The Rise of the Rural Hacker

On the far side of the Boso peninsula lies Kamogawa. This isn’t the Japan of LEDs, Otaku and maid cafes, or that of wage slave salarymen collapsing from exhaustion. This is the Japan of rice farmers and fields, fresh fish and wild boar, electron microscopes and gigabit fiber, SMD assembly and 500Mhz 5 Gigasample oscilloscopes.

The world has changed. In the 20th century the life of a rural hacker was a constant hunt for technological innovation. We scratched around for whatever we could find. A (usually national) periodical would give its monthly injection of technological curios. And knowledge was locked tight within expensive textbooks, which even if you could afford them might take weeks to arrive.

So, as had been the case for the preceding 1000 years, innovation clustered around technological hubs, San Francisco, Cambridge, and Tokyo among others. And Hackers flocked to these centers where innovation flourished while Hackers exchanged knowledge and tools.

But then the world of the rural Hacker began to expand. The technological hubs that so many rural hackers had migrated to began to connect the world. Young Hackers could learn to program (as I learned C) from textfiles posted on BBSs and exchange knowledge linking national communities. Shortly after that the Internet came bringing its Eternal September. Hackers across the world, regardless of location could communicate.

On the flip-side tech centers were changing too. Venture capital, rather than bootstrapping became the norm. With the influx of cash the demand for skilled Hackers rose, increasing wages and further focusing tech talent around these hubs. But rents and expenses rose too. And Hackers became locked into their expensive lifestyles; eyes firmly focused on the promised million dollar payoff and the eternal dream of an “exit”.

For some though, the freedom to Hack is more important than that million dollar exit and so a new model is emerging. Groups of Hackers in rural communities with low cost lifestyles and access to the world’s best technical talent and equipment that would put the best startups to shame.

Rural living of course has its trade-offs. There’s no local Starbucks to pop into, and the nightlife is mostly limited to the occasional nocturnal visitor in the form of a badger or fox. While fresh local produce, and restaurants catering to the tourist economy help entertain, a more important limitation is that technical jobs are not in abundance. This means industrious hackers have to find other ways of making money.

Solutions to this problem take many forms, from migrating to a tech center for a few months a year or remote contracting, to developing and selling projects in low volume (either via their own online stores, or a sales channel like Tindie). One critically difference: projects that might only provide pocket money in the metropolis can provide a sustainable living in the countryside where rents are low.

The finest example of this model is perhaps Hacker Farm a Hacker community centered around a small village in rural Japan. At present 4 families have relocated to the area with more on the way, and the occasional long term visitor. Many of Hacker Farm’s members have fled the pressure filled life of the Tokyo tech workers. At Hacker Farm members share technical skills, tools, and co-working spaces equipped not only with electronic and scientific test equipment, but also tools used to renovate local abandoned structures for use by Hacker Farm members.

This freedom has also meant that tools can be acquired slowly. With a focus on repairing used equipment, a difficult proposition at most modern startups. Fueled by Japan’s declining manufacturing industry, Hacker Farm has acquired and repaired a variety of test equipment most of which would have cost tens of thousands of dollars a few years ago. In some cases hundreds like their recently acquired electron microscope.

hf_1
An unorthodox electron microscope installation process in progress

Projects like Techrice (a project to monitor water levels in local rice fields) have allowed them to integrate with the local community. And the abundance of time has allowed Akiba (the projects founder) to engage with rural communities in India, helping with Hill Hacks in Dharamsala and developing a number of performance projects such as his work with EL lighting on dancers and flair bartending rigs.

Hacker Farm is an inspiring place, and my experiences there led Farmer Glitch (somewhat surprisingly co-creator of a band also called “Hacker Farm”) and me to found Yeovil Hackerspace which seeks to emulate the Japanese project’s success. Our hope is that the two Hackerspaces can engage in shared projects, spanning the 6000 miles between them.

While in its infancy the model of the rural Hacker suggests the germ of a new way to work. For the modern Hacker the rural lifestyle doesn’t have to be one of technological isolation, but one of which gives the freedom to hack and an abundance of that most precious of commodities, time.

