Michel Lallement: “At Noisebridge, he who does is legit”
Published 4 May 2015 by Camille Bosqué
He makes the rounds of big media in this “maker era”, the story of his immersive year at San Francisco hackerspace Noisebridge. Sociologist Michel Lallement sifts through our questions.
Labor sociologist Michel Lallement has just published L’Âge du faire, an investigative field report in the heart of San Francisco Bay Area hackerspaces. After spending a year immersed at Noisebridge, Lallement describes how the community based in San Francisco’s Mission District abides by the rules of “do-ocracy” and anarchy. He tells Makery about the historic origins of the hacker philosophy and the maker movement, and how it influences the economy and society today.
As a labor sociologist, your previous research was about utopia. How does this relate to the hacker ethic?
I was always interested in utopia, especially when I tried my hand at political philosophy while studying social sciences. Pretty soon I noticed that labor sociology and political philosophy are two traditions that have never crossed paths. I wrote a book on Jean-Baptiste André Godin and the Familistère de Guise, specifically to observe a concrete application of utopia inspired by the writings of Charles Fourier. I wanted to extend this method to the contemporary era, at a time when work itself is a controversial topic. For this reason I wanted to take the hacker ethic seriously and see, a bit like Max Weber, what kind of effect it could have on real-life social practices. It’s part of what we could call, according to the German philosopher Ernst Bloch, a sociology of concrete utopia, which consists of considering utopia not as an unrealizable ideal but as a tangible world where other possibilities can be invented.
Why did you choose Noisebridge in San Francisco in the world of hackerspaces?
I’m taking a critical position, in the literal sense, which consists of thinking about the social conditions that enable fulfilling work. Before working on hackerspaces, I was interested in the regulation of work in IT services and engineering companies. That was when I met Philippe Langlois of /tmp/lab, who introduced me to hackerspaces. That was in 2010. He was the one who told me about Noisebridge. The story of Noisebridge and the story of /tmp/lab are a bit related, as Mitch Altman, Jake Appelbaum (the two cofounders of Noisebridge) and Philippe Langlois met at the Chaos Computer Club congress in 2006 in Germany, at a time when German hackers were very keen to spin off the hackerspace model.
Once I arrived in the Bay Area, I discovered a plurality of hackerspaces. I was struck by the community structure of these spaces, which has nothing to do with the French configuration. Hacker Dojo is more geared for entrepreneurs launching start-ups. It’s a very big hackerspace with 300 members implanted in the heart of Silicon Valley. BioCurious, also based in Silicon Valley, is one of the pioneers of biohacking, which attracts mainly engineers and PhD students. Noisebridge is located in San Francisco’s Mission District and brings together young people with libertarian minds. The other Bay Area hackerspaces are in Oakland and Berkeley, primarily for financial reasons (cost of rent). It’s striking to see how they are organized by community : Hacker Moms for women, Ace Monster Toys for fortysomething white men established in life, LOL for ethnic and sexual minorities, Sudo Room for younger hackers…
Noisebridge is one of the oldest hackerspaces in the area…
Noisebridge is one of the first, which spread its ideals and inspired the other Bay Area hackerspaces. The space operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and it’s a hackerspace with a history. Noisebridge’s anarchist identity was confirmed early on. The hackers there are not political theory specialists, even if there is a politics section in their library. The anarchist filiation is clearly assumed. As a labor sociologist, I was particularly interested in the opportunity I had to observe how hackers who claim an anarchist heritage play out a doctrine that is most often represented as joyful chaos, unorganized organization. Those involved are the first ones to sustain the legend. Many of them don’t hesitate to say “We have no rules” or, at best, “We have only one rule : ‘Be excellent to each other’”. In practice, I quickly realized that Noisebridge is full of rules ! Nevertheless, Noisebridge is still more original and more avant-gardist than the other hackerspaces in the Bay Area.
What kinds of forces or tensions did you observe?
I observed how people at Noisebridge organize themselves based on collective management techniques where decisions are based on consensus. I quickly saw the contradiction between this aspect and the principles applied to daily life, in particular do-ocracy, which comes down to letting each person do whatever they want. Legitimacy belongs more precisely to the one who does. Observing everyday life shows that conjointly applying consensus and do-ocracy can be a problem. “Dramas”, conflicts, oppositions… are common occurrences.
“Applying the hacker ethic is far from the Care Bears world for another reason : recognition is heavily based on technical skills.”
