“And this,” said volunteer Dana Sniezko with a flourish, “is where we keep the laser.”
We were in a warehouse at 18th and Capp streets, home of the hacker collective Noisebridge. The laser in question is a several-ton industrial beast looming in the corner of the shop floor.
Another volunteer, Nicole, was helping train a new generation of teachers to use the machine, which is used for slicing up whatever materials members need for their experiments.
“The laser cutter can cut and engrave many things,” said Nicole. “You can do wood, acrylic, cardboard. You can engrave your tortillas or chocolate.” She paused. “It doesn’t taste that great, but it’s beautiful.”
The laser cutter is arguably Noisebridge’s fanciest piece of kit, but it is a small part of the gadget-and-tool ecosystem that the collective has at its disposal. Founded in 2007, Noisebridge is credited as being just the third “hackerspace” to ever emerge in the country.
Although the term “hacker” might conjure up thoughts of nefarious programmers, here it means people who want to create things for themselves using woodwork, electronics, fabrics, writing, music — and, yes, code.
Noisebridge allows anyone to use its tools (with some training, in the case of potentially dangerous machines like the laser cutter) to make art and engineering projects. Many members volunteer to host classes and workshops. And the nonprofit’s two-story warehouse is packed to the gills with examples of their handiwork.
In pride of place sits a retro-style arcade machine that was a collaboration between several branches of Noisebridge. People with woodworking expertise built the frame; others cut and shaped the plastic buttons; electricians built the circuits and wired everything up; and coders hooked the cabinet up to streaming platform Twitch, so that the games could be shared in realtime. The cabinet, called NGALAC, won an award from the Bay Area Maker Faire in 2018.
Elsewhere in the building, projects abound. One group is investigating how to turn brain activity into “multiplayer mind-control games.” Another is generating designs using artificial intelligence and then turning the patterns into quilts. In the sewing room, a hand-built miniature piano sits alongside a stern handwritten note to stop would-be scavengers: “DO NOT HACK.”
Software engineer Sniezko first got involved with Noisebridge a decade ago, when she decided to learn how to build circuits.
“My day job has always been in software and programming, but I find the idea of manipulating the real world to be so much more exciting and full of promise and peril,” said Sniezko. “So I found a community that had a lot of people who were willing to teach.”
After dropping out of the nonprofit for a few years, Sniezko returned when the pandemic left her longing for in-person community.
Noisebridge moved from its Mission Street address in 2020. The old warehouse was so close to the new location at 272 Capp St. that members moved their stuff from one to the other by pushing them across a plank laid between the two buildings’ windows. Sniezko pitched in to get everything set up in the new building.
Now, she teaches a class on circuitry every Monday: “I’ve kind of gone full circle.”
The price of free space
Although there are plenty of exceptions to the rule, visitors to Noisebridge tend to be on the younger, techier side. The collective has seen more and more people coming through their doors over the past six months, a phenomenon some members put down to the recent slew of layoffs in the tech sphere.
“It’s become more interesting for us, because these people have a little more free time,” Nicole laughed. But wider changes in the tech landscape have also hit the non-profit’s coffers.
“The problem is with tech layoffs, we’ve had people who just stopped their membership dues,” said Emeline Brulé, the Noisebridge treasurer. “That’s a very visible thing.”
As it turns out, running a collaborative space for free is an expensive affair. Brulé said that the monthly rent for 272 Capp St. is almost $10,000. Equipment is often grabbed second-hand or broken before being fixed up by members, but even so, it comes with expenses. The aforementioned laser, for instance, was donated to the group but cost thousands in shipping. Add utilities and insurance into the mix and Noisebridge costs some $12,000 to run each month.
Membership fees and donations, all of which are optional, except for nominal fees to book classes, bring in around $7,000 to $8,000 each month. Right now, Brulé said, the deficit is being made up by a huge anonymous Bitcoin donation they received a few years ago, which they sold in 2021 for some $300,000. But if the current situation continues, the non-profit will run out of money within three years.
Brulé said that during one memorable Noisebridge meeting, one member described the warehouse as “the last free space in San Francisco.” Keeping it that way in the future will mean raising more funds, she said.
Lots of ideas are being considered for filling the coffers. More classes are springing up and a wider range of activities are growing under Noisebridge’s roof, which could lead to more members. The group has acquired a potter’s wheel and a kiln, so a ceramics guild may be on the horizon. And, for several months, the San Francisco Writers Workshop has been meeting in the building’s sewing room every Tuesday.
“A lot of our writers do sci-fi and do world-building,” said Olga Zilberbourg, a coordinator for the workshop. “It might take a little bit of time to merge the groups but we are starting to have some cross-pollination.” Zilberbourg said that the writers had been making the most of the expertise at Noisebridge and have been experimenting with making things like bookmarks for fundraisers.
Bigger events, like a revived version of the Maker Faire, might also be part of the funding picture, as could government grants or revamping member benefits.
Managing without managers
Noisebridge has no formal leaders or managers, so making decisions is not a simple process. But being in an anarchist collective doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules.
Members try to abide by three main tenets: Do-ocracy, meaning people should proactively do things to make the group better; Consensus, where members try to find unanimous agreement for thornier problems that should not be decided unilaterally; and Excellence, meaning that everyone who is a part of the organization should be “excellent” to one another.
According to most members, this system has typically worked quite well. But at various points over the past decade, Noisebridge has seen incidents where the space has been exploited and, on occasion, individuals have described “toxicity” toward women.
“We run what is effectively a public workshop,” said Sniezko. “So, I think a lot of the problems in the broader world make their way into the space. I think that this space is far from perfect, but it has grown and it has improved.”
One issue that Noisebridge has grappled with is people living and sleeping in the warehouse. There is now a rule against napping at 272 Capp St. (See: the case of Ronald, a homeless coder who now stays on Albion Street after he spent 10 months living illicitly in Noisebridge.) For similar reasons, visitors and members are also not allowed to cook meals there.
“We are not equipped to be a living space,” said Sniezko, adding that she feels empathy for the people without somewhere to stay, and always tries to connect them with resources.
John, a frequent visitor to Noisebridge, said that there had been problematic incidents, but not more than you might face in the wider world. He said that Noisebridge’s “Asked To Leave” policy, which states that anyone in the space can ask anyone else to leave and that the request is expected to be honored, has been helpful for de-escalating conflict.
And with more people visiting the space each evening, several members said, Noisebridge is an increasingly welcoming space. Brulé said that five children of members were frequent guests there, and the organization is much more diverse than when it began as an often-white, often-male collection of coders.
“It’s exciting to be at this point where we have more momentum,” Sniezko smiled.
More details about Noisebridge’s classes and events can be found on its website.