporary society is increasingly organised around the principle of networks of knowledge and information with a global reach, but also retains continuities with the dominating and controlling aspects of industrialism. This is seen in the contradiction between the free flow of knowledge and information through the Internet, and the power of the state and corporations to extend social control and commodify ICTs. In this contradiction, dialectical relationships between liberation and control, inclusion and exclusion, empowerment and disempowerment have consequences for the kinds of public spheres which exist.

There is a contradiction between the Internet as a communication network based on the countercultural principle of knowledge sharing and the trend towards the commodification of knowledge. This began in the 1980s and extended rapidly in the 1990s, as proprietary ownership of the tools of the emerging information society was increased by corporations and governments. In this context, the counterpublic of hackers aims to maintain the principles of the free sharing of information, skills and knowledge. For Himanen (2001), this hacker work ethic is the underlying spirit of the information age.

The case study of Access Space has described how the use of ICTs according to the principles of the hacker work ethic can facilitate open, active and critical participation in a public that is counter to the dominant tendency towards the closed, passive and non-critical consumption of culture. Three key resources were highlighted in the case study: free access to ICTs and free public spaces, the free knowledge network and critical engagement.

Through engagement by members of the Access Space community with these three resources a counter-discourse circulates, constituting Access Space as a part of the hacker counterpublic. The enhancement of personal freedom, openness, social and digital inclusion, peer learning, reflexive praxis, and empowerment are evidence of the emancipatory potential of the hacker work ethic in social practice.

The free media lab is dialectically opposed to the dominant culture. As a consequence it defines itself in relation to the commodification of ICTs and information. Access Space provides a valuable community-based resource. However, the possibility of a positive dialectic, that is, the democratic transformation of dominant publics, requires broader mobilisation, engagement and societal change. If Himanen (2001) is right in positing the hacker work ethic as the spirit of the information age, then the possibility of transforming dominant public spheres may reside within the growth of networks of participatory alternatives.

In contrast to the ideological geopolitics between capitalist markets and redistributive state intervention into markets, the early twenty-first century is an era in which a new, non-geographic bipolarity may develop (Chapman, 2004). The dominant logic of techno-capitalism is increasingly opposed by disparate social movements which interpret diverse and alternative goals for culture and social life, which means that “[p]ieces of an alternative global culture are beginning to appear, but are not yet meshed into a coherent picture” [17]. For example, participatory budgeting allows citizens to actively and creatively participate in deliberation and allocation of municipal city budgets (Baiocchi, 2003). This has been successful in including the poorest citizens in decision-making in Brazilian cities and is engaging with ICTs through the development of online participatory budgeting (Abers, 2003; Peixoto, 2009).

Further empirical study is required to assess if such approaches can develop and sustain a culture of participation that reflects the values of the hacker work ethic in social practice. In the information age, counterpublics that organise in networks of free flowing knowledge and information, whether they are composed of hackers, artists, workers, citizens or political activists, offer a potential for the transformation of dominant publics towards a more cooperative, empowering, inclusive and human-centred social order. End of article


About the author

Steven Corbett is a University Teacher and Research Associate at Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield. His recently completed Ph.D. is entitled ‘The social quality of participatory democracy’. He has recently written critical assessments of the U.K. Government’s ‘big society’ agenda (with Alan Walker) and his research interests include social quality, empowerment, democracy and technological change.
E-mail: s [dot] corbett [at] sheffield [dot] ac [dot] uk



Thank you to all at Access Space for your openness, kindness and participation in this research.



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2. Fraser, 1992, p. 120.

3. Fraser, 1992, p. 123.

4. Fraser, 1992, p. 124.

5. Ibid.

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14. Taylor, et al., 1996, p. 313.

15. Marković, 1974, p. 65.

16. Warner, 2002, p. 86.

17. Chapman, 2004, p. 64.



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Editorial history

Received 8 May 2011; revised 31 October 2014; revised 27 November 2014; accepted 29 November 2014.

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“Challenging the commodification of public spheres: The hacker work ethic in a free media lab” by Steven Corbett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Challenging the commodification of public spheres: The hacker work ethic in a free media lab
by Steven Corbett.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 12 - 1 December 2014