56 thoughts on “The Rise of the Rural Hacker

  1. Rise? The rural hacker has a huge leg up on the city dweller. for centuries the rural person was FORCED to be a hacker because you had to build things or use other things in a way they were not designed to because you could not just walk to a store and buy a new tool. My grandfather was the biggest hacker making a ton of custom tools by hacking other tools or metal.

    It’s not an infancy, in fact rural hacking has far more history than urban hacking, It is where hacking started.

        1. Clearly you aren’t rural, rural residents are as likely as any other group to stick their nose in the business of others. Rural suburban, urban are all guilty of being that pot calling the kettle black as they weave false dichotomies.

    1. Hell yes, and there many things I would not know today if I hadn’t been forced to learn them through necessity. And having the land and garage / workshop space to build and experiment allowed me to do things I could not have if I had grown up in the city.

      1. Yes, space was one of the main benefits of moving out to the rural area. In Tokyo, everything is forced to be so compact that you start thinking small. Once I moved out here, there were obvious benefits like extremely low rent and gigabit internet access, but the main thing me and the others noticed was that we had the space to work on any projects we liked. We ended up renting a cafe and also another house we use as a coworking space. The cafe is mainly our social gathering place and the coworking place is where we collaborate on design projects. Hackerfarm is mainly where the electronics lab is, the shop space, and the sleeping area. It’s also quite nice to have everything physically separate so you know when you can turn your brain off and relax :)

    2. Saying it’s in it’s infancy at the end of the article was probably a mistake, there have of course always been awesome hackers in rural areas. I was born and brought up in the countryside and agree it was often a case being forced to figure out some hack round a problem because you didn’t have the right tool. Always remember saving all kinds of junk because it “might come in handy”, and it’s not like there was a store were I could just buy parts…

      What I meant to convey was that being able to innovate faster and better in the countryside than you often can in the city is probably a new thing. The logistical barriers don’t really exist anymore. Hacking has always happened in the countryside of course but in the past it’s been harder to share innovation or work with really cutting edge techniques. I think that’s changing and I think the other advantages of rural hacking means that innovation from hackers in rural area could play a more central role in the future.

      1. Must be a land of wealthy operators then. Here Oxy, stick welders, air compressors air and of variety of hand and power tools common, but very few machine tools, because the frequency of need doesn’t justify the cost, and having machine tools sitting idle is a luxury.. That while the only Ag. operation I know of that has a lathe keeps it inside a shop in small town ~ 1800. Not only does that shop do repairs for the crop cattle and oil production. Not only sloes the shop do repairs it constructs much of the Ag. it would otherwise purchase, and many items for oil production as well, it also manufactures surplus to needs to sell.

    3. I agree with timgray1. As soon as I think of a hacker, city dweller (suburban) is not anywhere near the first thing that pops in my mind. As we know hackers come in all shapes and forms including where they reside. If anything a rural person has been hacking before there was even a name for it. As timgray1, stated the roots of hacking started in the rural areas. Think of rural hacking as the father to suburban hacking.

    1. Hey *two* train stations if you count Yeovil Junction. :) Most of the current members (there’s only 3 of us right now!) live outside in villages though. The space was available in Yeovil which is really handy. If you’re in the area you should come and check it out sometime. We’re hoping to run some workshops and get meets started in the near future.

    2. Haha! Should’ve put it in Shaftesbury, that’s what I think of when I think of ‘rural English town’, that or Bradford on Avon. Yeovil airfield is pretty cool though!

      I’m only an hour or so away, and would find it pretty cool to check out, but haven’t managed to check out Bristol hackerspace yet and I work in Bristol… I hate turning up to new places uninvited without a purpose and not knowing anyone!

  2. The premise of this article is all wrong. It’s getting really old reading about the rise of the rural (and urban) hacker movement. My family has been hacking and innovating on the rural family century farm for well, one hundred plus years. Stop trying to own the term “hacking”, stop characterizing it as a recent development. My friends and I referred to each other as hackers in the 60’s when we modified our bicycles to jump very crudely built jump ramps.