Some say that there are good hackers and bad hackers. Sometimes identities have a way of stiffening. Some hackers consider themselves to be hardcore because they are kings of code and declare that those who work in the Kitchen have nothing to do with hacking. This opposition can create pretty strong tension. People often tell me that my book is very optimistic… I don’t think so, if you simply consider that the world I describe is laced with a lot of tension. It’s not surprising that many hackers, especially at Noisebridge, spend a lot of time trying to define what hacker means, who is a hacker and who is not. Is being a virtuoso in Python equivalent to mastering a sewing machine ?
I spent some time at Noisebridge for my research, and I remember attending endless meetings. Sometimes the debate would go on for three hours without reaching any decision…
Yes, the Noisebridge community is based on consensus. This means accepting, when you can’t come to an agreement, to put decisions aside in order to go back to them later. I’m not sure this would work in French culture. The hackers who lead the meetings have a real know-how, with steps to follow. We have to accept production modes for collective decisions that are not quite what we’re used to. Sometimes there is inequality, tension, all this requires collective learning that can be painful. There are also forms of violence. One young guy who made a big mistake had been expelled from the space. To keep him from returning, there was a poster with a big photo of him : “If you see him come back, throw him out.” It’s extremely violent. From planet France, we tell ourselves that we would never do that in organizations or associations. Bay Area hackers are unflexible about certain rules, such as sexual harassment, for example.
How do you relate the entrepreneurial and startup activity found in certain hackerspaces and the more controversial “work for yourself” attitudes incarnated by Noisebridge ?
It’s a serious question : How to deal with your relationship to the market, or the fact that some people go to fablabs or coworking spaces to make a living ? Noisebridge proclaims a libertarian philosophy, and lots of members are involved in groups such as Food Not Bombs or Occupy. But it doesn’t contradict the fact that people have developed and continue to develop commercial projects there, even if most of them go to the hackerspace because it’s a space for creativity and non-commercial resources.
If we look at the daily activities schedule at Noisebridge, it’s pretty clear : in the morning it’s coworkers, self-employers, basically web designers who come there to work. For the most part they share the philosophy of the space and can legitimately do their business. On the other hand, at night the space is swarming with hackers whose activity is not, or much less, oriented toward its marketing value.
In your book, you suggest several character types inspired by Max Weber to describe the people who come to Noisebridge.
I did about 50 interviews at Noisebridge, focusing on life stories. I distinguished four profiles, which characterize the relationship to the market and to professional commercial activity. There is one profile that closely matches Mitch Altman’s case, which I call “virtuoso”. The virtuoso puts the hacker project at the heart of his entire life. Mitch Altman came from an entrepreneurial background, but he chose to adopt a relatively austere lifestyle, living off the profits of his innovations, the Trip glasses and TV-B-Gone. He’s interested in evangelizing, going to China and all over the world. It’s a purist relationship to hacking.
Mitch also went through phases of depression, and according to him, hacking is what enabled him to reinvent his life…
Many Bay Area hackers have experienced phases of personal instability. There is even a “Geeks and depression” group at Noisebridge… But coming back to my profiles, the second type is Berufmensch, to speak like Max Weber, which corresponds to people who apply their hacker convictions to projects that can have interesting commercial consequences. I met a hacker from Canada who created a game based on the RepRap philosophy. It’s a game to learn how to create games. It was immediately successful ! He came to Noisebridge with strong hacker convictions, he went through Burning Man… and it worked. Contrary to Mitch, he launched a startup and hired people from Noisebridge. So there can be some consistency with entrepreneurial activity that strongly respects the hacker ethic. But the hacker ethic comes first, business comes next.
The third profile is the “faithful”, as in religiously faithful. These are people who have one foot in traditional business, including at Google or in Silicon Valley, and one foot in the hackerspace. They manage both. Then finally there are the “converts”, people who come to use the resources and end up converting to the hacker ethic.
I had met a lot of really marginalized people at Noisebridge… Could this profile of the habitually excluded, preoccupied by everyday survival, constitute a fifth category ?
You’re right, I didn’t include a profile for the homeless and poor workers. But they’re there, mostly in the Kitchen. They’re the ones who keep Tastebridge alive, who cook and are there almost all the time. Some are really down in the dumps and latch on to the libertarian philosophy, saying that they’re “hacking” food… I was pretty good friends with Salvadore, one of the Kitchen members, who started a small food business. When I was at Noisebridge, he had a job but not always a place to sleep or to put down his stuff. At Noisebridge the shelves are reserved for members who pay fees. But many of the hackers bend this rule, and Salvadore was one of them. He kept all his stuff there. There’s a specific profile for people who claim the hacking philosophy, as much by conviction as by necessity, which allows them to benefit from the resources of the space.
How has your book been received in France, especially by those active in the hacker movement ?
