For a decade now, Noisebridge has beckoned its visitors up two flights of pastel-colored rainbow steps from Mission Street. The self described anarchist collective hackerspace, Noisebridge (NB) is a “do-ocracy,” that encourages its members to “Be excellent to each other.” In fact, that’s the space’s only rule. This weekend, September 9th and 10th, Noisebridge will have its 10th anniversary Exhibition + Ball. It promises to be a visual treat akin to a Maker Faire, meets a Science fair with a side of “Afterburn.”
This weekend, I sat down on a record hot September day with founding member Mitch Altman to gain more insight into the space, how it began and how the mission solidified into the place we are sitting.
In 1986, Mitch was driving through Alaska, stopped off in the Bay Area, and knew it was his home. Altman started Noisebridge because he “saw technology being used against individuals, not empowering individuals.” This is a noble goal in an era where AI technology is being used to simultaneously profile criminals, and bring you cashless shoppingexperiences. Altman, along with another founder, Jake attended the 2007 Chaos Communications Camp (CCC), and attended the How To Start Your Own Hackerspace session. Noisebridge had its first meeting at the camp. Within the first of the 2007 CCC, four new physical hackerspaces were formed, including the Hacktory, Hack DC, and NYC Resistor.
While Mitch and Jake’s dream did happen, there were a few kinks NB has to work through. By 2014, they began confronting the reality of a space without rules. At that point, NB decided to no longer offer 24-hour access for everyone due to, among other things, members hoarding space for themselves and sleeping there, stolen and lost items, and what long-time member Jarrod Hicks described simply as “being jerks.”
These, “jerks,” contributed to harassment, and the realization that it might be necessary to have more than one rule. Jerks and thieves were not “being excellent,” to each other, or anyone else. After seven and a half years, it became clear to members that by trying to include everyone, they had “included people who excluded others.”
NB is driven by the “buy in” of visitors, members, and patrons. When a new person visits, they are given a tour of the space by an existing member or a familiar visitor who understands and upholds the system. Noisebridge operates on the hierarchy of vision from the outset for a new person. When I get there at 10:30 AM, a kind member named Kevin greets me as I arrive. He’s been working all night at NB on a piece for the Anniversary Exhibition. Kevin explains to me that non-members are not allowed in the space until 11AM, unless they’re coming in with members, like I had.
Opening and closing the space is also a part of this system, which Hicks describes as, a “little c” consensus. The do-ocratic system prioritizes people who think they can do it. It only exists if people within the space feel empowered. NB is a “radical space,” that operates with a hegemonic attitude and a visual hierarchy for sorting out strangers. This approach may not foster diversity among members, or visitors, but this is something that Hicks hopes NB will tackle in the coming years in a more concrete way.
Moving forward, Hicks is concerned with “the social condition of the space.” Is NB is “drawing the people who could most make something of the space to it(self), or are we excluding people?”
Noisebridge prefers a no strings attached approach, and runs on small donations from members and patrons. While there are no corporate sponsorships, last year one member did attain a Google grant on their own that they used to improve the tools at NB. For the first time in their existence, NB has a 6-8 month runway - this is much more than they are used to. The lease lasts another year, and then it too will have to answer the same question as many in SF: will we stay, can we buy, do we move?
Looking ahead, Hicks hopes NB will continue to foster community and do larger, collaborative projects in the space. He fears the blind spot in the do-ocracy might be that they aren’t communicating to enough people who could take advantage of the space, or that those using the space don’t adequately reflect the neighborhood they’re in. Concepts like little “c” consensus, and unspoken understanding, are now being questioned across our nation. The importance of hackerspaces like Noisebridge, questioning the basic grounds of their forward thinking, should not be overlooked. Celebrate with them this weekend, and share your opinion.