About 15 km between Emmerich, Germany and Arnhem, Holland, a tabby kitten guards the middle of the road into Landgut de Panoven. Small but unafraid, he’s more interested in new visitors than in the Eurasian coots floating and diving like black ducks with higher-reaching white beaks and puffy fennel seed-like webbing on their feet. Their lake began as a hole dug out for clay. It’s off-season, so visitors mainly come for the rustic industrial site’s restaurant or events. But over the summer, they come to see the old, clay sauna — building, machine, and stove in one.
Past loamy fields, unturned and fertile, bricks dry on wooden racks by the big oven. Eight corridors extend out from the center of the round building like rays. The building itself is made of them — floor, walls, and ceiling — like a clay igloo. When it was in operation, the whole building would be hot to touch. In season, you can still make your own brick. Then — if all goes well — you have one, perfect building block. Year-round, Zevenaar and the nearby hackerspace, Hack42 in Arnhem, show what you can do with a bunch.
Zevenaar and Hack42 are connected by their illustration of strength in numbers, participation in the global free book exchange Book Crossing, a new bike path, an old rail line, and “Moem” (short for “Moomin,” a pseudonym). One of many female leaders in the Continental hacker scene, Moem was the first chairperson of Hack42, one of the first hackerspaces in the Netherlands. We make erwtensoep (pea soup with leeks, carrots, and celery root) — hearty, Dutch winter food — for hangout night at Hack42. Dinner costs about 1 euro per person because of the size of the group.
Hack42 came out of Hacking At Random (HAR) 2009, a Dutch version of the Chaos Communication Camp informally known as the biggest hacker party in the world. When HAR campers who previously only knew each online realized that they knew like-minded people in the same places in real life, they decided to create physical infrastructure to help hackers work together better. HXX Foundation subsidized the 500 euro fee to help Dutch hackerspaces like Hack42 begin as foundations.
Strength in numbers applies beyond bricks and pea soup. In juxtaposition with the typical caricature of hackers as loners, Hack42 illustrates the awesome power of the group — how much more we can do with others than by ourselves. The name comes from a supercomputer’s statement of the meaning of everything — the number 42 — from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (Finding the right question, the supercomputer informs the perplexed population, is always the harder adventure.) It’s also a reference to Dutch journalist Brenno de Winter’s fictionalized account of the hack that could have taken down the global banking system.
Despite its members’ technological powers, the space is studiously self-deprecating. Baby slugs cuddle parents in a corner fish tank by the Wall of Fail. The Wall of Fail features hilarious failures: a framed military map fragment that survived attempted burning when the building, initially a covert German military installation still blacked out on Google Maps, was abandoned in haste; a letter from a Dutch cookie company responding to the hackers’ complaint that their biscuits’ icing was uneven — generating suboptimal results in laser inscribing experiments; and a Windows Vista Home Basic installation CD. Anonymous masks look down from hanging lights turned paper lanterns with translucent paper. Pink cellophane flowers in another corner keep the living room spruced and inviting. A Snowden poster above them reads: “I want you to blow the whistle in defense of our liberty — truth is only treason in the empire of lies.” A stuffed moose head adorns the door jam over the adjacent World Domination Room, complete with evil cat and the same model CryptoPhone President Obama uses.
A buzzing noise from high-voltage experiments upstairs interrupts my umpteenth attempt to take it all in. There are too many jokes, toys, and projects to process. Stuffed mice peep out from beakers and obscure devices — a Fase-Volgorde by a Photo-Electric System Transmitter above a Neon Cat painting above the custom-made wood stove that, through a special central heating system members designed and installed, heats most of the three-story bunker. An enormous woodpile that members cut sits in a trolley under a painting of the blue screen of death. A PH telecommunicatie is programmed to Tweet the building’s openings and closings. A foam head from a one-time prank involving a headless statue honors Dutch astronomer and popular science writer Chriet Titul4er.
The ability of the group to empower people and ideas connects it all. When famed Dutch hacker Rop Gonggrijp cut the ribbon on Hack42’s first building four years ago, he held three separate beakers full of mysterious substances. The first, labeled People, turned color when combined with the second, Ideas. When he added the third, Tools, the solution foamed up and bubbled over. This interactivity of people, ideas, and tools illustrates how hackerspaces harness the power of groups to work together to obtain the tools to do things most of us can’t dream of accomplishing as isolated individuals.
Through that power, Hack42 has built up a Computer Museum with pinball machine-sized computers — the Teletronix 4002A Graphic Computer Terminal, the Holborn Systeem 9100, cisco systems AGS+; a Maaklab for making goodies like T-shirts, now decorated with a T-shirt reading “Ada — world’s first programmer”; a laser cutter; 3D printers; key cutting machines; welding equipment; table and circular saws; every manner of drill and wrench; and an M32 Bistro La Cimbali coffee machine affectionately known as the Dragon.
But it’s not all power tools and anvils. Over time, the collective has contributed to a number of successful projects, such as building a butterfly puzzle for an escape room, a tricopter, and BBQs from old sinks. (One was so beautiful, it was stolen.)
The space also builds community. A small tent holding a colorful ball pit marks the entrance of the Bibliotheek (library). First-generation hackers bring their kids here to play with their old favorites — Nintendo, Gameboy, Rubix cube, board games, a wall of TVs labeled “As seen on TV!”
Up the half of the staircase that’s passable around a handmade wooden ramp for transporting stuff up motorized wire rigging, changing LEDs reflect between a translucent curtain and the windowpane. From outside at night, they have a stained-glass effect — making the building look like a church sheltering fairies. Up another, more winding staircase, the top floor has a big, empty room that was once used for church services by occupying intelligence forces.
In 1942, while the Nazis were building Hack42’s current bunker deep in the woods in Arnhem to resemble a German farmhouse so British forces wouldn’t bomb it. Dutch resistance artists, scientists, teachers, Christians, Jews, gays, communists, and others were leading underground presses, hiding families, and running underground railroads to get people out of danger. After the war, the resistance adapted itself to the renewed threat of Soviet invasion, forming decentralized network nodes ready to violently disrupt potential communist occupiers. Scientists helped organize this latent resistance. Later, this historically rooted culture of decentralized resistance helped undermine mass surveillance before the European Court of Justice ruled last month that American corporate-state surveillance partnerships were violating Europeans’ human right to privacy.
By contrast, U.S. scientists working on national security research have long been disconnected. They fought lie detectors at Oak Ridge, one of our main science cities created for the Manhattan Project — and lost. They fought massive polygraph program expansion again at Los Alamos National Lab in the early naughties — and lost again. American tech thought leaders like Aaron Swartz and Barrett Brown seem more likely to be dead or jailed than their European counterparts, contributing to brain drain. It’s an ironic state of affairs given hackspacers’ U.S. origins and the general American love of wild things.
Having fled illegal retaliation for my work as a U.S. National Science Foundation-funded postdoctoral researcher, I don’t know if I’m ever going home. I don’t know a lot of things. Can American scientists organize effective response to government suppression of research on cold fusion, gun violence, polygraphs, and more? Can governmental employees address unprecedented whistleblower persecution as a collection action problem? Where is the infrastructure of U.S. resistance working for science in the public interest? And what is it about the swiftly fading Dutch light that makes the roads between Zevenaar and Hack42 look like a moving Vermeer series?
I only know Continental hackers work together in hackerspaces like Hack42 to make things it would be impossible for most to make independently, like bricks making a brick-making thing — building, machine, and stove in one. And I’m grateful.