I haven’t yet received massive feedback from the hacker circles. The media was fairly curious, because few people know what really goes on in alternative fabrication spaces, while traditional companies are starting to take seriously what gets invented there, even if it’s on the fringe. People see these models of free organization to imagine how to make work a source of creativity and pleasure, to serve innovation. In terms of the maker and hacker circles, initial feedback suggests they discovered a history that they are a part of without yet knowing the roots and the issues !
Is there a difference between the American values and principles and the French incarnations of this movement?
The gap between French and American worlds is pretty big. French organizations were soon caught up by public funding, which is unthinkable in the U.S., especially in California ! Noisebridge received donations from a few big companies, but always with no strings attached. “We don’t want to depend on anyone,” is the motto. Besides member fees, the only sources of revenue are donations and sales of t-shirts and other accessories. Non-Americans, and the French in particular, discover that in the Bay Area, hackerspaces are independent and fear being “recuperated”.
What exactly does being “recuperated” mean ?
It means that capitalist entreprises can, like Google, implement and use original alternative work organization modes for commercial purposes. But at the end of the day, is this really a problem ?
“What’s important is inventing productive practices that tend toward decent work, with respect for health, open to collective action…”
What is your vision of the international maker movement ?
You’ve traveled more than I have ! In the U.S., the most striking opposition is between East Coast and West Coast. The East Coast is fablabs, the West Coast is hackerspaces. On the East Coast, Neil Gershenfeld [father of fablabs at MIT] speaks more in terms of technology, certainly interesting for the future of work but less supported by political issues. California is the Far West, where the future is regularly reinvented, where people want to push beyond “new frontiers”. The counter-cultural libertarian experience of the 1960s is playing out again through the hackerspaces. Thanks to a number of technologies (material, organizational, political, etc.), we can invent forms of community that serve new modes of working and consuming.
At Noisebridge, for example, the Freegan movement has a good image for a lot of members. As an alliance between Free and Vegan mindsets, it promotes an ecological consumer mode that prevents waste. Bay Area hackers, at Noisebridge in particular, are also linked to Food not Bombs, Homes not Jails, Cups not Cops…. All these alternative sensibilities were already present in the 1960s, such as the Diggers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park (during the Summer of Love 1967), who salvaged discarded food and offered free meals. This spirit is less present in the way fablabs are structured, including in Europe, than in the hackerspace movement.
Even if the project is political on the West Coast and more technology-oriented on the East Coast of the United States, the common point is that technology is a lever for emancipation…
Yes, it’s exactly what connects this hacker world, despite the internal differences that we find.
“It’s striking to see to what extent the belief in the emancipating virtue of technology is shared.”
This argument completes the importance given to work autonomy, in other words, the possibility for anyone to choose what they do, without necessarily being submitted to imperatives of immediate profitability. This pro-technology belief can legitimately be questioned.
At Noisebridge, a small group was set up to examine existing problems in the common space and try to solve them technically, in the hacker spirit. To prevent homeless people from sleeping there, the group installed a door code to filter people as they come in… The group also tried to manage conflicts by programming an application that counts the number of times the word “drama” appears in the mailing list, in order to raise awareness of the need to calm down…
Did the labor sociologist, embedded in this world, end up becoming a hacker or maker himself?
I wasn’t a regular at these spaces in the beginning. I latched on to little group cultivating mushrooms, I participated in the Kitchen and the German Corner, for discussions in German. It’s great for a sociologist—I could talk about everything and anything with those around me ! I also attended the Tuesday night meetings, camps, lectures gathering Bay Area hackers, festivals, etc. But I don’t think I became a hacker or maker. However, once I came back to France, I bought an artisanal beer kit and made my own beer, which is quite frequent in this type of place.
So finally you were a sociologist in ambush?
I said from outset that I was a professor and visiting scholar at Berkeley. Then one Tuesday night, I asked the members of the community if they wouldn’t mind if I interviewed people (with guaranteed anonymity). They said no problem. I made sure I respected the rules of the game, i.e., I participated in the life of Noisebridge… like any other hacker.
Do you continue to follow the “drama” updates of Noisebridge and study the maker and hacker movements from France?
I’m still on the mailing list, so every day I feel the pulse of life at the space. It’s through the list that I announced the release of the book, and immediately sent several copies to the community. The website also gives news of projects, workshops, training, lectures… My colleagues Isabelle Berrebi-Hoffmann and Marie-Christine Bureau and I are working on a book to map out French spaces. The maker world is very diverse. What are the conditions for its sustainability ? This is the question that we’re posing at the moment.
“L’Âge du faire, Hacking, travail, anarchie,” Michel Lallement, 2015, ed. Seuil, 448 pp. 25€.