Instructables

The Middle East and the Global Hackerspace Movement


Please follow me and imagine this. You're in a city and are taking a rattling train somewhere to the edge of town. The buildings get shorter as they get wider. You are entering the industrial area where the jobs dried up long ago. Where there are more broken windows than whole ones in each building. You pass the streets your parents warned you about and a street covered in "DO NOT CROSS" tape. Two stops later you get off at the stop your friends told you about questioning your sanity and wondering why your friends brought you out there. The graffiti is beautiful though, and somewhere in the distance you can hear the thump of heavy bass.

The address your friend gave you can't be right, you look up and see a massive complex thankfully this one seemed to have more of it's windows intact. You push the rusting door noticing the rough texture and surprising heft. You walk in and see a roughly refinished hallway. The drywall isn't yet painted but it appears that this massive factory has been transformed on the inside. You pass a few drywalled off artists studios on the first floor and they smile at you with plaster in their hair. It smells like lavender and you notice you just passed an artist making candles. The "hackerspace" your friend told you about is on the second floor. So you walk to the cargo elevator and push the call button. It makes a horrifying rattling sound as it descends to meet you, instead of a door it has a grate. You take it up and as it slowly moves you can see concrete, then wood and suddenly the thumping bass get's louder - Hello Skrillex. It's too much to take in at first, you only notice the chaos. There are tools everywhere and in every state of operation. A wall of computer monitors lines the back wall. There's someone binding books in the corner, and what appears to be a viking with knitting needles sitting in what appears to be a lounge, he looks up and smiles at you and says "welcome to Scrumspace*!" you've arrived at your first hackerspace. Notice an open basket of dollar bills and place a 2 dollar donation in the basket near the fridge and grab yourself a drink from the fridge in the kitchen. You walk into a common area painted like a scene from Super Mario with what appear to be server racks painted as the tubes. Finally you see your friend. He walks in with a scorched shirt and you see his eyes twinkling through the welding goggles. "Told you this place is awesome!" he says.

Hackerspace Values and Culture

Hackerspaces like this exist almost all over the world. These places collect (and perhaps helps inspire) people who are passionate initiators. Walking into one you might find someone who wants to share a new iPad application which monitors the GPS on the weather balloon they've released -"It's over //CHINA// right now!!". People in hackerspaces are happy to share, it's a part of the culture! Interacting with them is often uplifting and inspiring. They are building and creating things they think is amazing. They may be playing with technology or science or art without concern for the categories. The only apparent question they ask themselves is how AWESOME is this!? It's a contagious atmosphere of capability where people learn from each other constantly. They can't help it! People are so passionate about what they are doing, they inadvertently teach.

The other feature of a hackerspace which is more important is that they give people a venue. It's an open space that is owned by the members. Need a place to host a workshop on hat felting, it's yours! Need a place to build the first prototype of your product? Just make sure you pack it in the lockers when you're done working on it! The atmosphere is fundamentally collaborative. It can't be anything except participatory because of the way the spaces are most often organized and run. There is no single owner. Everyone pays for a portion of the rent, and more importantly everyone brings something new to the table. They might bring with them a new tool, their coffee machine, a desire to set up a program to run a STEM program for children. The spaces become a snapshot the local community of amazing people and their projects.

Many of these people started developing their projects during their final years in university. But their is a gap between a school project and feeling capable to take it and turn it into something yourself. I'd love to start here. With these fresh graduates. These young people who (perhaps not coincidentally) are also the driving force behind the revolutions of the middle east. This is a great place to start. These are the young people changing their countries today. They feel empowered to change long standing traditions and the culture of oppression in their governments. Perhaps it's also time to give them the tools to do the same for their local communities. Where they have the ability to have a more direct impact. Who the heck cares about the government if you are free to repave your roads, create alternative energy from solar power, clean your own water and start your own online webstore distributing products that are rapidly prototyped and drop shipped to other places around the world. Sure you might call this line of reasoning anarchistic. But when the systems around you are falling apart, banding together to pick up the pieces is the admirable thing to do.

Social entrepreneurship in the states often focuses on countries outside the states. They basically act as for profit NGOs. Non profit organizations as they operate in America don't exist in the middle east. Thus I'm beginning to think that the concept of social entrepreneurship might just be a great way forward for these countries. Doing well by doing good! This concept is a development hack, and one that could possibly have it's roots in the Hackerspace scene. There are features of hackerspaces that I see can give rise to more DIY social entrepreneurship in the middle east. They are:
1) The culture of good. Make something wonderful. Share it with others online and off. Be inspired and inspiring.
2) The availability of tools along with the docracy culture. If you want to see it, do it.
3) A supportive global and local community which has within it stories of other successes to emulate.