    1. I don’t think anybody is trying to own the term hacking. The premise of the article is that people involved in technology, but don’t necessarily care about the stupidity that goes on in mainstream Silicon Valley-like tech scenes around the world, are escaping the cities and hanging out in the countryside. For many of us, it gives us the headspace and financial freedom to work on projects we think are important. I’m mainly involved with environmental monitoring, some are working on VR applications, some on OS kernel drivers (Linux/Android), etc. We’re all pursuing what we want to do with no financial pressure and complete independence. We also work with the locals that are basically required to be jack-of-all-trades since they do farming, repair, renovation, and homebuilding and we’re learning quite a bit. But the tech side of things is definitely new in this and most rural areas in Japan so I think your comment is misplaced.

      1. Quibble if you must, but there is a very specific movement to own the concept of hacking, and co-op it in a rush to get non-profit’s started using massive public funding available through grants for that purpose.

        1. Sure, there are folks looking to secure grants in any way that they can, particularly from within existing public institutions (schools, colleges, libraries), but using those funds for makerspaces, hackerspaces, tool libraries, and such doesn’t seem like a bad thing. As for “massive public funding” available to makerspaces… I’d like to see some evidence for that. Locally, a few thousand dollars has been gifted to a makerspace in a school, but that’s it.

          My experience in getting a makerspace running is that most makers don’t want to use grant money as they feel there are too many strings attached. (I happen to think that grant money should be pursued initially, but one can’t be blind to the obligations that a grant comes with or how the income stream will be replaced when the grant runs out.)

        2. I’ve personally never seen any public funding in the UK or Japan that would be directly available/suitable for funding hackers/hackerspaces. I would be interested in examples of this.

          The word “hacker” means many things to many people, wikipedia defines the term as “one who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming and circumventing limitations of systems and who tries to extend their capabilities”. Which is in-line with the way it was originally used at MIT I believe. The discussion of Hackers, and Hackerspaces was intended to be mostly in-line with this and the hackerspaces themselves to be similar to the hackerspaces founded in the Germany in the 90s around the CCC.

    1. Building himself a forge, and a furnace to re-melt scrap iron, or to try create steel. I think steel-making is the sort of thing each blacksmith would figure out how to do in his own furnace with trial and error, since furnaces varied. And the big bellows mechanism of leather and wood, with ropes and straps to operate it by foot or from a big pole across the room.

      There was quite a bit more to blacksmithing than actually forging metal. Was quite a good living too, I think. That’s what I’d be if I lived back then! You get some decent muscles from all the hammering too. Wonder what the startup costs were?

    2. I totally agree that hacking in its various forms has always happened in villages as well as towns. However I think it’s generally been the case that skilled workers migrated to cultural centers to more easily share knowledge. So towns and universities played a central role and in the countryside it was harder to share innovation, often being limited by lack of access to the most modern methods or a better supply chain for raw materials. So it’s not that hacking has not happened in the countryside, it’s just that the countryside hasn’t really played a central role in innovation and sharing knowledge.

      I think that’s kind of changing. Being in the countryside now feels different to me than it felt when I was younger. I don’t really feel like there’s anything I’d have access to in a town which I can’t get access to here. Because of this I think it’s possible that rural innovators could play a more central role.

      Perhaps I didn’t explain this very well in the article. But Hacker Farm is a really good example of what’s possible. I think it’s now possible to out-compete Urban high-tech startups in the countryside because of the freedom you have there and to use startup parlance the long “runway” you can have because your “burn” is so low.

