Hacking Chicago

By Evan Minsker

While twenty people sat around with their laptops and coffee, Sacha De’Angeli stood up to propose a crucial decree for the group.

“The rule I’d like to propose comes from Bill & Ted,” he said. “Be excellent to each other.”

The motion was voted on and seconded. From then on, the organized group of Chicago hackers would have to “be excellent to each other.” After the meeting was adjourned, the hackers scattered and began individual discussions about topics such as knitting and machinery.

A new Chicago-based hacker space, called Pumping Station: One (PSOne), is ready to set up shop in the city. Since October, the group has been looking for a building to call home. At press time, the group had written a letter of intent and were waiting for the owner’s approval to move into the space as soon as April. Until they move into a space, the group meets every Tuesday night at The Mercury Cafe, 1505 W. Chicago Ave.

The members of PSOne aren’t out to steal money or use their computer skills to overthrow the government. Actually, a few of the members aren’t computer experts at all.

Josh Krueger, a member of PSOne, defines a hacker as “someone who makes something and modifies it and uses it in a way that wasn’t originally intended.” His definition can be applied to just about any medium.

“[A hacker space is] a place where people can go to push the boundaries of their form and art,” said PSOne founder Eric Michaud. “It doesn’t relate just to computers.”

The members of PSOne come from very diverse backgrounds. They’re artists, engineers, programmers, bakers and writers. One of the only qualities that binds all of them together is their desire to create. The creations, however, vary from machines to crafts.

“Most of us were the type of people who took apart vacuum cleaners and were drawing on the walls when we were young,” said Nathan Witt, secretary of PSOne. “We have an affinity to brush off trends and do what we want.”

Hacker spaces are all over the world, but each one is wildly different from the other. In San Francisco, a hacker space called Unicorn Precinct XIII focuses solely on molecular gastronomy, or the science of food (“food hacking,” as Michaud calls it). Das Labor in Bochum, Germany, consists of a group who works primarily with hardware.

Unlike those spaces, PSOne doesn’t have one concentration or focus. They plan on having a machine shop, electronics lab, coding lounge and kitchen area to serve a variety of concentrations.

Bre Pettis, the founder of the Brooklyn-based NYC Resistor and host of “History Hacker” on The History Channel, said spaces like this are fantastic for hackers.

“In the past, hackers, nerds and geeks have pretty much been at home with their computer screens. And now we get to be together with our computer screens,” Pettis said. “We share resources and space, so it’s kind of like having a clubhouse, except there are tons of tools.”

Michaud co-founded a hacker space in Washington, D.C., called HACDC while living in New Jersey. Instead of moving to Washington, he decided to move to Chicago.

“I said, ‘I’m in Chicago, I want my own hacker space. I’m hearing all these wonderful things that I helped create but I don’t actually get to do it,'” Michaud said.

Membership was low in late 2008, but in January, there was a membership boom. Pettis wrote about Michaud’s new group on the NYC Resistor blog, and members started flowing in.

Every Tuesday night around 7 p.m., a large portion of the 29 members gather at Mercury Cafe. More than half of the people in attendance have their eyes glued to a laptop screen. On one occasion, there is certainly conversation of a “bro night” in the air, thus alienating the three ladies in the room.

About 20 minutes of the two- or three-hour gathering is dedicated to an actual meeting. The group works like any other nonprofit-there are officers, the secretary takes minutes, proposals must be voted on and everyone pays dues. However, after 20 minutes of official business, the group breaks up. The rest of the night consists of each person throwing around ideas for personal projects.

The first project produced by PSOne was a light box built by Witt. He built the box with the intention of screen-printing T-shirts for the group. After building the light box, Witt is especially excited about having a communal space and the tools that come with it.

“It would’ve been a lot easier to build [the light box] with a table saw and a drill press,” Witt said.

De’Angeli has a background in engineering. He currently does IT work for a local hospital. He said a hacker space would give the opportunity to exercise his engineering skills outside of the workplace.

Primarily, De’Angeli is interested in building a Replicating Rapid-prototyper, or a RepRap. Essentially, a RepRap is a machine that can create plastic 3D objects, such as machine parts or even shoes. A manufactured RepRap costs about $30,000.

“[In order to build one,] it costs about $500 plus a lot of time,” De’Angeli said. “Along the way, you learn a lot about mechanics, electronics and software.”

Michaud said a lot of the members interested in the RepRap were immediately attracted to the idea of a hacker space in Chicago.

“It turns out a bunch of people from the Chicago RepRap group heard about us, and they said, ‘We’re totally becoming members because you’re going to have a machine shop, an electronics lab, a coding lounge and a cafe,'” Michaud said. “That basically was the anthem for all the people who showed up.”

Teddie Goldenberg, a science fiction writer, is less concerned with making an actual machine. He’s more interested in using “a geek approach” to create social change.

Goldberg said he is working on an electronic fair credits system. The system would enable people to engage in fair trade across the globe. Instead of using the currency exchange system, participants would trade in labor hours or energy credits.

“I want to see how we can take some socially useful projects and good ideas and see how geeks would solve these problems,” he said.

While many of the members have personal projects they’re developing, some people are more excited about the possibilities that come with the space.

“I just like the idea of having a community where I can work on a lot of different things with other people and just having somewhere to call my own that isn’t my apartment,” said Elisabeth Skipp.

Every member of PSOne pays $50 per month in dues. The $50 gets each member a key into the building and 24-hour access to all of their facilities. Since they don’t yet have a space, the money is going toward paying for the building’s expenses. Witt compared the price to a cell phone bill.

“I mean, phones are important and everyone has them, but $50 is a good price to ask,” Witt said. “The YMCA costs more than this for registration fees, so it’s worth checking out.”

However, it’s likely that membership fees won’t cover all of their expenses. Pettis ran into this problem with NYC Resistor. To raise more money, NYC Resistor held classes, which is exactly what PSOne plans to do.

Witt said the first two classes that have been discussed for the future are soldering and knitting, which represents the two sides of their set up: technology and art.

The balance between art and technology is evident in the members’ backgrounds. While De’Angeli is utilizing the space for engineering reasons, Skipp is an artist and a baker.

That is one of the advantages of PSOne: The artistically inclined can learn from the mechanically inclined and vice versa. Jim Burke, who works primarily in animation and graphic design, said he wants to learn more about engineering.

“It’s a conglomeration of like-minded individuals focusing on completely different interests all together,” Burke said. “Some of the best projects I’ve ever read about, any type of interesting thing, are usually run by a menagerie of those types of people.”

Although PSOne is striving to create a hacker community in Chicago, the space is a piece of a much bigger picture.

“The hacker space movement is emerging. It’s really strong in Germany, but it’s starting to take a turn in the United States,” Pettis said. “There are places popping up all over the place. It’s really fantastic. [Hacker spaces] create minor communities and together, we are a movement.”

To learn more about PSOne, donate or get information about becoming a member, visit PumpingStationOne.org.