Where does this culture come from? It appears to be derived from the open source movement. Open source technology is often spearheaded by a few individuals but is maintained, built and supported by a global community of makers who want the tech for themselves as well. Do you want to see that feature? Write it? But don't edit the program and keep it to yourself! Share! That's a doocracy combined with the culture of sharing that the internet helps so much to support. All of this seems to be directed by the common value for people of all ideologies. The golden rule.

Do for others as you wish to have done for yourself.

Do you want free tools. Freedom. Access to clean water? A cheap space to build projects? Free vector drawing software? Be a doer. Be a part of the change. And then share with others. Your vision is what makes the future.

These are some of the amazing features of these spaces. This is why I am in love with hackerspaces, open source technology and makers of all types. They are beautiful people who come from all types of backgrounds who get together to create a culture of sharing and collaboration that enhances their local communities and connects them globally. If you have not visited your local hackerspace yet, visit it. If you live in a place without a space, put your name up on hackerspaces.org, I'm sure you will find like minded people who crave this type of community.

Hackerspaces in the Middle East

Now that we have described hacker culture and hackerspaces can a space like this become a the hub and home of amazing people in the Middle East? Does the west have a monopoly on awesome. Absolutely not.
Are middle easterners creative
Heck yes!
Are they inspired to work collaboratively?
Heck yes!
Are they educated?
Heck yes!
Do they want to fix the problems they see around them?
Heck YES!
Are they powerful?
Heck YES!

Again and again I've seen example after example of the young people in the middle east (yes, those that are 30% unemployed) showcasing example after example of incredible projects. And talking to them a message I hear over and over is that they want to show the world that in Beirut, Baghdad, or Cairo things other than violence is created. They want to create positive news that goes out to the world. They want to reach out to the world and participate in sharing!

Here's a short list of incredible people I've met personally in my two short trips to the middle east:
Bassam Jalgha
Tarek Ahmed
Ahmed Tohamy
Salma Adel
Rami Ali's Smart Breadboard
Marc Farra
Maya Kreidieh
Cairo Hackerspace Book Scanner Project
An awesome home automation system in Baghdad Iraq
Mustafa Elnagar
Furkan
Alp Pehlivan
Hind Hobeika's Butterfleye Project
Jad Berro's Tank Robot
Mounir Zoorob Octocopter!

Here's a video of Munir's octocopter: Beirut is beautiful:
 

One incredible graduation project by Cairo Hackerspace organizer Salma Adel is one that focuses on the very heart of the maker movement and looks at the artisan as the creator of value. How do you take new design, match it with old technology and create amazing new products. I'm proud to know she's an active memeber at Cairo Hackerspace: 


I hope I have shown you that there are already "hackers", makers and entrepreneurs there in the middle east. People with the open source attitude Arabs with the culture of sharing and collaboration. There are many here that work with the Google Technology User Groups or other open source initiatives. Linux user groups. Tons of coworking spaces. And some incredible incubators and entrepreneurship cultural development projects. Android phones are more popular in Egypt than the iPhone from my own small survey. It might have initially started as a cost issue has turned into a passion with Ubuntu, firefox, Android and other open source technologies really taking off. A few things were missing though. If you read hacker news you will begin to think that anyone with a desire to make foursquare mashups is an entrepreneur. In the middle east we have incredibly skilled people languishing after college while their counter parts in the west are out attempting to recreate Facebook. Why?! I think it has to do with the lack of proper story telling about entrepreneurship in the Middle East. Wamda seems to be helping greatly in that regard, but we need more publications talking about this issue! This also comes in concert with an inability to find cofounders. Why? A lack of collaboration? Why? A lack of self initiated projects? Solution? Do stuff. Just do it. Where?

Here. At your local hackerspace. Do you have an interesting idea you want to try? A drone to take ariel pictures of the pyramids? Or a service like Utlub which delivers soap to bathers who are wet and realize they ran out of soap. Well in a space like a hackerspace you can do it! The tools are there. But more importantly you will find collaborators! People who are willing to jump on board to help!al

Patterns of Propagation

The Arab world is not just ready for Hacker culture, hacker culture is already there. My work with GEMSI is simply to connect the right people together and showcase the awesome possibilities hackerspace afford their communities and attempt to create the right environment to allow these amazing people to take their own future into their hands like they already are, but to do it not only politically, but financially, and with direct community education and organizing.

