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As represented in pop culture and in most minds hackers come in a single mold, tethered to an exclusive, clandestine world of computer sabotage and espionage.

But peer through a front door porthole in the heart of the Mission, into San Francisco’s sole hacker space, and the place just looks bright and cluttered. Couches and computer screens dot the room. Wires hang from the ceiling. Homemade hula-hoops lie stacked against a wall.

Step inside Noisebridge, one of a growing number of hacker communities around the world. But beware, it’s nothing if not chaotic: A cyborg group dabbles in artificial senses, heaps of discarded electronics wait on shelves to be reconstituted as robots or for some other whimsical or world-changing project. A three-dimensional printer delicately assembles plastic trifles like tiny skulls or whistles. Power tools, soldering irons and acrylic paint are at your disposal, so is a digital camera hacked to photograph in infrared. Along a side wall in the “science corner,” a 30-year-old, working electroencephalograph that reads brainwave activity awaits its planned conversion to digital.

Thirty years after its onset, the digital revolution is still in full swing, and hackers here and around the world remain committed to using the technology to wrest society’s power back into the hands of the people – or at least to build glasses that make everything look really trippy.

On a recent Friday evening, the main room, two flights up from a bustling bodega at 2169 Mission St, is buzzing. Ian, a 22-year-old software engineer from Iowa in jeans, a black hoodie, and a bit of scruff leisurely hangs a hammock between two support columns while talking to Erin, an organizational imagineer with “pimpin’ purple hair,” about a beer run. Wes, a high school senior, colorful plastic bracelets jangling halfway up his arm is left behind as the two head to the nearby biker bar Zeitgeist.

Off to the side, in a small classroom, Robert, a middle-aged man, dozes in a chair. He says he’s been mostly selling used furniture since the dotcom bubble burst. During the boom, he worked for the tech company Oracle and now wants to return to the field. Like others, he declines to give his last name. “You have to realize you’re dealing with hackers here. Everyone’s just a little paranoid,” he says with a chuckle after waking up as the nearby three-person discussion on Linux system administration comes to a close.

Others in the room attend to various projects. Ben, one of many from the younger male set dressed all in black, with long hair tied loosely behind, sits tweaking the group’s Makerbot, a machine that can create any small three-dimensional object by depositing strands of ABS plastic – like a very refined, computer-controlled glue gun.

Before it had temporarily stopped working, another member, Andy Isaacson, demonstrated the process, constructing a sports whistle with the Makerbot in minutes – “tweeeeaatttt!!!” – “It works! Free-form fabrication,” he’d said over sounds of soldering in the background, a quiet metallic tap and singe as excess lead alloy was discarded on moistened pieces of kitchen sponge.

Do-it-yourself and share-it-with-others are the overarching principles here. “Be excellent to each other” is the only formal rule, as Keanu Reeves cheerfully reminds the room looking down from his “Bill & Ted” days on a poster near the front door.

Members speak with annoyance and disregard for copyright, particularly when patents involve computer software or electronics engineering. Hackers are fairly unanimous in opposing such proprietary measures as an affront to intellectual freedom and ingenuity. Open-source is the alternative, creating a collaborative environment where anyone can re-create, tinker with or build upon prior experiments and creations.

Noisebridge co-founder Mitch Altman’s own invention and livelihood, the TV-B-Gone device is open-source, meaning anyone can find the design code online or build a cheaper model from a kit. Altman invented the device, which turns off almost any television set anywhere, before Noisebridge existed.

Balding with long wispy white hair partially dyed like a rainbow snow cone, Altman generally teaches circuit hacking on Mondays if he’s not traveling to other hacker spaces or conferences around the country.

The other co-founder, Jacob Appelbaum, has recently moved to Seattle to start a hacker space there, based on the Noisebridge model.

The roughly 80 members each pay a $40-80 monthly fee that mostly goes towards paying rent for the 5,200-square-foot space the group moved into in October. Noisebridge has existed for about three years, but only had a physical space for the past two.

This hacker community has a “hippie, weirdo, anarchist, punk culture” that sets it apart from many of the 400 hacker spaces around the world, said Altman after a circuit hacking class. “It’s about people coming together to make things. Us geeks who’ve been bullied on the playgrounds are now doing the cool things of the world,” he said affably.

Anyone is welcome to visit the space, member or not, to use equipment, take free classes or hang out at any time, as long as there’s someone inside to buzz you up. But only members are involved in the consensus-based decision-making process.

A board does exist, as required of any nonprofit corporation like Noisebridge, but it is divested of any real authority. The newest head of the board was chosen in typical Noisebridge fashion – “the next person who walks into the room gets to be president.”

Spaces like Noisebridge have taken the idea of hacking and expanded it far beyond the sphere of electronics.

In recent presentations at the monthly gathering Five Minutes of Fame, grief, interpersonal communication, sewing, dieting and bingo have all been hacked. So have firewalls in China and the micro-blogging service Twitter, the latter by a man on a recent Thursday night as he showcased to a large, rowdy crowd how to take over someone’s account, using a “cookie hack,” in less than five minutes. Eighty computer scientists, artists, lawyers, techies, programmers, self-proclaimed geeks and others had gathered to watch.

To hackers here, computers are just one medium of expression, as a craft night and an open painting wall attest.

There are classes on lock-picking, knot-tying, “Sewing, Crafting, or Whatever!,” digital photography, and circuit hacking. Workshops have been held for Mandarin, French and American Sign Language, cooking and cryptography.

A group meets on Sundays to develop “Noisebridge’s space program” and a cyborg group has been working on projects related to artificial senses, most recently developing an anklet that lets the wearer feel which direction is north. Members have built a makeshift industrial workshop, and a dark room and optics lab are almost complete.

Mike, an older man, with wily features and facial hair, explains his attraction to Noisebridge. “Hacking is driven by curiosity – not project-driven or to produce something – it’s more playful, not art or practical, it’s playing beyond consumerism. To learn about things, you have to play with them. It’s more organic knowledge, infused into your brain cells. You can’t learn the same way in schools.”

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Born in the central valley of Massachusetts and raised in Tidewater Virginia, Garrett attended public schools before graduating from the University of Virginia. Wandering and working in various national parks, tutoring kids on the playgrounds of Dublin, and teaching English to 3rd graders in China eventually led to some temporary confusion, and a re-settling as a community journalist.

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  1. (1) “Members speak with annoyance and disregard for copyright, particularly when patents involve computer software or electronics engineering.” Copyright and patent are very different forms of intellectual property law. I expect that members consider software patents wrong, but may appreciate some forms of copyright, particularly as copyright underlies FSF-style free software.

    (2) Mike’s right that you need to learn by playing, but wrong that you can’t learn that way in schools. You just need the right schools.