Developing a 'hacker' culture of ideas, innovation

Singapore hacker community, HackerspaceSG, wants to change negative stereotype of hackers to one that embodies innovation and creativity.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

SINGAPORE--One year since its inception, HackerspaceSG still aims to keep building a strong "hacker" culture that fosters idea-sharing and innovative problem-solving among individuals in a supportive environment.

Founders of the local network hope it will be a community where hackers are no longer simply referred to as people who maliciously break security codes.

In an interview with ZDNet Asia Tuesday, co-founders of HackerspaceSG, Chua Ruiwen and Luther Goh, pointed out that the definition of hacking or hackers is not limited to those who crack IT codes for good or bad purposes.

Instead, Chua said hacking is really about "putting different things together and playing around with stuff", and where one is on an intellectual pursuit. It is about exploring creativity and finding new ways to go around obstacles, he said.

He added that such a hacker culture cannot be effectively taught in a classroom or with a textbook, but rather cultivated in a hacker environment or a physical place where a community of hackers gather.

A hackerspace is commonly referred to as a place at which people who share similar interests, usually in technology and digital media, gather to exchange ideas and collaborate.

Goh and Chua met as students at linuxNUS, an open source advocacy group which Chua founded in 2005 at the National University of Singapore. After graduation, the two started HackerspaceSG in November 2009 with two other friends, Wong Meng Weng and Justin Lee. The group currently has over 60 registered members.

Both Goh and Chua today mentor student leaders of the linuxNUS group, which Goh said also helps inculcate the hacker culture.

Chua added that it helps to facilitate the sharing of ideas among the community and cultivate a hacker mindset by encouraging learning beyond the textbook and self-motivation to overcome seemingly impossible challenges.

Push for community
Besides providing a support network, HackerspaceSG has also played host to events such as dialog sessions with Amazon Web Services' Simone Brunozzi, Mozilla Foundation Chair Mitchell Baker, and editor of TechCrunch blog, Sarah Lacy.

Chua said HackerspaceSG does not profit from its activities and events. Funds generated are channeled back to maintaining a shophouse which the group rents, as well as purchasing new furniture or equipment. He added that there is no focus on monetary gain.

Chua said: "If a project [from a member] is taken and commercialized, you'd start to question what you are running this place for. Are you casting a net to grab as many projects and ideas as you can find and then pick the best one? Or are you trying to promote exploration and creativity?"

HackerspaceSG is driven by the idea of nurturing a community, he said, in which its greatest assets are the people. It is a place where people can share and bounce ideas off each other, get feedback and network as they interact with others in HackerspaceSG, he added.

Changing hacker stereotype
According to Chua, the perception of hackers is slowly changing in Singapore.

"Before HackerspaceSG, many saw hacking as [only] related to breaking into computer security, hiding in dark basements and staring at the computer all day," he said. "But now, with HackerspaceSG having more mentions in the social media scene and mainstream media, the term 'hacker' is beginning to evolve."

People no longer automatically assume a hacker is someone bent on breaking into a system with ill intent, he added.

Chua also attributed the changing stereotype of hackers to news coverage of tech startups, entrepreneurs and other hackerspaces around the world that characterize hackers as individuals with an innovative streak and ideas.

A hacker mindset also makes someone a more efficient and creative worker in the office than the average programmer, he said. "You can tell a drone to do these steps from A to D, [whereas] someone with a hacker mindset enjoys solving problems and would want to come up with a faster, better way to get from steps A to D in fewer steps," Chua said.

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