Open Source Hardware Panel

A couple Fridays ago was an informal panel discussion of things related to the Open Source Hardware movement and included some big names from the community.

I think it’s important to understand the tone of the panel: there was a declared drinking game that you had to drink whenever anyone said “community”. It was a light-hearted event that generated some excellent discussion. Early on the in evening Bre stated:

Open source hardware is not about the hardware, it’s about the infrastructure to participate.

I’ve had very little (arguably no) direct involvement in OSHW (open source hardware) and this declaration just seemed incredibly profound to me and really underlines the difference in communities between OSHW and FOSS (free and open source software).

There was a fair bit of discussion comparing the two communities, and of course given the crowd, there was a strong bias towards how the OSHW community operates. After learning more of the philosophy of OSHW, I’m inclined to prefer their approach over FOSS’s.

It was said that a lot of the differences come down to atoms vs. bits. It allows for business models to be more obvious because there’s a physical product with a more explicit cost while software isn’t tied to the physical. This also allows software to be a religion in ways that hardware cannot.

Another difference is that the next TODO of FOSS is documentation while the next TODO of OSHW is the consumer product. There are probably those that disagree with this statement, but I found it to be valid and to point out what I feel is a hugely discriminatory factor in FOSS. Overall, FOSS is poorly documented. It’s just not a community priority. Of course there are exceptions, but there is a large contingent of FOSS that seems to pride itself on steep learning curves and insider knowledge. This makes it very difficult for “outsiders” to join. In particular, it makes it more difficult for individuals who don’t exhibit the stereotypical white male nerd traits to participate. OSHW seems much more conscious of inclusion and group contribution.

My limited experience with the OSHW community has been through publications like Make Magazine, Maker Faire and the London Hackspace. All of these are male dominated spaces, so I didn’t expect the gender parity of the OSHW panel. FOSS panels would kill for this kind of gender representation. I find hackspaces (or at least the one in London) to be incredibly similar to FOSS demographics. I’ve even seen it drive away men from Big-C Creative industries because of the huge embrace of nerd culture.

My assumptions of the gender dynamics of OSHW fall apart when I actually think about them. I can much more easily name female contributors to the hardware world than software. Off the top of my head: Leah Buechley, Limore Fried, Becky Stern and now can add the panelists listed above.

I think once you’re inside the engineering club to some degree, in the process of assimilating it can be easy to forget how to be inclusive to those without engineering backgrounds. While at the ITP Camp, and especially by attending the sessions taught by Tom Igoe, I’ve certainly come to appreciate the tools that have been developed for those without computer science or electrical engineering backgrounds, in particular Processing and Arduino. I previously was frustrated with the platforms as I thought it dumbed-down the content excessively and didn’t ensure that proper engineering concepts were taught. However, I now appreciate that they get people writing code and working with microcontrollers without requiring entry into the exclusive clubhouse that is engineering. Learning the technical bits can come later. Finding an initial passion for creating and engineering needs to fostered first.