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Mitch Altman: The Hacker Lifestyle

OWNI talks to Mitch Altman - DIY guru, hardware hacker, free culture advocate and founding father of the hackerspace movement.

by Sabine Blanc On February 8, 2012

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Journaliste digitale en mutation perpétuelle, et j'aime ça.

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Mitch Altman at Chaos Communication Camp, Berlin, August 2011

When he was young, Mitch Altman didn’t like himself. Too much of an introverted geek, too ugly, too queer, in every sense of that word. Today, the first thing that strikes you when you meet him in person is the serenity that emanates from the man. These days Mitch is a respected figure in the hacker community. Comfortable in his own skin, sure of his chosen path. He travels the world tirelessly, sharing his experiences and considerable knowledge. Last week he was in France, at the Jardin Numérique digital festival held in the city of Rennes, where OWNI caught up with him.

Blue hackers

Before discovering the confidence and infectious enthusiasm he exudes today, Mitch Altman had lived through a long and difficult period. He talks openly about his own painful experiences, but not out of any morbid narcissism. Among hackers, sharing is a foundational idea. Following the suicide of his friend Ilya Zhitomirskiy, a founder of the social network Diaspora, he made an appeal. To white hat, grey hat, black hat – all blue hackers:

I lived the first half of my life in total and utter depression. No joy, just shame, just self-loathing, dread and anxiety and fear of other people — total depression. I know what it is like to be depressed. I know what it is like to live for one’s whole life knowing and believing that the best life might have to offer is the ability for me to endure the pain till I eventually died. That was the best possibility. As with Ilya, I hid all of this from the world as best as I could. And most people had no clue I was depressed.

“Many know him as the guru of the soldering iron, but he is also warm and a laid-back spokesman for people who struggle with their unhappiness. The hacker scene can be pretty macho,” says Koen Martens, the Dutch hacker who shared with Mitch a homosexuality that was difficult to deal with at first.

It has taken Mitch years to find the solution to his unhappiness: live a life he loves and therefore make a living doing what he loves, the hacker ethic as described by Pekka Himanen. He did it by making choices, including bad ones. Another important precept among hackers – learning from mistakes. His first big choice? Switching off his television at the age of 19.

I realized that I don’t actually like television! And yet I watched hours and hours of it every day. So I just…quit. And suddenly life became different. I had lots more hours to be depressed! But also to actually contemplate it. It was really hard to deal with at the time, all the feelings that came up, but that’s what happens when anyone quits any addiction.

TV had been rotting away his life, and Mitch wanted to help his fellow citizens get rid of it from their lives too. Thus was born in 2004 TV-B-Gone, a universal remote with a single button that could be used to switch off the infernal machine. At the Consumer Electronic Show (CES), the annual mecca of electronics where screens are myriad, some journalists from Gizmodo had some fun with it. The prank got one of them banned for life. Today, the device still provides Mitch with a livelihood. He has not replaced one addiction with another, to the Internet. He prefers to stay as far away from it as possible and to concentrate on what made his reputation – hacking hardware, the physical kind.

“I’m not afraid to look at all of myself”

In the middle of a PhD in electronics, school began to bore Mitch. He left to travel around the world and find people he could feel close to. He eventually landed in Alaska, where he rediscovered his joy for life.

Altman swears by the sustaining properties of friends who accept him as he is, the brief course of antidepressants he underwent in his youth, and a regular yoga session. It’s something he has in common with his compatriot John Gilmore , co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and yoga proponent.

I’ve been meditating since I was 13. At first, I was doing it for completely the wrong reasons. I was doing it to try to “fix” myself, and of course I ended up tying knots in my poor little 13 year old psyche. Now, I can accept all the parts of me, even the parts that suck. I’m not afraid to look at all of myself.

Virtual reality in Silicon Valley

After the bitter cold of Alaska, he returned to the United States and settled in San Francisco, where he still lives today. Somewhat arbitrarily, he met someone who worked in Silicon Valley (“Silly Valley”, as Altman calls it) and with whom he founded a virtual reality startup, becoming unwitting pioneers in a field that continues to grow today. Mitch found the experience as exhausting as it was enjoyable, working with people he liked in a creative atmosphere – another central hacker tenet.

