Dreessen K.(a), Schepers S.(a) and Huybrechts L.(b)
a) Social Spaces|CUO, research-unit Inter-Actions, Luca, School of Arts, Genk, Belgium
b) ArcK research group, Faculty of Architecture and Arts, UHasselt, Diepenbeek, Belgium

Keywords: hacking; Actor-Network Theory; user-object relationships; infrastructuring processes; FabLab.

Abstract: In this paper, we explore if introducing local youth to the context and opportunities of a FabLab (Gershenfeld, 2005), via ‘Hack-a-Thing’ workshops, could allow them to imagine new relationships between themselves and their surrounding objects via, for instance, teaching them new, particular skills (e.g. in hacking) and/or altering their relation to their immediate environments. Specifically, the ‘Hack-a-Thing’ workshops wanted to stimulate processes of creative breakdown and reuse that can unleash the other lives of technologies (Jackson & Kang, 2014). By doing so, these objects become actors in a conversation on what they were in the context of their previous lives and what possible new meanings they can have. This relates to the idea that objects have agency too, making them actors (Latour, 2005). However, “to be accounted for, objects have to enter into accounts” (Latour, 2005 p. 79). Thus, ‘Hack-a-Thing’ was set up to reimagine the relationships between human actors, non-human actors, the setting of a FabLab and the local youth’s own contexts. The paper describes our evaluations together with the participants of what drove them to choose a particular object, how they altered it and the changes the objects brought about in their own contexts. The paper also reflects on the role a FabLab can play in making objects accountable for their future lives and on what this activity of ‘making objects accountable’ can mean for facilitating infrastructuring processes.

Introduction: FabLab Genk, ‘Hack-a- Thing’ and infrastructuring processes

According to Gershenfeld (2005), we have entered an era of personal fabrication: we can download or develop digital product descriptions and designs and supply these to the fabricator with the raw materials to process them (Mikhak et al, 2002). In this line of thought, Gershenfeld launched so-called FabLabs: collections of “commercially available machines and parts linked by software and processes we developed for making things” (2005, p. 12). A FabLab allows people to develop a prototype of almost any imaginable product. Access to the lab, its equipment and the available knowhow is free (Milanese, 2006), provided that the FabLab user shares his/her designs with others – cf. the principles of ‘open source’ (Bauwens, 2007; Open source initiative, 2010) – by creating so- called ‘Fab-moments’: online step-by-step descriptions of the creation process.

Inspired by Gershenfeld’s initiative, FabLab Genk – situated in Genk (BE) – was set up. FabLab Genk aims to be more than just a place of infrastructure. This relates to an issue numerous FabLabs struggle with: “The [Fab]labs were primarily offering infrastructures to students, and […] relatively passive in reaching out to potential other users” (Troxler, 2010, p. 9). Therefore, FabLab Genk aims to make local inhabitants partners in a long-term participation process that results in various open objects, systems and services (De Weyer et al., 2013). This process is also referred to as ‘infrastructuring’, which addresses the challenge of design as being ‘ongoing’ and a process of ‘anticipation’ (Björgvinsson, Ehn & Hillgren, 2012; DiSalvo, Clement & Pipek, 2013).

This paper reflects on ‘Hack-a-Thing’: a series of workshops organized by FabLab Genk (Dreessen et al, 2014). In the next part, we illustrate how the workshops were developed and based on Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT) (2005). Next, we describe how the participants evaluated the workshops. In doing so, we also reflect on how a FabLab can make objects accountable for their future lives and on how these workshops can be part of bigger infrastructuring processes.

Objects are actors too: Latour’s third source of uncertainty

The ‘Hack-a-Thing’ workshops specifically stimulated processes of creative breakdown and reuse that could unleash the other lives of technologies: lives that go further than the ones they were designed for. Normally, technologies are designed to function as we want them to. But this also locks “objects into a world of necessary dependencies that limits the kinds of relations we may imagine with them” (Jackson & Kang, 2014, p. 9). The ‘Hack-a-Thing’ workshops are explicitly not limited to repairing objects to their predefined lives. As stated by Jackson and Kang (2014, p. 2): “Values get built into technology, but […] sometimes alternative values may be introduced through ongoing acts of repurposing and reuse that humans routinely perform vis-à-vis the world of objects around them.” Repurposing – or hacking – allows the objects to become actors in a conversation on what they were in the context of their previous lives and what possible new meanings they can have.

This relates to the idea of Latour (2005) and his ANT: an approach for understanding the social and focused on making visible the diversity of actors – both human and non-human – that constitute social processes (Kamp, 2012). Central to the theory are Latour’s five ‘sources of uncertainty’ in relation to the social. He describes uncertainties on the levels of: (1) the nature of groups, (2) the nature of actions, (3) the nature of objects, (4) the nature of facts, and (5) the study of the social. Concerning the third source of uncertainty, Latour (2005) departs from the idea that the range of actors at work in any consideration of the social has to be increased (Kamp, 2012), since “anything that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor” (Kamp, 2012, p. 71). This means that objects have agency too, making them actors in social processes.