    3. In Japan, the farmers are called “hyaku-sho” meaning to have one hundred jobs. They have skills in all sorts of things and learn out of necessity. They have skills that are extremely practical in the area and we’ve all learned a lot from them. The technology side of things is extremely new here though. We end up having to teach the locals how to use computers, how to get on the internet, and also fixing their broken computers sometimes. It’s very strange because gigabit internet is available here and all our places are wired up with it. One issue is that there a lot of very practical skills here but the education for arts, design, tech skills, etc is not very developed, at least as not as well as the schools in Tokyo. This leads to all the economic development happening in the big cities and a mass migration of people out of the agricultural centers to the cities in search of higher paying jobs. The area that we settled in is depopulating and has very little economic development and activity. Most of the farmers can also not be full-time farmers and work second jobs part-time to supplement their incomes.

          1. Then again anyone incapable of becoming a master of one, is probably incapable of being a Jack of all trades.Even when considering any politics that may or may not involved, I never understood why achieving a Master level is dismissed by some.

  3. I think the title “Rise of the rural hackers” is kind of a poor choice of title. It should be “Exodus of the Urban Hacker”. About urban hackers finding new life out in rural space.

    1. For some it is an “exodus” but many, like myself, its a case of returning to the countryside after having spent sometime in urban centers. My hope is that in the future young technical talent wont be forced to relocate from the countryside in order to find work.

      I don’t think there are logistical barriers to that anymore, in terms of access to equipment, consumables or information. The word “rise” seems to have drawn a lot of negative attention though… something else might have been better…

      1. HEHEHE. Yeah, Kashiwa is a drag, but until the wife decides what she’s doing with her business, I am kind of stuck here. It was totally a blast being out at Hackerfarm. I’ll see if I can manage a Friday beach work day. See if I can find a non-toll road route to get there. Damn Japanese highway tolls. Or maybe I’ll take a train :-p

  4. I’ve been noticing a lot of western europe and US engineers have been going to rural Japan in the last few years.. Most do contracts in the big city or already have wealth so they can get visas and permits easy.

    I notice Marcan42(Hector Martin Cantero) isn’t mentioned even though he payed a dividend on the microscope and was there a while..

    1. Yep, the SEM was co-purchased by Marcan, Bunnie, Akiba and Me. Everyone down at Hacker Farm is pretty awesome, but I know some people value their privacy so not always sure if they’d like to be talked about in an article. Marcan is awesome though, and a really hardcore hacker. I think he deserves an article in his own right to be honest. He’s been a regular visitor to Hacker Farm, I think we’d all love him to move out there. :)

    2. Marcan is actually coming next week with a few people. We’ll probably be setting up his karaoke system in our cafe. lol. Most of us out here either have some money, do consulting, or have incomes that don’t require physical presence. It takes a surprisingly little amount of money to be out here and they have amazing infrastructure, like gigabit internet service, an Amazon Logistics center nearby (same day Amazon Prime), nearby beach, and all standard infrastructure. bunnie Huang comes out sometimes and Marcan visits every once in a while too. Nava is fairly regular and we get a lot of regulars out here from Tokyo. Interestingly enough, most of the techies that come out here end up working on a lot of physically demanding projects like homebuilding, renovation, brush clearing, and farming aside from their normal tech work. I think a lot of techies have a deficiency of opportunities for heavy physical labor.

    1. I know, it feel kind of crazy for that for what people pay in rent for a year in San Francisco you could probably fund and amazingly well equipped lab in a rural area for 10.

      1. There are towns in the US that had to close schools because they could not find enough kids to keep them open. The one thing lacking in lot of the Rural areas of the US is high speed internet.
        Take a look at a night time picture of the US sometime and you will get a picture of the amount of wide open space in the US.

        1. Many urban areas are broad band deserts as well. The rural telephone company that is my WisP made the news for all the loan guarantees it received to install rural fiber because of the Obama stimulus. When the techs came out to swap out the Motorola Canopy for WISP nanotechnology for Wimax technology I asked them if that meant that fiber isn’t going to be replacing the copper, they said that’s right. Oh well having broad band available isn’t going to mean it’s going to be affordable.