He eventually resigned for ethical reasons – the military were becoming interested in putting the virtual reality technology to use in their simulators. He learned the lucrative joys of consultancy, which allowed him to work a little and do what he pleased the rest of the time. But this lifestyle eventually left him dissatisfied.

No more satisfying was his adventure in the company he co-founded in 1997, 3ware. “The worst job of my life,” is how he has described it in the past. When the company was sold on, for $150 million, he pocketed $60,000 and bought enough material to make 20,000 TV-B-Gone devices.

MakerBot creator Bre Pettis wearing one of Mitch's inventions, the 'brain machine', which allows the user to hallucinate without taking drugs.

I want more than an OK life, I wanted a life I totally fucking love, even if it meant making no money at all, in order to make time to explore the stuff I really love. That’s what eventually led me to making, producing and selling TV B Gone. Which was the beginning of a whole new stage of my life.

He set up a new company, Cornfield Electronics, which has been successful. Despite increasing notoriety (and wealth), the same integrity which led him to quit his first Silicon Valley job has not left him. Contemporaries like Mudge, star of the LOpht hackerspace, have gone to work for Darpa, the research and development agency of the US Department of Defense, to help them prevent the next Wikileaks. Big corporations are now constantly on the look out for talent at DefCon, one of the biggest annual hacker get-togethers.

If people are doing things primarily for money I would say that that’s not a very wise choice on their part. But I wouldn’t want to tell anyone what to do or what not to do. What I do love is encouraging people to explore their motivations, and to explore what they might love to do and then actually do it.

Recently he wrote to Make, the magazine of the DIY community, with whom he has collaborated for many years:

I told them I couldn’t continue to do what I’ve been doing with them at Maker Faire, because they had accepted a grant from Darpa. They’re a fantastic organization that have done so many amazing things for me and for many other people, and will continue to do so. But I just think it’s incredibly unfortunate that they’re accepting money from DARPA. They don’t need that money. There’s enough money from people that have incredibly fantastic motivations for helping them.

Welding with the kids

His company gives him the time to travel a lot, so much so that he designed a hacker passport. His own has been extensively stamped. Here in Rennes he passes on his knowledge at a workshop with John Lejeune of Hackable Devices, the French open hardware pioneers. “Hey Mitch, can you help me with the leg?” asks Emmanuel, a young French DIY enthusiast. “The longer leg is positive.” It turns out the polarity isn’t the problem, but a misplaced leg in the circuit. Mitch offers him a tip: don’t just heat the leg by pushing on it, but add the tin wire too, so that heat is conducted quicker.

When he’s not traveling, which is left than half of his year, he also shares his electronics expertise at Noisebridge, the San Francisco hackerspace that he co-founded with Jacob Appelbaum, the free software activist and one of the architects of the Tor Project.


Utopia is possible

Mitch is a cool guy. Mitch has no enemies, it seems. He lives his life doing what he loves, but he could also be mistaken for a naive utopian geek. He sincerely believes that everyone can achieve this balance, by injecting a dose of Aristotelian simplicity. Without descending entirely into the realm of Care Bears:

Unfortunately not everybody has so many opportunities externally available. Quite the contrary, in fact, because of wars, oppressive governments, poverty, and a lack of support structures. In order to have a life you love you have to have the basic needs of any animal on the planet – shelter, food and so on. Not everyone has these very basic things.

We are born as social creatures. That’s something that’s natural to us, even if we haven’t had much practice. We need each other, not only to survive but to the thrive. In order to love something we need friends, we need people we love. We can’t do it by ourselves.

And of course, hackers have a role to play, a highly political role in the best sense of that term. Staying true to the hacker notion of doocracy, of doing rather than saying, he traveled to Egypt last autumn on the occasion of Maker Faire Africa, and called for the further development of hackerspaces in Africa. In April he’ll head to China. He’s not worried that the state is behind some of the hackerspace initiatives there. “I hope the Chinese government hacks itself.”

Image Credits: Flickr CC Bre Pettis (NC-BY), maltman23 (BY-SA)

Portraits of  Mitch Altman by Ophelia Noor for Owni, and Alexander Klink/WikimediaCommons (CC-BY)

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