Hacking, functional autonomy, and maker pedagogy

Photo by Sucrebrut on Unsplash

A recent article by Söderberg and Maxigas (2021) made me think about the roles of autonomy and hacking in maker pedagogy. At the outset I should specify that I delineate between “hacking,” “hacker,” and “hacker communities.” One might hack without necessarily identifying as a hacker, or being a part of a hacker community. Recall that in my earlier post I suggested that hacking might be thought of in the following way:

Hacking is about knowing something as well as you can possibly know it. It’s about knowing the rules for a particular system or device and understanding the full suite of possibilities. It’s about taking whatever issue you’re interested in, approaching it from as many angles as possible, constructing it, reconstructing it, and making mistakes.

– Bullock (2021), Asturias4STEAM Interview

Söderberg and Maxigas (2021) argue, in part, that the DIY ethos and community spirit that characterises many hacker communities can be subsumed by larger systems of capitalism and the modern nation state. Drawing heavily from French sociologists  Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s book The New Spirit of Capitalism, the authors encourage us to think about a process known as recuperation:

Recuperation operates by replacing the goals and values that were initially professed by a community of hackers (users, citizen scientists, etc.) with new ones, which are better aligned with the needs of capital accumulation and state control. As a direct consequence, the collective endeavour of the hackers is pulled in the direction of market demand and the constraints of mass production. Recuperation processes are often resisted by hackers, although typically in the form of infighting between different factions within the community. While one faction asserts its attachment to the original values and design goals of the project, another faction strives to accommodate that design to the external pressures, and considers this to be a criterion for the project’s (technical and commercial) success.

(Söderberg & Maxigas, 2021, p. 44)

Describing some of the tensions between hacking communities, capitalism, and the actions of the modern state as a process of recuperation seems productive to me. It also seems relevant to the tension I have long noted between bottom-up approaches to making in education and the industry that has emerged around selling devices, kits, and components for “maker labs”. In the past, I have differentiated between these two approaches as by referring to the the industry around making in education as capital-M Making. It strikes me that the tension between making and Making is well-described by recuperation–particularly when I take note of the number of times I have been asked about the importance of buying specific equipment to engage with maker pedagogy. I have tried, to the best of my ability, to focus on making processes within maker pedagogy rather than learning how to use any particular products.

Söderberg and Maxigas (2021) offer the concept of functional autonomy as a way of thinking about how hacking communities might develop critical practices in spite of a symbiotic relationship with industry. Functional autonomy pushes back on recuperation and understanding this tension may help to explain the complex interrelationships between hacker communities and capitalist / state actors. The authors offer three pillars of functional autonomy:

1. Expertise: Hackers’ ability to understand and engage with technology.

2. Shared values and cultural references

3. An historical horizon encompassing familiarity with older generations of the same technology.

(Söderberg & Maxigas, 2021, p. 48)

Söderberg and Maxigas offer three case studies to support their claims: Internet Relay Chat (Expertise), Personal Manufacturing (Values), and Hacklabs and Hackerspaces (Memory).

I need to think more about the ways in which the concept of functional autonomy might play a role in maker pedagogy – particularly given the “hacking turn” that I have recently articulated. If hacking is to be placed at the centre of maker pedagogy, then I need to think carefully about how those embracing maker pedagogy might develop higher degrees of personal functional autonomy. I also need to be mindful of the different levels of autonomy that teachers may or may not have in their particular environment–the modern nation state always exerts some degree of control over teachers at all levels. My initial thought is that those interested in making and education might most easily come together around shared values and cultural references, at least initially. Perhaps experiences with maker pedagogy might help to augment expertise whilst capturing some of the potential of developing a shared historical horizon. Citing Söderberg and Maxigas (2021) again:

The strategic importance of historical memory is revealed when one observes the discourse around hackerspaces. Hackerspaces are routinely perceived as the authentic, politicised alternative to other types of shared machine shops, such as makerspaces, FabLabs, media labs, and startup incubators . . . The non-profit hackerspaces constitute the front line in the resistance to recuperation, while a decade ago they benefited from the recuperation of anti-capitalist hacklabs. The role of historical memory is highlighted in this case as setting the baseline for calculating recuperation, which may inform tactics, demands, practices, and perceptions

(Söderberg & Maxigas, 2021, p. 53)

I accept the premise that maker pedagogy is at least somewhat implicated in the tension between recuperation and functional autonomy used by Söderberg and Maxigas (2021). I would also argue that maker pedagogy is under recuperative forces that come from educational stakeholders, which include but are not limited to government and corporate interests. As Lortie (1975) pointed out, everyone who has been to school has undergone an apprenticeship of observation and thus has strongly formed opinions of what schools and teaching should look like. Perhaps the concept of functional autonomy offers a way forward.


h/t to Iván Diego for alerting me to this article


Söderberg, J., & Maxigas. (2021). The Three Pillars of Functional Autonomy of HackersNanoethics 1543–56.