1:1 interview with Mitch Altman, Co-Founder of Noisebridge, San Francisco (Part 1)

In this feature of Bits & Pieces, I interview one of the original forefathers of hackerspaces. Mitch is one of the original co-founders of the infamous spaces named Noisebridge in San Francisco — which later became a exemplary model for others around the world. Mitch exemplifies the persona of a hardware hacker, who not only knows a great deal about embedded programming, but has even built powerful remotes capable of turning off every TV his general vicinity.

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Mitch Altman at Hackerspace Noisebridge

Crafty and creative beyond belief, he has made a name for himself through a series of innovations, like the Brain Machine, one of MAKE Magazine’s most popular DIY projects. Mitch has been leading workshops around the world, teaching people to turn “innovative” ideas into “cool” things with microcontrollers.

Aside from his revolutionary projects, one of his greatest contributions to the Maker Movement is the co-founding of Noisebridge. This is one of the original and renowned hackerspaces located in the Bay Area, which has also been voted best hacker hangout and best open source playpen, even with roots in Hackerspace Shanghai, Spacebridge.

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Mitch Altman at TedX Brussels

Noisebridge members have been involved with a number of major award-winning research projects, receiving accolades from top-tier academic conferences such as Usenix Security Conference and CRYTPO.

So, who are some of the names that have been in this place and aspired to some stem of their development and design pathway to Noisebridge? Puzzlebox’s Steve Castellotti and ootsidebox’s Jean Noel are among many others who have fused ideas and shared roots at the hackerspace.

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Mitch Altman and the Brain Machine

TV: Tell me about the uniqueness found in hackerspaces.

MA: Yes, in a constantly changing world of technology, there is always the demand for a place where one can go to learn. Develop hands-on experience with technology. Energize raw intent and unique thinking by doing. Members of hackerspaces can learn by simply being ones own self — unlocking creative opportunities to exercise ideas, just like we do today in gyms to run with the common thread in a desire to be fit and conform to health. Here, we all want to make something. Make a difference and answer the appetite for creativity and ingenuity.

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5MoF: Five minutes of Fame Guest Speaker at Noisebridge in San Francisco | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

Imagine an open space, a dominion where people get together, hang out, converse, and collaborate. It is filled with anxious or latent inventors and entrepreneurs of all types working on projects that they hope will change the world or even change their state of how they want technology to evolve. Many of them are on laptop or using 3D printers eagerly typing business plans, performing logical aerobic, collaborative acrobats with peers, or simply hacking out code. While others, simply chat on the best route to a problem, share their expertise, make assumptions and some decisions based on a number of others feedback. Like some of the chaos in quantum physics, within all multi directional movement and buzzing about, there is a collision of “out of the box” thinking and production. To speak of it’s core, one can see a reaction happening in this space [hackerspace] with a unique setting — compounded by human interaction that keeps the magic flowing with innovation.

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Noisebridge Class-a-Thon | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

It is the center foundation of what the area will turn into. While the outer linings are being fine-tuned and polished, the inner workings remain relatively unchanged. The concrete has been laid; the electrical wires have been strung throughout the wooden frames and the insulation and drywall is mostly there, all while a wireless network is hangs throughout the air. Projects can begin even if the air conditioning isn’t hooked up yet.

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Noisebridge Class-a-Thon | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

As long as there is a good foundation, people can get stuff done. The rest of the work on the outer edges will always be changing. Paint will cover the walls in different shades and dust will always need to be cleaned up. However as time goes on and unless a major change happens, all the people running the space will need to do is adjust the dials of the environment (when needed) and continue progressing the community. Once the foundation is done first, the rest will fall into place after that. What’s said is the gem of hackerspaces.

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Noisebridge Class-a-Thon | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

TV: What is your vision of education and hackerspace fusion into the working sector?

Tim Berners-Lee once said, “A hacker to me is someone creative who does wonderful things.” This is the true and original meaning of a hacker. Though, that’s changed over time with all the compromises in security and loosely used terminology of “hacker.” Education has gotten far worse in the past many years; right now we are seeing people pull this in the positive direction. More and more bureaucracies are turning up in all areas of education. Education should and could be something to parallel the goals to what we are living to strive toward, fulfill more worthy lives. In the current system, I think it doesn’t have to be that way. With so much progress in the Internet and access to information, we can learn to live the way we really want, conduct it more differently to sustain our lives. Our upbringing has a lot of influence around this idea. As for education, I had a few really good teachers that saved my life. When I was a lot younger, I remember being brutally abused in education settings, while some teachers stood by. Reflecting, it really was horrible. Most importantly, a very special teacher really took me under the wing and got me interested in all sorts of geeky things. It was quite timely and in this intervention, things set pace for something entirely different moving forward. This newfound interest got me through the day. It uncoiled hidden or latent talents, which were shielded by other complicated things of the emotion and growing up. It opened up possibilities for interest. It is in this deeper individual passion of what I loved that served as the fuel for what’s to come. By the time I got to the university, I eventually found things and embarked on a common thread — engaged in the true value of education. I found the searchlight.

