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Privileged Information: The Fight for an Open Internet. 

Wednesday, Apr 3 2013
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"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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Alee Karim

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