Mitch Altman - The Meaning maker

Mitch Altman - The Meaning maker

Mitch Altman, co-founder Noisebridge, San Francisco

3 outstanding experiences/steps that brought you where you are today?

I used to be very depressed when I was young. Because I was lucky enough to be supported and encouraged at critical times in my life by three different compassionate teachers who cared, and who believed in me, I managed to survive.

In 2006, I went to my first Chaos Communications Congress, an annual hacker conference in Germany. The Chaos Computer Club (CCC), that puts on these events, has an ethos that acknowledges that the world is full of chaos, and rather than fight the chaos, they say: “let’s embrace the chaos! And let’s use it to our advantage.” At this event I found a fantastic mix of organizational skills and anarchism that works. At the next CCC event, in the summer of 2007, I attended a talk about how to start your own hackerspace. Me and my friend Jake were was so inspired by this talk that we decided to start a hackerspace when we got back home to San Francisco, where we live. This is how Noisebridge hackerspaces began.

I started giving workshops at CCC events, and other events. I gave workshops to teach everyone how to solder, how to make cool things with electronics, and everything you need to know to start playing with Arduinos. All of these workshops are for people who previously knew nothing about electronics or making things. I love giving these workshops so much that I’m still giving them wherever a travel around the world! At the 2011 CCC event, after a close friend committed suicide, I organized a panel called “Geeks & Depression”, with people, including myself, who have personal stories to share about with depression. This was so helpful for so many people that I’ve been very open about my depression ever since, and encourage others to be open about, and talk about depression.

How do you define depression?

It's a vicious cycle where depressing thoughts, where one sees and extrapolates from a horrible now into a continuing horrible future. Which create more depressing thoughts which perpetuates a horrible now which create horrible brain chemistry which perpetuates a more horrible now.
Symptoms are very variable according to people. People want their pain to stop. That is universal. We have so many distractions in our lives that so many people who are depressed don’t even know it, no matter how much pain they are in... I can work too much, I can just turn on this fucking screen and Watch video games and download porn, or fall in love and before it gets too far, I can go to another person, I can make more money, have more power over you because you are easy to manipulate, I can deal drugs illegally, I can drink too much beer.

They are all sorts of behaviors and substances that are socially sanctioned and many of them are even considered positive. And we can use everything as a distraction from ourselves. but if over all its distracting me from myself, from something truly more important, then is problematic.
We don’t have opportunities for self-reflection, to do all the important work each one of us have to do no matter where their lives are. If we are depressed they are many things we need to deal with. If we haven’t, it means its difficult.

Or we can take pills, and then take pills again, again, and again. And then we will be dead. And we have taken away the opportunities that we have to do something more worthwhile and remove the pain. That’s choice. That is not the one I have done. Its up to each of them to make those choices. I think its worth the work.
In my life now, I am so Grateful to be healing everything.
*It's not about ups and downs. It is not about feeling great or horrible. It feels awesome just to be feeling all of it. It's about being, it's about living. Or, you can take a pill.

Why starting a hackerspace?

By starting Noisebridge in San Francisco, I wanted to have a place where we would have a supportive community to encourage people explore, and do, what they might really like, what they find meaning in doing. We really need community in our lives. We also need to express ourselves creatively,. Hackerspaces provide for these deep human inner needs.

We can do a lot by ourselves, but we can do so much more when we pool our resources together. Resources include physical things, such as tools, but also skills and knowledge, and also materials, such as crayons, pins, yarn, seeds, food, solder, etc. We can do so much more together.

Every hackerspace is unique, with its own unique community, ways of organizing, and business model. At Noisebridge we have no leaders. We make decisions by consensus. We have only one rule, which is “Be excellent to each other!” All of our income comes from membership dues and individual donations. But Noisebridge is open and available to everyone, and not only to members, as long as they follow our one rule, and as long as they both benefits from and contribute to the Noisebridge community. Contributions can be financial, but other contributions are more important, including, but very much not limited to: sharing cool projects, learning, exploring, giving classes or workshops, showing people how to use tools, tidying up, giving tours of the space, sharing our culture with new people, and, of course, being excellent. Everyone is encouraged to share what they doing with others in the space, and in the community. There are lots of ways to contribute. And, since it feels really good, everyone does.

Your most important project today?

Travelling the world, giving talks and workshops that attracts more people to hackerspaces, and encouraging more people to start hackerspaces. I love doing this!

What is Noisebridge’s business model?

Our annual budget is $75 000. This includes rent, electricity, internet, garbage collection. $75,000 is real money, but we do a lot with it! Much more than most organizations that have much larger budgets. Hundreds of people come to Noisebridge each week to benefit from what we have to offer. Since Noisebridge is totally run by volunteers, without employees, there we can do a lot with very little money. We give classes and workshops every day. About one third of our income is from monthly membership dues, and the other two thirds is from lots of small individual donations, often from a visitor putting a dollar into out donation box on the wall. And, once or twice a year we have fund-raising parties that are way fun!

Noisebridge only accepts donations with no strings attached. For instance, part of our incredibly fast internet is donated by a local internet service provider, saving us hundreds of dollars a month.

How do you see your life mission? What obsessed you? What drives you? What is the message you want people to remember before you die?

We live in a beautiful planet. But, sadly, it is full of people who don't feel their lives are way worth living. I would love to help to increase the percentage. We spend so much time and energy doing things we don’t like to do. An overwhelming number of people don’t like their jobs. Of course, we live on a world where we need to make enough money for basic necessities, such as food and shelter. We also need money to buy and make things we want. I would love to help people find ways of getting enough of what they need and want by doing activities (and work) they find meaning in doing, by doing what they love.

I find that I can help people form communities in the form of hackerspaces, where people are encouraged to explore and do what they love, where people are encouraged to explore for themselves. Today, there are around 2000 hackerspaces in the world. There is a need for many more! We need community in our life! We can do a lot on our own, but we can do so much more when we pool our resources and do it together.


Interview by Diane Lenne on June 23rd 2015 in San Francisco.

The full interview will be published in The book of purpose : portraits of disruptors by January 2015