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Hacking Apple: Putting the power of tech back into our hands


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From Bristol to Sheffield, diverse groups of makers, fixers and techies are creating more self-reliant communities.
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5/4/2018 Hacking Apple: putting the power of tech back into our hands | Guardian Sustainable Business | The Guardian 1/4
Kat Braybrooke
Hacking Apple: putting the power of tech back into
our hands
From Bristol to Sheffield, diverse groups of makers, fixers and techies are creating more self
reliant communities
Do you have a favourite community project in your neighbourhood?
Tue 1 Dec 2015 12.59GMT
Giant brands like Apple and Samsung dominate the technology we use in our day-to-day
lives. Apple, for example, recently reported its most profitable year, while Samsung is
the brand of choice for singer Rihanna as she launches her latest album, Anti.
In an era of unbridled consumption, where big tech companies appear mightier than
ever, it’s easy to feel disenfranchised. This is no accident, as companies use methods like the
Digital Millennium Copyright Act to prevent us from unlocking smartphones and repairing
laptops. The result is millions of tonnes of e-waste, with our devices generally difficult to
upgrade, fix or repurpose.
5/4/2018 Hacking Apple: putting the power of tech back into our hands | Guardian Sustainable Business | The Guardian 2/4
But this powerlessness and waste can and is being challenged. Amid the glitter, a different kind of
movement is quietly coming of age – one led by shared machine shops driven not by financial
gain, but by a love for learning, neighbours and community.
Opening the door to the secretive tech world
In the past decade, hundreds of spaces have been created around the world where anyone can go
to learn new skills and crafts. There are 97 of these so-called makerspaces, fab labs, hackspaces,
inspiration studios and repair cafes in the UK alone – only 10% of which existed in 2010 – kitted
out with new tools such as laser cutters and 3D printers, and with traditional tools such as
woodworking and fabrication equipment.
Funded in multiple ways, including through grants or public funds, membership, training, space
hire, donations, sponsorship and corporate income, these diverse projects are built on principles
of tech openness. They are also united by their belief that a new world is possible – one where
instead of becoming increasingly reliant on large companies to do everything for us, we are
empowered to learn and build with the technologies that surround us.
In October, more than 50 community leaders and researchers came together for the first time at
Makerspaces and Sustainability, a two-day gathering in London to explore the potential for shared
machine shops to help build resilient, sustainable local communities.
“These sites constitute dynamic spaces for experimentation, and their emerging capabilities for
new material cultures are what we see as most significant for aspirations to post-consumer
societies,” says Adrian Smith, professor of technology and society at the University of Sussex’s
Science Policy Research Unit and the event’s organiser.
Democratising machine access
One of the meeting’s most enthusiastic participants was James Wallbank. His Makers shop opened
on a high street in Sheffield in September to bring craftspeople together by hosting workshops
where participants can learn skills such as laser-cutting or marionette-making before selling their
creations from the shop. “My wife and I ... wanted to find a sustainable model that widened
participation in making – not just for the usual white male computer science and engineering
crowd, but for everyone,” says Wallbank.
Researchers such as Smith have traced the democratising tradition of these sites back to 1976,
when Lucas Aerospace workers created a Nobel prize-nominated plan for “socially useful
production”. The aim was to democratise manufacturing by uniting workers with activists, trade
Interior of Makers shop in Sheffield. Photograph: James Wallbank
5/4/2018 Hacking Apple: putting the power of tech back into our hands | Guardian Sustainable Business | The Guardian 3/4
unionists and scientists at community technology networks across London to inspire innovation
that prioritised social use over private profit.
Many of today’s shared machine projects manifest this ethos. Things Manchester, for example,
builds local infrastructures across the city that provide a free Internet of Things for anyone to use.
In London, the Restart Project’s workshops help people repair electronics. “When we maintain
and resell,” says co-founder Janet Gunter, “we create value locally in an otherwise throwaway
economy where things are manufactured far away. We reduce environmental impacts while
bringing people together who might never have met otherwise.
Coopting the grassroots
Despite such potential, UK shared machine shops have much to fear from the fate of similar
movements across the pond. Writers Evgeny Morozov and Cory Doctorow, along with others,
warn of the deterioration of making subcultures in the US.
They argue that the grassroots nature of the maker movement is increasingly being co-opted and
that the commercialisation of such projects detaches them from their community roots. Tim
Bajarin, for example, points out in a Time article that the maker movement has “caught the
attention of many major players in the tech and corporate worlds”, including Intel, Ford and
At Makerspaces and Sustainability, examples of shared machine shop efforts that did not occur at
the expense of communities took many forms, the majority of them local. In Bristol, for example,
the low-cost DIY solar panel-building workshops of Demand Energy Equality provide neighbours
with hands-on access to once-mysterious renewable technologies. The project’s co-director Max
Wakefield says: “By helping people create tangible relationships with energy, we can enable an
understanding of the need to reduce demand.
Despite the private tech industry’s seeming invincibility in many areas of consumer life, from
copyright to privacy, there are cracks in the facade. If we are serious about building self-
sustaining communities where people are empowered not only to consume but also to create, it is
vital not to overlook the importance of our nation’s fledgling shared machine shops.
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A DIY solar panel workshop in Bristol. Photograph: Demand Energy
5/4/2018 Hacking Apple: putting the power of tech back into our hands | Guardian Sustainable Business | The Guardian 4/4
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