    2. I agree with Nava. In Tokyo, my rent plus expenses bordered on $3k which is fairly standard for cities. Out here, my rent is slightly more than 1/10th that and my internet speeds are much faster. I have a much larger lab and I have almost no financial pressure so I mainly work on things I’m interested in rather than for money. That’s why I get to work on projects like theater/stage technology, flair bartending, as well as putting together hacker conferences in Dharamsala in the himalayas.

      1. Well I didn’t mean those I criticized aren’t exclusively dragging rural America down, but are a member of that group that are. Another member of that group are those who who move to rural towns after hears of living in earning wages far greater than that could be made in the rural towns. They come to rural town with packets full of money, and pay far greater for property than it’s worth given the local economy. Nothing that can be done about that realistically, other that community leaders ceasing to court those who aren’t bring any industry into the community. That ain’t going to happen because the community leaders are the ones with the property for sale. [sigh]

  5. Great article :). Regarding nightlife you’re forgetting the famous BBQs! :P.

    I think the location of hacker farm is unique in a number of ways. First of all it’s within little more than an hour driving from central Tokyo and a direct easy-to-use train from Tokyo. Then there’s also the Harringtons who’re well integrated in the community and have done a lot of work to make the influx of weird looking hacker types acceptable to the locals. And then of course there’s ultra fast Internet which makes it more likely that people moving there will be able to support themselves through online sales to customers around the world (as opposed to olden days). So yeah, I think that Nava nailed the central aspects of the what, why and how of Hackerfarm.

  6. kids these days…

    “suburban hackers”? naw, “rednecks” and proud of it. If you’ve ever welded anything on a tractor using that tractor’s batter, one from your truck, jumper cables and some rod, you might be a “suburban hacker” :P

    1. striking and maintaining an arc in that generally dirty situation with a 24V battery maybe, but with 12 (or 6 as many claim) I doubt it. Sorry I live close MO enough you are going to have to show me. ;)

  7. It’s really not a wonder the article paints this as a new thing. “RIse of the Rural Hacker” must be referring to the newest sense of the word hacker- complete with references to venture capital and startups and commercial manufacturing. In this sense they’re not really correct either though as the past century is filled with examples of the industrious hipsters forming little groups in “sticks” in order to play at some work/commune lifestyle scheme that usual fissiles in less than a decade.

    In the somewhat older sense of term they are also incorrect. I live in rural WV(a redundant statement) and there is a long standing tradition among some people of creating your own solution to technical problems both out of economic necessity and of course for fun. The 70s through early 2000s made electronic and later computer related solutions and projects fertile ground but of course the wealth of cheap electronic products to be had from Hong Kong and Shenzhen have made economic justification for developing some solution on your own hard to muster(but a hell of a lot easier too justify in the name of fun). When they talk about these new rural hackers this sounds like a repeat of an old fad. The real story they should cover is how in some areas modern technology of bits,electrons and silicon is starting to become as much of an ingrained part of tool cultural as older ones of fire metal and wood. It’s kind of a litmus test of modern technological progress when someone in southern WV decides to make some homemade arts and crafts for Halloween and grabs a some paint, glue, some beads, and a handful of pic12f683s.

    That’s the real rural hacker story.

    1. As I understand it, the modern usage of the term hacker originated at MIT in the 1960s. It describes someone “who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming and circumventing limitations of systems and who tries to extend their capabilities” (from wikipedia). It’s become associated with startup culture I guess because a lot of MIT students went on to form startups. The article was trying to highlight this fact, and that hopefully there are options other than joining or starting a VC funded startup or established company, if you want to spend your life hacking on high tech projects. One option is to lower your costs by working in a rural area, and there are few inherent disadvantages to that now.

      As I attempted to point out in the article, there were significant disadvantages to working on tech projects in rural areas in the past. The ability to communicate face-to-face was much more important than it is now. It was harder to access technical literature. Resources, like test equipment were hard to get hold of. Those issues less significant now. And overall it’s somewhat easier to get projects done in the countryside, the main problem being how to fund your projects as there are few established companies to work for. If there are prior examples of high-tech/hacker rural communities that have had similar access to resources, I’d be interested in seeing them, it would be a useful datapoint.

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