I asked Free Geek’s Amanda Luker questions about technological innovation, education, and the cultural commons. And while the connections between discarded computers and art-making may seem tenuous, Amanda convinced me that not only can obsolete technology become art; “open source” can become a beautiful and inspiring collaboration.
Free Geek is defined, in part, as an educational project. Why is technology education important?
At Free Geek TC, we think technology is often a barrier for people – economically and socially. But it’s a barrier that doesn’t need to exist…Getting people not to be afraid of opening a computer or installing software is a huge first step. It can also give our volunteers a leg up in the workplace, get them comfortable searching and applying for jobs online, or even just helping their kids with homework on the computer.
Do you view your work in relationship to the idea of a commons? If so, how?
Most certainly. We are big believers in ‘open source’ — not only for operating systems, but for education. Open source means that a project is a collaboration by those who actually use the software to make it better. Anyone who wants to help is encouraged to submit improvements. The strength of it comes from its inclusive nature, much like a true democracy. We apply the same ideas to technology knowledge. We believe that no one person owns that knowledge, and it’s up to us to share it with those who want to learn.
What makes for a successful collective community? How does Free Geek reflect this?
Free Geek TC does the best it can to be welcoming and inclusive. There’s no barrier for entry — and we encourage those with even the fewest skills to take on the challenge of learning to build a computer. We have had volunteers that get frustrated easily, but we emphasize that it isn’t about being perfect or getting it down right away– it’s often about failing. Doing it wrong (and doing it wrong a few times) is often the best way to learn!
I also think that it’s pretty easy to have a strong collective community with such a good model to follow (Free Geek is successful in many other cities) and when there are such tangible goals and results. We have given away several computers for free now, recycled over 1300 lbs of e-waste, and have a volunteer base that is enthusiastic and growing each week!
Given that your core materials are hard drives, old monitors and circuit boards, how does Free Geek encourage artistic creation?
I think people who are artistically minded are naturally inspired by the materials! Some volunteers do just come on Saturdays to play with obsolete technologies and see what can be made with them, for example, turning old monitors into oscilloscopes or making colorful boxes from floppy disks.
How can we support technological innovation without increasing the amount of electronic waste?
Personally, I think it would be grand if the focus shifted from coming up with a constant stream of new devices. For instance, as it became cheaper to make ink jet printers, manufacturers started giving them away with every computer purchase — and now Free Geek has a pile of potentially working ink jet printers that no one wants… These throw-away devices are what we need to avoid… we have plenty of devices out in the world already!
I’d love to see more modular devices that would encourage replacing small parts rather than the whole device when an advancement is made. It is startling to learn about the environmental effects of not just disposing of old devices, but the creation of them as well. (Here’s a great info-graphic on what goes into making an iphone.)
At Free Geek, we celebrate reusing known good hardware, and hope that our practices will catch on!