How I Became a Cyber-Womble

This is James Wallbank’s story of founding Access Space, based on an interview I did with him for the ‘Steel City’ special issue of PICK ME UP zine, 28 October 2005

James and his friends wanted to make art with computers. But they didn’t have any money. So they decided to see what they could do with PCs other people were throwing away. Now they run a free “media lab” where anyone can come and learn.

One day I sent an email to some friends saying, look, I’ve got a great idea for an arts organisation. We’ll only work with technology that costs nothing. We’ll have exhibitions and all sorts of exciting events where we show people the creative things that we do. And that will inspire people to give us more computers.

A friend of mine, without telling me, rewrote the top of this email to say “You should hear about this great thing that James Wallbank is running in Sheffield…” and forwarded it to all these mailing lists. Within a few days I had emails coming from all over the world saying, “Hey, what you’re doing is absolutely great!”

There was one in particular, from California. The guy said, “We had an idea like that, for being creative with old computers in Silicon Valley. We tried it and we just couldn’t get it to work. I’m so happy to hear that you’re actually doing that successfully in Sheffield now!”

And I didn’t have the bottle to say to him, it’s just an idea, I haven’t really got started. So instead, like an idiot, I sent back emails to everyone saying, “Yeah, it’s great, isn’t it? People are giving us computers from all over the place and we’re having exhibitions and activities and what have you…”

After that, I had to make it happen.

I thought the hard thing would be getting access to technology – but it turned out we could get as many machines as we wanted.  People started writing back saying, I’ve got this friend and his firm are throwing out sixty PCs – do you want them?

So I went racing round the country collecting computers in a tiny little van that ended up completely knackered. We started making them work and doing exhibitions – and still more computers kept arriving. A year later, we had a warehouse with 2000 old PCs sitting there. We just didn’t know what to do with them all.

That was when we had the idea for Access Space.

Anyone can walk in, but it’s not a free cybercafe. We’re asking everyone to get actively involved in developing content, doing things. 

The one thing we can’t provide is motivation. So we ask everyone to propose to us a project that they really want to do, something they’re excited about.

The philosophy is simple: share what you know, learn what you don’t. 

If you get stuck with something, you can ask anyone in the space and they’ll try and help you – the only catch is, when someone asks you for help, you’ve got to give them a few minutes.

In the future, everyone’s going to need to acquire new skills over and over and over again. How are we going to do this in Britain, in every neighbourhood, for free, forever, in a sustainable way, that isn’t going to cost us all a fortune?

The answer is to have local, community-based organisations where anyone can walk in and do creative activity that they’re excited by, that helps them to learn skills. I think Access Space is an unbelievably great model for that – because it also solves another question, which is that businesses all over the UK are throwing out computers hand over fist.

Now should we, at Access Space, go all over the country collecting computers, taking them back to “Access Space Central” and then distributing them to people like you? No, that’s stupid – and it’s also a complete waste of diesel.

Instead, we should give you the skills to find computers in your local area, revivify them in your local area and make them available to people in your local area. Not only so that people can come to you and learn skills and do exciting creative things – but so that you can learn skills from them.