However, Latour states (2005, p. 79) “to be accounted for, objects have to enter into accounts. If no trace is produced, they offer no information to the observer and will have no visible effect on other agents”. Latour states that objects, by their very nature (particularly relating to their relationships with human actors), quickly shift from being mediators to being intermediaries. This means that objects have the tendency to recede into the background very fast where they remain ‘silent’. This makes them no longer actors. Therefore, objects’ momentary visibility can be enhanced in order to “make them talk, that is, to offer descriptions of themselves, to produce scripts of what they are making other – humans and non-humans – do” (Latour 2005, p. 79). This can be achieved by generating good accounts of them. Latour discusses five ways of doing so: (1) by studying innovations (and controversies), (2) by approaching objects from a distance, (3) by exploring accidents, breakdowns and strikes, (4) by using archives, documents, museum collections, etc. and (5) by using fiction.

Evaluating ‘Hack-a-Thing’

To explore the relationship between ‘Hack-a- Thing’ and Latour’s ANT we evaluated the workshops, together with the participants and moderators that took part in the workshop. By doing so, we wanted to find out what drove them to choose for a particular object, how they altered it and the changes the objects brought about in their own contexts.

Context: Hack-a-Thing, the workshop series

‘Hack-a-Thing’ explored if by introducing (local) youth (16-20 years old) from the city of Genk to the context of a FabLab could allow them to imagine new relationships between themselves and their surrounding objects via, for instance, teaching them new, particular skills (e.g. in hacking) and/or altering their relation to their immediate environments. The workshops were organised as a first means to stimulate long- term participation in FabLab Genk (De Weyer et al., 2013; Dreessen et al., 2014).

The first workshop (July 2012) focused on hacking (i.e. creating new devices from components of old ones, with another function than originally intended) old appliances or used objects (a printer, vacuum cleaner, etc.) that the participants brought with them. The workshop started with an introduction to the machinery available in FabLab Genk and a course in Arduino to teach them the basics. The participants were divided into four groups, guided by a moderator (an expert in programming, designing, making, etc.). The second workshop (September 2012) started with an open call for participation inviting expert programmers, hackers and designers. The youngsters of the first workshop collaborated with these experts in creating a new object or continued working on their project of the first workshop (Dreessen et al., 2014).

The ‘Hack-a-Thing’ workshops resulted in several interesting outcomes, such as the ‘Persistence of Vision Robot’ (Figure 1). Using an old, broken ‘Roomba’ (i.e. the autonomously, automatic vacuum cleaner robot sold by ‘iRobot’) as a starting point, a group of participants connected its motors to a Motor Drive Shield and an Arduino, allowing them to control the robot’s movements. Moreover, the participants attached a row of thirteen small, LED lights to a custom, laser-cut wooden plate, which was placed on top of the robot. When photographed using a long shutter-time, the robot was seen writing ‘FabLab Genk’ in light. By adjusting the speed and sequence of the blinking LED lights, the robot could write any (short) text fragment and even draw small graphical elements (in loop).

Persistence of Vision Robot

Another group of participants created a grinder that can burn a large amount of coffee beans (Figure 2). To create this coffee grinder, they hacked into hair dryers and several old vacuum cleaner motors that forced air through a slotted plate and created a vortex that lifted the beans and rotated them. The participants used two temperature sensors to control the heat, in different stages of the burner. Eventually, the coffee grinder was able to burn approximately 400 grams of coffee beans.

The coffee grinder

Evaluating ‘Hack-a-Thing’: Methodology

Based upon results of participant observations (DeWalt & DeWalt, 2010) and unstructured interviews with the participants and moderators of ‘Hack-a-Thing’ (Figure 3), ‘thick descriptions’ were made (Geertz, 1973). These ‘thick descriptions’ allowed us to relate our theoretical concepts to what was discussed and conducted during the workshops. In this way, not only the mere facts, but also interpretations of the workshop, the use of technology, results and comments were taken into account. Furthermore, these thick descriptions were analysed from a grounded theory approach to reflect on (1) the role of human and non-human actors in defining future lives of technologies, and (2) what ‘making objects accountable’ can mean for FabLab Genk. We used Latours’ five ways of making objects ‘talk’ to cluster the results.

Participants and moderators in ‘Hack- a-Thing

Findings: human and non-human actors in ‘Hack-a-Thing’

The observations and interviews showed that all human and non-human actors in ‘Hack-a- Thing’ have a certain agency. These actors and the interaction between them (i.e. hacking) defined the new future lives of technologies (cf. Jackson & Kang, 2014), as the evaluation of the ‘Hack-a-Thing’ workshops will show.

First, concerning the non-human actors involved in the workshop, we can state that the objects that were brought to the workshop already determined the end-results of ‘Hack-a- Thing’ to a great extent. For instance, the Roomba that one of the participants brought already determined partly how the moving ‘Persistence of Vision Robot’ would look like. The participants indicated that, although they had no idea of what the end-results would be at the beginning of the workshop, they already had ideas of moving robots and therefore immediately recognized the Roomba’s potential. Thus, bringing the Roomba to the workshop already defined its new future life to some extent. Other non-human actors that co- defined the new futures lives of the end-results were the machinery and the equipment available in FabLab Genk. In the interviews, the participants indicated that the available equipment helped them to look for other and less obvious ways of dealing with the objects they brought to the workshops.