Before I went to the middle east I was privileged to participate in the rise of the hackerspace movement in the United States. In 2007 there were very few (if any self identified) hackerspaces in the United States. That same year Mitch AltmanBre Pettis, and Nick Farr went on a trip to Germany visiting the hackerspaces that were there. Being filled with inspiration and the realization that these spaces were created by PEOPLE who wanted to set them up. They came back to the states and started Noisebridge, NYCResistor and HacDC respectively. Due to the culture of sharing, they started putting up projects online. They shared the process of creating these spaces. And slowly at first people started noticing that they too could start their own local community spaces for creation and we started seeing them grow rapidly. The mathematical name of the function that describes this type of growth is exponential. The more spaces that existed that have this culture of sharing the more people heard about them and wanted them in their own cities.

Then something wonderful happened. The economy collapsed in 2008 which had two very positive effects on the development of hackerspaces:
  1.  People were freed from their jobs
  2.  Space was becoming cheap as tons of manufacturing facilities were abandoned.

Check out this chart which shows the rapid growth of hackerspaces and the acceleration around 2008/9.

Hacker culture is an attitude that anything can be done by any resource available. MacGyver will make you a mouse trap from your sunglasses and your underpants. A hacker would use it to make a one way privacy screen for your cellphone. But how do you transmit a culture? This is why a space is so important. Having a place where people can sit with others and recognize the possibilities. To see the value in the stuff they know, to share it with others and to build together. The first few hackerspaces that are being set up in the middle east have the same property of viral transmission as we saw in America.

Istanbul Hackerspace and Base Istanbul are both hackerspaces in Turkey. Istanbul Hackerspace being in the European part and Base Istanbul in asian section. As widely spread apart as they are, they both have something in common. Both founders had visited a hackerspace, one in Japan and the other in Germany before coming home and deciding they wanted to start one there. It's kind of incredible to see the same pattern repeat in the middle east. This appears to be a universal need, the need for community, creativity and having a open space to build your future.

The pattern has been proven in Egypt as well. Alexandria's hackerspace initiative was galvanized after a delegation of students visited  Cairo Hackerspace two hours to the south. It's exciting to see the very same forces at work that took the hackerspaces from being a concept barely known to having a large impact on the American Entrepreneurial and cultural landscape in five short years years at work in Egypt. Cairo Hackerspace currently is without their space but is actively seeking a new one and it's one of my current goals to help in any way I can.

Let's conclude with the list of hackerspaces just starting up in Egypt and Beirut. This is just the start. Keep an eye on these guys and know that there will be many many more to come:

Egypt:
Cairo Hackerspace
El Minya Hackerspace
Alexandria Hackerspace
Mansoura Hackerspace
Egypt Fablab (Same idea ;)
Lebanon:
Beirut Hackerspace (link coming soon)

If you'd like to talk more about the global development of hackerspaces. Let's continue talking online at GEMSI's facbebook group.

*Scrumspace does not exist as a hackerspace. If you like the name take it!

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labanita1 year ago
hi there, great article, may I add that besides the hackerspaces, there are also some other coworking spaces, and we are about to launch the CoworkingEgypt community. Follow us on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/coworkingEgypt
FrozenIce2 years ago
MY GOD!!!! AHHHH i really cant believe this... here? in lebanon??? please post the link to the lebanese website ASAP!!! please....
lamedust (author)  FrozenIce1 year ago
The website isn't up yet! I'll message you Bassams email address!
caitlinsdad2 years ago
Ah, my idealistic friend, I wish I had that sense of global optimism as yours. Maybe I am getting old but I do see the fine line between good and evil and accepted the fact I was not placed on this earth to change the world. Of the people I have known from places that were formally under Soviet rule, they hacked to survive. I guess the point being has "recreational hacking" really proved to create something to save the world? Any invention would be commercialized and bow to corporate greed and personal gain. I do see the Mitch Altman viewpoint of DARPA grants as a hook into hackerspaces. Sign on the dotted line and the government owns you. I do see that robotic wheeled chassis as a platform to deliver IEDs. I do see people with the graffitti mindset wanting to tag the pyramids with the use of octocopters. So whatever happened to the one laptop per child? Can't happen here in the US. Keep hope alive.
Don "Bilal" Quixote
depotbassam2 years ago
Brilliant post!!!! we miss you and we are waiting for your next visit.. you will see much more happening next time I promise!
wilgubeast2 years ago
What an insightful and enthusiastic post. Way to be a part of something awesome.

My two favorite parts? The bright side of economic collapse: more opportunities to build stuff, share stuff, and learn from other people who are doing the same. And the picture of you holding glow sticks.
lamedust (author)  wilgubeast2 years ago
That's an octocopter!
My apologies. My favorite part is the glowing octocopter.
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