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5MoF: Five minutes of Fame guest speaker at Noisebridge in San Francisco with Ken Haggerty | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

I really had access to this inner drive. While so many teachers do want to do good, it’s in the unintended bureaucracies that force stagnation or cloud the true arrow of education. Instead, many educational settings are forced into things where teachers are molded to increase standardized test scores for funding, etc.

We now know from many disadvantaged kids in these poor neighborhoods where education and know-how is certainly the best thing they are looking forward to in exiting their current situation. We arrived on this abundant planet, and there are infinite possibilities but then they are narrowed down to working at Burger King.

I love to see and help create more opportunities. Today, there are 7 billion on the planet. There are 1,500 hackerspaces, which are helping nourish and mature the creative thoughts to opportunities. We need more of these intellectual YMCAs where technology and creativity [access to development boards, broadband connectivity, open source code, 3D printers, etc.] can be the setting to help aspire and cultivate passion.

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5MoF: Five minutes of Fame guest speaker at Noisebridge in San Francisco with Ken Haggerty | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

But still, there are not enough hackerspaces… In fact when crunching the numbers, in an ideal provision, we would need somewhere between 1 million hackerspaces. Give workshops and motivate forces of people in supportive environments and communities, advocate and nurture the exploration to do what they love and learn.

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5MoF: Five minutes of Fame guest speaker at Noisebridge in San Francisco | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

The love and learning go hand in hand. People come to hackerspaces and commit lots of time here because they not only love teaching but love what they do in sharing and building… The stem to these roots are not rested on people standing in rolls and columns responding to bells or authorities at the front giving orders and instruction. Instead, the pendulum of learning is more weighted on sharing [more of the availability of hardware, resources and motivation] on learning what they want to learn and share what they want to do its through play, experience, the innate drive to go for it!

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5MoF: Five minutes of Fame guest speaker at Noisebridge in San Francisco with Lee Felsenstein | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

TV: What sort of workbench or set of dimensions of aptitude do hackerspaces bring forth to an individual?

MA: To describe them simply, hackerspaces are community centers with tools. Hackerspaces combine manufacturing equipment (e.g. 3D printers, CNC, etc.), community, and education for the purposes of enabling community members to design, prototype and create manufactured works from end to end that wouldn’t be possible to create with the resources available to individuals working alone. These spaces can take the form of loosely-organized individuals sharing space and tools, for-profit companies, non-profit corporations, organizations affiliated with or hosted within schools, universities or libraries, and more. All are united by a common thread and interest in the purpose of providing access to equipment, community, and education, and all are unique in exactly how they are arranged to fit the purposes of the community they serve.

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Noisebridge in San Francisco | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

Hackerspaces represent the democratization of ideas, sharing, giving, design, engineering, fabrication and education. These spaces are a fairly new phenomenon, but are beginning to produce projects with significant local, regional, and national impact across the globe.

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Noisebridge in San Francisco with Mitch Altman | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

TV: Do hackerspaces respond to the gifted individuals? Said individuals who are very eager to learn while also creative but technically starved. Are these the passionate community dwellers of hackerspaces?

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Hackerspaces in China | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

MA: I can certainly say this helps open up the reach into addressing some of the obstacles in education and building. There are number of more resources mentioned previously that can be overcome with the availability to a local hackerspace. Knowledge and information can be transparently shared at hackerspaces. There is really not much competitiveness; instead, it is overruled by a common thread of learning and grasping with the tools available here. The token to the hackerspaces is learning by making as opposed to a learning by information fed to be absorbed then provided on a test as a validation.

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Noisebridge in San Francisco | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

For the real world of today’s market and work force, this is more analogous to the markets today. More so today, “work” is now perceived and overshadowed by “make and talent.” At hackerspaces, there is not a lot of theory nor standardized constructs of how or why something should be a certain shape, form, or function. Hackerspaces can do without these preconceived notions. Personally, I found out earlier that playing at labs and universities had drawn stronger importance. The need to learn through this atmosphere was very important.

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Noisebridge in San Francisco with Mitch in soldering instruction | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

The ecosystem via interaction with classroom and teachers were an interruption. The peer-to-peer motivation of the lab or hackerspaces can remove this. Now there exist integral workflows which are not interrupted, each fused by desire, passion, and making. I started to learn pragmatically to pair the various realms of quantum physics, electrical, tooling, and coding fueled the continued interest. Keep going. What I used my degree from education was important, but more of an abstraction. The hackerspace labs today have an abstraction to so many way too cool out-of-the-box thinking people. People come together to genuinely share. 

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Hackerspaces in China | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

 

View the part 2 in this interview series with Mitch Altman.

4 thoughts on “1:1 interview with Mitch Altman, Co-Founder of Noisebridge, San Francisco (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Hackerspaces, a Prelude to the Maker Movement and Today’s Make Culture | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

  2. Pingback: 1:1 interview with Mitch Altman, Co-Founder of Noisebridge, San Francisco (Part 2) | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

  3. Pingback: 1:1 interview with Mitch Altman, Co-Founder of Noisebridge, San Francisco (Part 2) | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

  4. Pingback: 1:1 interview with Mitch Altman, Co-Founder of Noisebridge, San Francisco (Part 1) | Fab Lab Connect

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