The ethic of DIY has been given a major shot in the arm in recent times. Following its introduction into the common vernacular as a phrase associated with home improvement projects, “do-it-yourself” has developed associations with a wide variety of subcultures. Amateur filmmaking? DIY. Punk rock? Very DIY. Dumpster diving? Technically still DIY (though I would recommend gloves, should you be so inclined).
One of the newest DIY offshoots to pick up steam is the “Maker Movement”, an artisanally-charged subculture with a sharp technological bent. Basically, it’s what happens when you put computer hackers in the same room as artists and tell them to make something together (with little mind paid to whether they know how to make said thing or not). In San Francisco, this ethos is put into practice at Noisebridge, a “hackerspace” in the Mission District. And to hear co-founder Mitch Altman tell it, that “practice” can go in a number of different directions.
“Noisebridge is a hackerspace. And a hackerspace is a physical place with a whole bunch of people in community that support each other into doing whatever it is people in the community want to do. Including, you know, tech and stuff that people usually think of, but also art and craft and science….and we have a whole bunch of tools that people in the community want to use in order to do all the cool things that they want to play with, and learn with, and share.”
The origins of Noisebridge can be traced back to the mid 2000s. Altman, a Silicon Valley veteran dating back to the 1980s, had just created a one-button remote capable of turning off TVs in public places (affectionately named “TV-B-Gone”). Soon after, he attended a handful of hacker conferences, with the intent of showcasing his project to other like-minded individuals. It was at these gatherings (which he describes as “amazingly high” in retrospect) that he found both people who wanted to hear about his work, as well as people whose work he found interesting to learn about. However, the problem (as he put it) was that “conferences end”, which led Altman to look forward to any upcoming hacker conferences with fervent anticipation (to get his next “high”, as it were).
At his third conference (which he describes as an outdoor tech camp of sorts), Altman sat in on a presentation given on the subject of how to start your own “hackerspace”. By the end of the session, he was convinced that he had now found the solution to his newfound affliction: a local community space for these sorts of activities that operates year-round. Animated by this idea, he was eager to start a hackerspace in San Francisco following the event’s conclusion. So, while working in conjunction with other San Francisco residents that he met at said event, Altman started to spread the word about building a community of hackers and tinkerers that learn from and with each other. With this, Noisebridge (named after a piece of equipment used to measure impedance in a wireless antenna) started to take shape, and within a couple of years, they had set up shop in a 5200 square-foot space in the Mission District (after having outgrown a much smaller space at the corner of Mission and 16th within a year), and were now cranking along at full speed.
Altman, however, does not have much control over the direction and activity of the organization, and the same goes for the rest of its membership. This can be attributed to their system of “do-ocracy”, where change comes from action over argument. Want to spray paint an image of a teddy bear on the wall? If nobody takes issue with the idea, you can just do it (without being disruptive, anyway). Additionally, Noisebridge uses this system in conjunction with a guiding rule that, if nothing else, suggests that its founders had a soft spot for a particular buddy comedy film from the late 1980s….
“You know, we have one rule” Altman says, as he explains how the organization’s unconventional structure works. “And our one rule is very positive and it’s “Be excellent to each other”. We don’t need any more rules, because we’re a bunch of “anarchist-hippie-weirdo-punks”, and the less rules the better as far as we’re concerned….”
However, he’s very quick to mention that keeping this kind of community running is a lot of hard work. And there are rare occasions where that means banning people from the space. While most bypassers that don’t think they mesh well with the community drift away on their own, there have been individuals that were more persistent.
As an example, Altman told me of an instance where a self-described buddhist monk took issue with the presence of a small Chinese shrine at Noisebridge (an artifact they had inherited from the previous owner of the space). To make his objection known, the monk took to surrounding the shrine with a multitude of pillows. So many pillows, in fact, that members had to take them down, in order to make room for classes. When combined with the fact that the monk allegedly tried to hold services in the space, it didn’t take long for tensions to arise.
At this point, Noisebridge asked the monk to leave, as he was violating the rules of the space. Rather than leave peacefully, though, he argued that he had a constitutional right to carry on. What followed, I am told, was an incoherent rant about Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment (yeah, I didn’t see this coming either). Following this spat, though, the monk has reportedly stopped showing up to the space.
Nonetheless, in spite of rare extreme cases like this, Altman is quick to reassure me that their unconventional structure has served them well. Given that it was initially specced out as a sort of “social experiment” in the first place, members have been pleased to find out that Noisebridge has given them a fruitful avenue for project work and collaboration.
Noisebridge also holds classes taught by volunteering members. The topics are numerous and varied, ranging from soldering workshops (taught by Mitch) to music production, and everything in between. It is here that their classification as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization starts to seem the most appropriate. Additionally, it gets to the heart of what the founders of Noisebridge hope to accomplish at a larger scale, and paints a clearer picture as to what their core motivations were.
“Education was a huge part of why we wanted to start Noisebridge, which is why we became an educational non-profit” Altman tells me, just before he starts diving into the failures of common education paradigms. “You know, education, as we know it in our world, is really…….not education, you know? The Department of Education (or the Ministry of Education in other countries) is all about (unfortunately) the evaluation of what education is supposed to be about, which is learning.”
And this focus on the evaluational phase over the developmental phase is something that Altman considers to be a huge problem.
“We have absorbing information from an authority figure and then parroting it back on a test. That’s not enjoyable. That’s not learning. Learning IS enjoyable!”
Additionally, while he has plenty to say about their methods of evaluation (and plenty of studies to cite to back up his argument), he is critical of the modern paradigm’s effectiveness at actually preparing people to be productive in a modern society.
“People just go out into the world, and they’re supposedly being trained for a job, but they’re not even getting trained for that, because the job situation is changing so quickly. By the time they get out of school, if they were trained at all for something useful (like a job), it’s obsolete by the time they get out of school! Plus, they’re in debt. You know, education doesn’t have to be expensive. At Noisebridge, everything is free!”
Provided with this perspective, it becomes a lot easier to see why Noisebridge went in the hands-on, project-based direction that it did. Beyond being just a space for community benefit, they seem determined to prove the merits of their community-driven methodology over what is prevalent in the modern education system, all while demonstrating how workshops like these are worth integrating into existing school programs.
And it would appear that, if my brief interactions with the community are any indication, this fusion of environment and community is working for them. Whether it be a resin printer, a 3D-modeled music video, or an elaborate display made up of LED lights, the passion exuded from Noisebridge members in their pursuits was plain for me to see. Furthermore, with the organization now hitting its tenth birthday, it’s evident that the collective that was (at one time) little more than an old hacker’s fantasy has evolved into a place where the entrepreneurial spirit can drive some satisfying creative endeavors. It serves as a great example of how the DIY ethic is still alive and well today. Nonetheless, I’m still holding out hope for seeing some giant robots roam the Mission by the 20 year mark…
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