Second, not only the non-human actors but also the human actors involved in ‘Hack-a-Thing’ workshops determined these new future lives. Namely, the skills of the participants defined the form the end-results took on. For instance, interviews with the participants showed that the participants that were involved in hacking the objects into the ‘Persistence of Vision Robot’ all had some expertise in programming software, making the step to include Arduino into the robot rather easy. This also goes for the guidance that the participants received from the moderators in the workshop series. The expertise and background of the moderators in the workshop steered the participants in specific ways, thus influencing the end-results.

Third, we claim that the interaction between the human and non-human actors in ‘Hack-a-Thing’ defines the new future lives of technologies. In this case, the interaction takes on the form of hacking. The broken, old or obsolete objects, chosen and brought by the participants, stimulated and even facilitated the act of hacking, as they were already broken (although with still workable parts) and easy to disassemble. During the observations, we noticed that the participants considered the objects as being a sum of objects (i.e. components that they could use for hacking and creating new objects) instead of one whole object. In this sense, the objects that were brought to the ‘Hack-a-Thing’ workshops by the participants thus gained agency via the hacking process. Also, objects were given new functions or different goals by connecting them to other objects through hacking. Namely, it was not until the Motor Drive Shield was connected to the Roomba’s motor that the ‘Persistence of Vision Robot’ became able to move. Therefore, the interaction between objects via hacking also influenced the end- result to a great extent.

Finally, we also observed that hacking enabled changes in the relationships between the actors involved in the workshop and their environment. For instance, by partaking in the workshops and sharing his design with others participants, one particular participant that co-created the coffee grinder suddenly became part of an open source community, which – prior to the workshop – was unknown to him.

Findings: making objects accountable

‘Hack-a-Thing’ also taught us several things concerning the role of FabLab Genk in making objects accountable (Latour, 2005), since various mechanisms for making the objects in ‘Hack-a-Thing’ ‘talk’ were incorporated. First, all participants were asked to make their objects accountable through the above-mentioned Fab- moments. Documenting the objects and their creation processes in such a way allows others to create similar objects, work further upon them and/or alter them in new ways. This also changed the agency of these objects: from being end-results in a short-term workshop into starting points to build further upon in a long(er)- term process of reuse, thus facilitating ongoing participation. Second, as ‘Hack-a-Thing’ was part of the exhibition “The Machine – Designing A New Industrial Revolution”, the resulting objects were put on display. Being exhibited – both during the exhibition of “The Machine” as well as later on during the exhibition of “Conflict and Design“ – allowed the objects to enter conversations with different actors (e.g. the exhibition visitors) than before (e.g. the participants and moderators engaged in the workshop series).

Both of these ways of making objects talk relate to Latour’s idea (2005) of making objects accountable through using archives, documents, and museum collections. Finally, the participants indicated that they made the objects they produced accountable by approaching them from a distance: “By means of defamiliarization, we tried to reflect upon the objects in a critical way. This provided us with an idea of how the object was made, what it had to do and how it should be hacked in order to become a new object and have certain functionalities” (Anonymous participant, personal communication, September 16, 2012). This relates to Latour’s second way of ‘making objects talk’ and allows for the participants to form new relationships with the objects they encountered in the workshops.

In this sense, we can state that ‘Hack-a-Thing’ illustrated that making objects accountable can facilitate (1) long-term processes of on-going participation, and (2) new relationships between actors and their (local) environment. Within the context of FabLab Genk, particularly the documentation of objects through ‘Fab- moments’ or exhibitions is constantly stimulated and through this numerous objects have already been shared, rebuild and adapted in new ways.


We approached the ‘Hack-a-Thing’ workshops series as a social process, as studied by Latour (2005). In this process, both human and non- human actors play a role as well as the interaction between them. In the specific case of Hack-a-Thing, interaction took on the form of the act of hacking. We showed that this network of actors altogether defined the new future lives of technologies (cf. Jackson & Kang, 2014). In this way, new user-object relationships are stimulated. Furthermore, the Hack-a-Thing workshops are a way to extend the object’s lifetime (the predefined but also the other lives). This paper also illustrated that making these objects accountable allows for the facilitation of long-term and on-going participation, a specific aim of FabLab Genk.

The role of objects as non-human actors and their interaction with other (non-human or human) actors remains underexposed, due to them remaining unaccountable. We refer not only to workshop formats but also in everyday life (e.g. in our working environment or household): what is the impact of objects and how do they co-determine the shaping of social processes? By doing so, the ideas we explored in the Hack-a-Thing can be taken out of a workshop context and up scaled to everyday life. Therefore, ‘objects are actors too’, meaning that future research should focus on further exploring the role of the objects, as well as on making these objects accountable. After all, objects can be catalysts for different relations with the (local) environment.


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