The space has members but no hierarchy; it charges fees to maintain facilities but offers access to anything that isn't tied down or explicitly claimed as private property. Noisebridge is a self-proclaimed "do-ocracy" where permission is never necessary and self-initiated creative projects are the lifeblood of the facility. Its only caveat: "Be excellent to each other," the proposition of the titular characters of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Kahle sees Noisebridge as a breeding ground for the next generation of innovators. "Talk to those guys. That's where the real stuff is happening," he says.

At their Monday evening "hackathon," sort of arts-and-crafts night for computer geeks, several young women and men are busy at the long wooden desk that dominates the center of the space, hammering away at laptops that have no clear source of manufacture, either through modification or some more extensive personalization. Behind them are several rows of shelves filled with baskets of freely available electronics, a half-dozen 3-D printers in various states of disrepair, and a more traditional library of books and other resources available for use. There's a kitchen and several workshops. In a back room, a young Russian man is teaching the popular programming language Ruby to 20 eager students, for free.

Despite the busyness of the space tonight, the hackathon event seems to be a non-starter, though there are several soldering irons set up for those who are willing. One of the implicit themes of the space is encouraging a kind of audacity. As a group of presumably unhandy onlookers eye the hot irons reluctantly, an older gentleman hunched over one of the irons makes a proposition.

"I'd be happy to teach any of you soldering if you'd like," says Mitch Altman, the enthusiastic and ever-smiling engineer-inventor who co-founded Noisebridge. Like Brewster Kahle, he decided long ago to focus his technical smarts on open-source culture.

Altman begins demonstrating a handful of his inventions to a small crowd of curious visitors, partly as a brief primer on hacking electronic devices and partly as a sales pitch. He subsists on his inventions, but isn't pushy about offering them for sale, lacing his spiel with autobiographic highlights that possess a surprisingly confessional tone, touching on his struggle with depression. "I used to be a miserable person who thought I had to do things I hated to survive," he says. "Now I'm a happy person who does things I love to survive."

Aaron Swartz struggled with depression. Many friends of his, including BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow, speculated that his depression played a part in his suicide, perhaps more so than the accusations laid against him. Karpeles says the theme of depression among ambitious programmers — particularly those who align themselves with huge endeavors like providing universal access — is not an uncommon one. "You have the attitude of 'I should give, not take. I should live really simplistically. I should carry the world's burden. I shouldn't take a break.'" He says mental illness is both widespread and poorly acknowledged in the hacker community.

So to have a bubble where technical innovation can occur unhindered, a salient community of hackers and a space for them to share ideas, is something of a saving grace. Karpeles found solace in the environment Noisebridge presented and got very, very busy. He's launched no fewer than five start-ups and web-based projects, including OpenJournal, a community for discussing and sharing academic papers online. "I used Aaron's framework, web.py [a programming language], to build them all." He's also in talks with the archive about taking over Swartz's work on the Open Library. He attributes his work ethic to the creative environment he's found at Noisebridge. "There [are] a great deal of distractions, but [they're] often healthy distractions — people who are interested in trying your creations, offering feedback, or simply resources when you're stumped. It's the perfect ecosystem."

Hacker havens like Noisebridge, then, build the builders that build the Internet Archives, that organize the Electronic Frontier Foundations, working to open up the Internet even as many others are trying to lock it down. Whatever was secret about this work has been illuminated by what happened to Swartz, all of which will eventually be trapped in the Archive's amber, too, for permanent consideration.

"We have to redouble our efforts," says the Archive's Kahle. "Are we doing the maximum social good we can? That's [the question] that comes to me from the death of Aaron Swartz."

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1 comments
mfidelman
mfidelman

Actually, "Copyright, of course, exists to protect the rights of a creator's intellectual property" is simply wrong.  Per the US Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Par. 8), (Congress shall have the power) "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;"  THAT's why patents and copyrights exist.  There's a good case to be made that much (most) patent and copyright enforcement these days has the direct opposite effort of "promoting the progress of science and the useful arts."

 
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