Of makers, hackers and activists

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It's a Tuesday night in Hamilton, Ontario, and I'm sitting with Myrcurial (aka James Arlen) talking about makers, hackers' activism and hyperlocal journalism. Myrcurial is an online security consultant, a dyed-in-the-wool hacker and the wise-old-man of think|haus, a hacker/maker workshop that's being constructed around us as we sit in an ex-autoparts outlet in the northend of town.

Myrcurial and think|haus are part of the maker movement in Canada. If the movement has a bible, it's Make Magazine -- a publication that extols the virtues of using circuits and a grab-bag of Home Depot parts to make a potato cannon, a self-watering garden or a microprocessor robot rat.

Makers love Mythbusters, McGyver, old copies of Popular Science and Popular Electronics, 8-bit computer graphics and the chance to crack open and breathe new life into consumer electronics. Their motto is: "If you can't open it, you don't own it." They have excellent skills.

"We like to bend gadgets and circuits to our will," Myrcurial says. "We aren't interested in what we're told something can do, or must do. We're interested in making it do what we want, extending its life, giving it new purpose."

Makers are experts in soldering, in circuitry, in welding, woodworking, fabrication or robotics. In the Hamilton chapter, there's a hodgepodge of all those skills embodied in two dozen guys who aren't going to win any congeniality prizes, unless they gamed the online voting then used the award to send Morse code profanity via Bluetooth to the judges' cellphones. The think|haus clubhouse is heavily stocked with cables, caffeinated beverages, dark t-shirts, lumber, wiring and large brains. The gang is planning on making a 10-foot kite with a gimbal-mounted remote control camera on-board. And there's some crazy stuff too.

So, what does think|haus have to do with activism and journalism?

I think the Maker mentality pervades citizen journalism and activism. It's really about being the change you want to see in the world and taking the tools at hand to the democracy, legislative bodies, gadgets or hierarchies around you and making them do what you want.

Don't like mainstream media coverage of your community? Cover yourself. Don't like the government? Do like the indigenous peoples of Bolivia and remake it in your consensual image. Don't like international news? Aggregate your own crowdsourced coverage. Don't like DRM? Hack the lock. Against a two-tier web? Organize a townhall and encrypt P2P traffic. Don't like Windows or OSX? Adopt Ubuntu.

Back in 1982, Canadian science fiction writer William Gibson captured the idea perfectly in his short story, "Burning Chrome": "The street finds its own use for things," he wrote. It's become the mantra of the Maker and DIY culture -- which are driven by the power of unintended usage. What's different between 1982 is the power that's unleashed with Makers or activists crack things open in search of new purpose.

When I was a kid and took apart a gadget all I got was a tube. In 1982, you'd get an 8-bit 8080 chip. These days you get a microcontroller or a graphics chip with the power to run full-on HD video. Or, you get an activist group capable of instant global reach via Twitter, unstoppable cellphones and organizing parties in World of Warcraft. We've always been Makers. Our tools have just gotten better. Way better.

Citizen journalists and activists can learn a lot from the maker/hacker movement. We should be meeting more often. Our rallying cry: "Sure, the government is broken, ya wanna make something of it?"

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